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Space: A New Orbit

Space as a domain is on the cusp of evolution with a renewed global focus — strategic and economic — seeing established nations prepare for bigger, more significant missions while rookies vie to book a slot in humans’ new journey that not only entails scientific explorations but also a “potential search for a new abode”. 

We’re looking to colonise distant celestial bodies!

This decade will pave the way for increased human spaceflights, space infrastructure building and technologies enabling this even as new satellites, host of applications become commonplace enabling daily life on Earth. Strategically, space-based attacks, counterspace activities and using access to space as a leverage in land-and-sea-based geopolitics will be centrepieces of countries’ policies and diplomacy.

And as things stand, India, whose space programme wasn’t born when the race between the USSR and the US kicked off — responsible for much of what humans have achieved in this domain — is at the right place, at the right time.

Its Potential having been identified five decades ago, India Prepared itself in subsequent years — marked by milestones that saw growth from a modest facility in a Kerala Church with borrowed rockets and technology to having multiple modern facilities, two successful classes of rockets and constellations of satellites most spacefaring nations would be proud of — for the big Propulsion that will launch the country into a new orbit.

Whether India shines in this orbit that has multiple resident-stars illuminating for years will depend on political will, financial ability, indigenous capabilities and competence to cajole global partners. This will be done through a new set of ‘Ps’: Public-Private Partnership.

The intent to rub shoulders with the best is apparent and a New India is pushing reforms. In June, it cleared the setting up of IN-SPACe which will hand-hold and regulate private firms expected to supplement ISRO in furthering India’s space dreams. 

This was followed up with the draft spacecom, remote-sensing and technology transfer policies. The Department of Science has four more in the pipeline, besides a Space Activities Bill that will provide the legal framework for all of this. While an overall National Space Act and Space Activities Bill will be introduced as umbrella policies, the other policies the Department of Space is planning — Navigation, Remote-sensing, Space explorations and Human spaceflight policies — will all relate to specific activities.

In November, the government approved the manpower for IN-SPACe, paving the way for the formation of its Board, a critical step towards formalising the opening up of the space sector.

All these are being designed to boost the domestic industry, helping India meet consumer demand, and gradually allowing private firms to become global players.

Successful implementation will result in more satellites (for services such as DTH, high-speed internet and so on) and increased satellite applications. Several terabytes of data India has (through ISRO’s satellites) and data that will come in the future will become the base for firms to build applications in areas like agriculture, weather, navigation, etc,  and increased opportunities for India to become a hub for satellite and launch vehicle manufacturing.

Add to this the human space programme, exploration of Moon, Mars and Sun, India is part of an elite club of nations. While these are on the commercial and scientific front, a strong space programme, much like defence aid, will also allow India to further its diplomacy. After all, there is a need for India to project itself as a considerable force in the region in all aspects.

Consecutive governments have been happy to use space — the South Asian satellite is one example — to take neighbours under India’s wings, and rightly so. Publicly available information shows China, India’s biggest adversary, has signed at least 35 agreements as part of its space diplomacy extending its ‘Belt and Road initiative,’ while the US has been using space for diplomacy for decades.

For, even as space is an area countries have tried to collaborate and cooperate in, geopolitical and other differences, US-China or Indo-China for instance, will always see nations spar. And, dominance in space is of strategic advantage!

At the outset, India lags China which has better counter-space technologies, multiple exploration missions, human spaceflight and a proposed space station that is nearing implementation. But the ethos of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), and that of ISRO are very different. 

While both are working hard to become space powers, Chinese effort was always aimed at a strategy that makes it powerful enough to put in place international systems that help further its military and economic reach. Something the US is wary of.

India, on the other hand, started off with a clear priority — Sarabhai’s vision — that space science must first help citizens. In the early 1990s, it shifted emphasis from a scientific phase to a commercial and business phase before seriously taking up space exploration in the new millennium.

Today, India has all the ingredients to compete with China and the rest of the elite nations, but for all of this to be used as a successful recipe, to begin with, its expenditure must increase. China spends seven times more than India, while the US’ space budget is 13 times greater. India must break bureaucratic shackles and make way for a more open and transparent system.

Government spending and R&D must be complemented by private investment and innovation, a la the US. If India has any chances of becoming a major power house in space, strong enough to at least have a say, if not dictate future global policies on space use — from mining on the Moon to setting up camps on Mars, a sea-change is impending.

While all such reforms will allow ISRO to focus more on strengthening strategic capabilities, along with agencies like DRDO and newly-formed DSA (defence space agency), private firms shouldn’t solely depend on ISRO for technologies.

While a host of companies have sprung up — with a lot of potential — India must ensure they aren’t like mushrooms in the monsoon.

About the author

Chethan Kumar

Chethan Kumar is an Assistant Editor (Space, Science & Defence) with the Times of India. Aside from his primary beats, he has been writing on varied topics, with special focus on policy and data stories. As a young democracy grows out of adolescence, Chethan feels, there are reels of tales emerging which need to be captured. To do this, he alternates between the mundane goings-on of the aam aadmi and the wonder-filled worlds of scientists and scamsters, politicians and Jawans.
A journalist for more than a decade, he has written stories from multiple datelines — Kochi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Sriharikota (AP), NH-1 (J&K Highway), New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Raichur, Batkhal, Mysuru, Chamarajanagar, to name a few in India — but is based out of Bengaluru, India’s science capital that also hosts the Isro headquarters.

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