Big money for India in space
The Indian Space Research Organisation deserves a 21-gun salute, one for each of the 20 satellites it placed in orbit and one extra for luck. The 20 satellites — 17 belonging to foreign nations and three Indian satellites — were put in orbit in the space of 26 minutes from launch, a tremendous rate from when an Indian indigenous satellite launch vehicle (SLV) first laboured into the sky in July 1980 carrying just one load — Rohini RS-1. That first purely Indian success had come after a failure, and, before that, our satellites had piggy-backed on Russian rockets. Wednesday’s launch was via the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV, in this instance the PSLV-C34), a more advanced expendable system of the type also used to send India’s Mars Orbiter on its way. The record for most satellites in a single launch is Russia’s 37, followed by America’s 29.
The space race, born of the rivalry between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union after the Second World War, began in earnest in 1955, fuelled mainly by the desire to be able to deliver fastest a nuclear payload thousands of miles away. The other factor was pride. A third factor has existed for some time now: money. The space launch business is worth an estimated $300 billion and India is well in position to capitalise. Wednesday’s launch of 17 foreign satellites represented countries in three continents and earned Isro $100 million. That’s a minuscule fraction of the possibilities in dollar terms. India has become a major competitor and, till now, has sent 74 satellites from 20 countries into space. A country’s aspirations grow with its prosperity. As the world’s less developed countries dream bigger, India will be the preferred supplier of satellite launches, not just because we do it cheaper than the others but because of the credibility gained over five decades in the space business. The fact that First World businesses which thrive on a bang for their buck, like Earth-imaging private company Planet Labs and Google’s Terra Bella, picked Isro over their own space agency Nasa is a case in point: cheaper and trustworthy.
The next big step in this business will be heavier payloads and bigger profits. Isro currently has the capability to handle two tonnes but is aiming for 10 tonnes. It is in the process of testing a heavier satellite launcher called the GSLV Mark 3 and has set itself a target of 70 satellite launches in the next five years.
Feats to do with space have a gee-whiz quality that burnishes a government’s lustre, especially when you have a Prime Minister repeatedly talking about development and how advances in science and technology can improve people’s lives.
As the world’s less developed countries dream bigger, India will be the preferred supplier of satellite launches, not just because we do it cheaper than the others but because of its credibility