India's new space warriors

India's new space warriors

India's new space warriors

The successful launch of a rocket built by a start-up run by two young ex-IITians is the forerunner to the private sector becoming a major player in the country’s space ambitions

Pawan Chandana looked tense as he sat glued to the computer monitor at the mission control room waiting for the countdown for the launch of the Vikram-S rocket to end on November 18. Next to him sat the reticent Bharat Daka, his partner in founding Skyroot, a start-up venture they set up in 2018 to build spacecraft. Behind them in the visitor’s gallery was seated a galaxy of distinguished space scientists, including S. Somanath, chairperson of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). That Jitendra Singh, the Union minister of state for space and atomic energy, was present too was evidence of the importance of the mission called Prarambh, or the beginning. Indeed, Vikram-S was to be the first launch vehicle for spacecraft entirely designed and built by an Indian private company and whose success was expected to mark a giant leap for the country’s private sector into space.

Outside, it was a balmy day at the ISRO launch centre in Sriharikota in coastal Andhra Pradesh. The six-metre-tall deep blue and white Vikram-S strapped to steel girders for the launch looked small compared to the giant launch vehicles that ISRO builds. But given the complexities of space technology, it was a huge challenge for a start-up. Chandana and Daka, both in their early 30s, were up for it. Both ex-IITians—Chandana from Kharagpur and Daka from Madras—they had chosen to join ISRO in 2012 rather than go abroad after graduation. Having worked in rocketry and other space activities sections at ISRO for six years, they decided to set up Skyroot as a private venture.

In doing so, they drew inspiration from the likes of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk of Tesla whose company Space X has built rockets to launch satellites and even astronauts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US government space agency. Then there was Jeff Bezos, another billionaire and owner of Amazon, who set up Blue Origin, and Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines, who formed Virgin Galactic. In addition to doing what Musk does at SpaceX, both Bezos and Branson also pioneered space tourism to enable wealthy civilians to get a taste of orbiting in space and experience zero gravity or weightlessness for a payment.

When Chandana and Daka set out to build rockets four years ago, they thought government policy would be their biggest hurdle. Ever since ISRO was formed in 1969, the government had given it the monopoly over all space activity in the country. ISRO surprisingly did the job well and has a record of achievements few public sector institutions in India can rival. It propelled India into the small but exclusive club of space-faring nations who can build sophisticated heavy-lift rockets and launch a range of complex satellites designed for remote sensing, weather forecasting, telecommunications and military applications. ISRO has also conducted space exploration missions, sending probes, orbiters and landers to the Moon and Mars. To its credit, ISRO had also started steadily outsourcing the building of its launch vehicles and satellite systems to private players. As a result, both private and public sector companies now provide over 50 per cent of the country’s rocket and satellite systems.

However, while ISRO made India self-reliant in much of space technology, its stranglehold over all space activity in the country had begun to choke growth. Internationally, the space sector, including building rockets and satellites, has grown to a lucrative $440 billion. But India accounts for just $8 billion, or less than two per cent, of it. To become a global space power, India needs humongous amounts of money, which the government, given the budget constraints, has found difficult to provide. They, therefore, decided to enlist the private sector in a big way, as is the case in developed countries, and provide incentive for both investment and entrepreneurship to flourish.

In May 2020, in the middle of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced bold reforms in the space sector that permitted Indian private players to not only build rockets and satellites but launch them as well. It also mandated that ISRO allow these private companies to use its facilities to test and launch their rockets and other space-based activities. To regulate, coordinate and facilitate all private sector launches and satellite-building across the country, the government formed the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) the same year. The reforms also gave a boost to the plans for NewSpace India Limited, a public sector unit that was set up in 2019, to enter into joint ventures with Indian industry to produce, assemble and integrate launch vehicles initially and satellites later on. “These path-breaking initiatives were designed to keep the doors wide open for the private industry, particularly start-ups, in the space sector. In fact, we should have done it decades earlier,” says MoS Singh. For Skyroot, the development was fortuitous as they found ISRO both cooperative and responsive to their needs.

Equally challenging was overcoming the technology obstacles. For, as Chandana put it, “Rocket science is rocket science.” Skyroot did not want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, the rocket, which they named after Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme, used several cutting-edge technologies that they could claim as the first in India. These included using carbon-fibre for its motor casing that helps the rocket be lighter but stronger. They also employed the latest 3-D printing technology to build its thrusters. Despite the delays caused by the Covid pandemic, they surprised industry-watchers by the speed with which they readied the rocket for launch. They put Vikram-S through several major tests to ensure it would perform flawlessly and even had a top ISRO group validate all the systems.

Yet, on the day of the launch, Chandana was worried. He knew that space was unforgiving and even the slightest error would mean the end of four years of their work. As the countdown hit zero, Vikram-S lifted off with a blaze of bright orange fumes and smoke on its tail. Within 20 seconds, it had attained hypersonic speed, exceeding Mach5, or five times the speed of sound. Chandana and the others watched the progress of the rocket on giant computer screens and clapped as it followed the projected trajectory. Having reached the desired sub-orbital height of 89.5 km, it began its descent, and crashed into the Bay of Bengal 115 km away from the launch pad. “Bullseye,” Chandana yelled even as those in the gallery cheered loudly. Skyroot had made space history of sorts in India.attained hypersonic speed, exceeding Mach5, or five times the speed of sound. Chandana and the others watched the progress of the rocket on giant computer screens and clapped as it followed the projected trajectory. Having reached the desired sub-orbital height of 89.5 km, it began its descent, and crashed into the Bay of Bengal 115 km away from the launch pad. “Bullseye,” Chandana yelled even as those in the gallery cheered loudly. Skyroot had made space history of sorts in India.

For Pawan Goenka, IN-SPACe chairperson and former managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, Skyroot’s success in the first attempt should convince the sceptics that India’s private sector has what it takes to do well in space. “I admit this is a baby step,” Goenka said, “but it is a very good beginning for the long journey ahead.” It also gave one a sense of how ISRO and the private sector would work together. Goenka was encouraged by the fact that there are over 101 start-ups that have registered after the government’s new policy. Of these, over a quarter are at an advanced stage of putting out their first products. Among them is AgniKul Cosmos that was incubated in IIT-Madras in 2018. The Chennai-based start-up is expected to test its launch vehicle called Agnibaan (arrow of fire) next month.

ISRO’s Somanath believes that with start-ups like Skyroot beginning to make a mark, private investors are also beginning to exhibit confidence in them. The efforts of Skyroot and Agni- Kul got a boost when private investors backed them with serious cash. Skyroot was able to raise Rs 500 crore and AgniKul half that amount so far. Skyroot is now gearing up to launch Vikram 1, an orbital flight, and will be offering its services to satellite manufacturers and buyers who are looking for speedy and cost-effective launchers.

Somanath believes the two-pronged approach of encouraging start-ups on the one hand and opening the doors to big private players to collaborate with ISRO on the other will create the ecosystem required for the space sector to grow more rapidly than before. It will leave ISRO to focus more on research and development in the field of advanced space technology while continuing with its existing missions to meet national requirements. This includes Gaganyaan, its most ambitious project date, to send three Indian astronauts into the orbit around the Earth. India will then join the big boys of space sooner rather than later or never.

Courtesy: India Today