SHE WAS BORN AFTER HAL 9000, the sentient computer and the central character of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, became a cult. But one day, in the summer of 1996, when she was 24, she was woken up from an afternoon nap by a phone call from Clarke. The science fiction writer, inventor, undersea explorer, and futurist had called to offer to pay her fees so she could enrol for a master’s degree in space studies at the International Space University (ISU) in France.
The legendary Clarke must have seen the future—again—because the young woman he called on that hot afternoon 21 years ago today designs spacecraft and has set up companies dealing with space equipment design and international space collaboration. She’s now planning to launch her next venture to enable the use of geo-intelligence data to solve everyday problems across sectors such as agriculture, environment, and energy.
Meet Susmita Mohanty, someone we have to call an interstellar Indian. Back to that summer of ’96, Mohanty tells me how the call from Clarke came about. “I grew up with a healthy dose of space,” she says. Her father, Nilamani Mohanty, a space telecommunications expert, was a member of Vikram Sarabhai’s team at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and retired as the deputy director of ISRO’s Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad. Apart from her father, Mohanty was inspired by the great architects of the time—B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa, Gautam Sarabhai, Le Corbusier, and Louis Kahn.
“Juxtapose space and architecture and you’ll see where the inspiration came from,” she says, talking of her ambition to become a space architect once she had got her master’s degree in industrial design from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. “I had eight months to raise $35,000 [Rs 22 lakh at current rates] for the course,” she says. She sent letters to 70 foundations, the United Nations, and a handful of individuals including Clarke (then chancellor of ISU), Carl Sagan (she was a Cosmos fan), and Bill Gates. With each letter, she enclosed a project report on a new design and layout for the International Space Station. “It was the ultimate Kickstarter project, long before Kickstarter was even conceived,” says Mohanty, referring to the global funding platform. “It’s the most impossible mission I’ve undertaken.” It was mission accomplished when Clarke called.
SHE MAY STILL CALL THAT mission impossible, but there seem to be a number of contenders for that description. She was one of the few foreign nationals to have worked on sensitive U.S. space projects. As a visiting scholar at NASA, she worked on Shuttle-Mir, the U.S.-Russia collaborative space programme.
Her first job was at Boeing, where she joined as a design engineer. However, as a foreign national, she wasn’t allowed access to confidential material, or even the Intranet. “Eventually they gave me separate phone and fax lines,” she recalls, and moved her to the business development side. Here, she worked in collaboration with the European, Japanese, Russian, and American partners of the space station programme. This move away from pure tech proved to be the inflexion point for Mohanty, whose career since then has straddled both technology and business development.
But by far her most difficult task is what she does now: advocating the benefits of satellite launches on ISRO rockets to U.S. companies, and encouraging them to apply to the government for permission to launch from India.
This is not just complex, it’s extremely sensitive, given that there’s been an embargo on U.S. commercial launches from Indian launch vehicles. That embargo has been in place in some shape or form since the 1970s. “The technology denial regime has been in place from when India did the first nuclear test,” says Ajay Lele, fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and head of its Centre on Strategic Technologies. But, adds Lele, this “technology apartheid” worked in India’s favour because it pushed ISRO into indigenous development.
Mohanty’s self-imposed task—and the reason she set up Earth2Orbit in India after setting up two other space-related ventures in the U.S.—is to make Indian launches open to U.S. commercial satellites. The U.S. contributes 13% to the $300 billion global space industry. Lele says he isn’t sure if companies like Earth2Orbit really affect the operations of ISRO; representatives of governments interact directly with the space agency, he says, so there’s no need for any firm to act as intermediary. But that’s really not what Mohanty is doing.
Apart from providing launch management services to clients (including legal and technical services), her company actively advocates that companies, especially in the U.S., use Indian vehicles to launch satellites. An ISRO launch is way cheaper than most others, and the Indian organisation’s technology has been proven over the years. The recent record launch of 104 satellites is an example of its capabilities. It’s not so much about a successful launch, says Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head of nuclear and space policy initiatives at Delhi-based think tank, Observer Research Foundation, “it’s making sure each kid gets out of the bus at the right stop”.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY DOES Earth2Orbit do? The answer to that goes back to 2008, when, after a dozen years (and almost as many projects) abroad, Mohanty decided to return to India. “I wanted to do something for India, and didn’t want to do it from far away,” she says. She moved to Mumbai without any clear plan, but with several ideas on how India could move beyond a government space programme and compete internationally. She shared these with her friends, and her father’s ISRO contacts, including former ISRO chiefs K. Kasturirangan and G. Madhavan Nair.
Her initial ideas had to do with human space exploration, but even as she met the teams working on this, discussions always included ISRO’s workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or the PSLV. Almost on a whim, she asked an intern to calculate the total mass of foreign payloads on the PSLV till date. The answer: Till end April 2008, there were 12 PSLV launches with a total foreign payload of 1,500 kg. To put that in context, according to ISRO, the PSLV “can take up to 1,750 kg of payload to sunsynchronous polar orbits of 600 km altitude”. That’s in a single launch.
Mohanty had found her niche. “I wanted to make the PSLV the most sought-after rocket in its class. That could happen only if India had access to the U.S. market which was closed due to the embargoes imposed on India,” she says. Essentially, the biggest players in the space industry weren’t allowed to use the PSLV. She asked for a meeting with Nair, then chairman of ISRO. Nair explained that while ISRO was building up its resources to increase the number of launches, growth of the Indian space industry depended on strong global participation.
Along with Amaresh Kollipara, who she got to know in San Francisco a few years before, Mohanty set up Earth2Orbit. “The Europeans came to ISRO directly due to good diplomatic relations. So, we decided to focus on Japan and the United States.” Collaboration with Japan proved somewhat easier, and on Sept. 9, 2012, as part of ISRO’s 100th mission (and third commercial launch), the PSLV launched a Japanese satellite built by the Osaka Institute of Technology.
But the door to the U.S. was still shut. “The only way to overcome a U.S. embargo was through soft diplomacy. I was trying to build a bridge between two countries whose relationship on the space front, despite the public posturing, has been severely strained.” It took five years of working with the U.S. state department, and diplomats and companies in both countries, but it bore fruit. In April 2014, the first launch service agreement between Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm, and American company Skybox Imaging (later acquired by Google and renamed Terra Bella) was signed. The space designer had become a space diplomat.
WHILE THE CONTRACT WITH Skybox was signed in 2014, the actual launch took place only in June 2016. The first U.S. commercial satellite to be launched on the PSLV was that of Spire Global in September 2015. While Spire was not Mohanty’s client, in a sense it rode on her efforts to open the door to. “Susmita’s was one of the very few firms at that time which had come up in a more determined fashion,” says Rajagopalan. She was the most determined to push things ahead. Also, she had an edge because she understood the technologies involved as well as the policy and politics. “I think that’s why it made such a difference,” says Rajagopalan.
Mohanty herself credits her success to her experience in cross-border collaboration, countless meetings with diplomats across New Delhi and Washington D.C., some luck, and lots of grit. And a little advice from dad on dealing with the bureaucracy. “Government bureaucracy can be stifling,” she recalls, explaining that she often turned to her father, asking how to manage. He would explain the psychological and cultural undertones that make the government machinery work the way it does, she recalls.
Ultimately, however, what saw her win the U.S. waiver was her belief in the power of “constant diplomacy to transcend boundaries and make real collaboration possible”. And that is her true strength. In fact, in 2005, she received an international achievement award from the Women In Aerospace organisation for promoting international cooperation.
Making allies and friends is one of Mohanty’s strongest traits. “One of my bosses at Boeing told me ‘Susmita, never start a company with a friend. Because friendships fall apart over businesses.’ So far, I have proven him wrong,” she says. In 2001, along with six friends, she launched MoonFront, an aerospace consulting firm based in San Francisco. Two years later, she co-founded Liquifer Systems Group, an aerospace architecture and design firm, based in Vienna. While she shut MoonFront after she moved to India, Liquifer continues to thrive, along with the friendships.
To say Mohanty is a people’s person is almost underselling her strongest trait. Along with her businesses, she spends her time on cultural and intellectual pursuits, the latest being an art biennale in Antarctica. (“Antarctica was mind-bending. It changed me forever. It was like being on another planet. Re-adapting to urban life has been a challenge post Antarctica!”) Most weekends see her and her husband Siddharth Das hosting an eclectic bunch at their residences. Guests include the likes of poet and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporewala, and designer Adrien Gardère. Mohanty also runs a laboratory that fosters ideas and experiments at the intersection of the arts and sciences.
Of course, her ruling passion is still space. She has cut down her role at Liquifer, but is still excited at the work that company is doing, which is working on 3D printing techniques to build habitats on moon and Mars. “A day will come when we can print future habitats on planetary surfaces using local material rather than having to fly everything from Earth,” she says. Another exciting project is to explore growing food in greenhouses on future space expeditions, not unlike what Matt Damon’s character did in the Hollywood movie, The Martian.
MOHANTY LIKES TO SAY THAT after decades of spacecraft design for Mars and the moon, she’s back to looking at planet earth. That’s what her latest venture, Earth2Orbit Analytix is about. Mohanty wants to use satellite imagery and data to improve the lives and livelihoods of farmers, help monitor urban air pollution from space, and accelerate the use of solar power. Some of the data her team is working on records agricultural yields, water harvesting, weather risk, and pollution monitoring.
In many ways, Earth2Orbit Analytix carries on the legacy of Vikram Sarabhai. When pitching for a comprehensive space programme for India, Sarabhai had said: “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation...But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”
To Mohanty, Sarabhai means a lot. “I wish I could have met him,” she says, adding that the Google satellite launch “is my birthday gift to Sarabhai”. Her father was one of Sarabhai’s team, so she grew up hearing tales of the father of India’s space programme.
While she wasn’t able to work with Sarabhai, she did work with some of the finest astronauts and scientists of her time. Among them was Gerald Soffen, a NASA scientist and the project scientist for the first Viking mission that went looking for evidence of life on Mars in 1975. Mohanty met Soffen during her masters at ISU and they remained friends through her doctorate. At NASA, her advisors were Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a NASA astronaut who was part of the first Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, and Michael Barratt, who helped develop NASA’s space medicine programmes for both the Shuttle-Mir and the ISS.
And, of course, there was her mentor, Arthur C. Clarke. “To me, what was most inspiring about him was that he was already living in the future. We all imagine, ‘10 years from now, I won’t have to travel and just beam myself sitting at my desk’. He was already doing that in the ’90s!”
ISRO had given Clarke a V-SAT, a satellite communication system, which he had planted in his garden in Colombo. Confined to a wheel-chair, Clarke used the V-SAT to make video addresses to NASA and the UN. In 2001, Mohanty helped organise an Arthur C. Clarke gala in Los Angeles, which was attended by the likes of Tom Hanks, Patrick Stewart, James Cameron, and Morgan Freeman. “We beamed him [Clarke] as a 3D hologram so Patrick Stewart could ask questions of him on stage. He was using technology in cool ways that people will in next 10-20 years.”
MOHANTY’S STRENGTH IS IN being able to look beyond the cool space-age stuff at the work that still remains to be done. She underlines the hurdles still in the way of India’s space programme: red tape, lack of visionary long-term investors, and lack of a progressive mindset where the government space agencies see space startups as allies, not competitors.
She feels that it’s the responsibility of her generation to take the Indian space programme to the next level, to ensure that India becomes a true international player. “We have a hundred cylinder potential and we are using only four.”
Mohanty believes a robust space industry in India can help solve problems across a much wider set of sectors—shipping, mining, oil and gas, logistics, and aviation—through predictive analytics. It’s easy to compare her ambition to some of the work that Elon Musk is doing. But Mohanty is quick to point out the difference: “We have a different mindset. I come from the eastern hemisphere, with a very different angle to space exploration: I don’t see it as something I need to conquer. For me, colonization is one of the triggers for climate change, because ultimately it’s all about resource exploitation.”
Space, for her, is about collaboration. That mindset is essential to promote entrepreneurship and empower companies to not just meet ISRO’s needs, but go beyond and compete with international players, she says. It is becoming difficult for ISRO to meet the growing domestic needs for satellites and rocket launches, and it must outsource satellite assembly and PSLV integration. “This process should have begun in India at the turn of this century, but it has been delayed significantly,” says Mohanty.
“The global space market is over $300 billion and I want the Indian space industry to be able to grab at least a quarter of that market, if not more. For this to happen, we need to overhaul our space policy and make it more extroverted and futuristic,” Mohanty says. Which means private sector participation must become more robust. Rajagopalan agrees. “If we are not to lose out to other countries, India has to step up and facilitate private sector participation. ISRO has to take on the role of being more of a facilitator and an enabler than a gatekeeper.”
Today, ISRO employs 15,000 people. If the sector is liberalised, it could grow exponentially to employ some 150,000. “How cool is that?” asks Mohanty. “That’s the untapped potential of India’s space sector.”