Why does India invest in Space?

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) budget for fiscal year of 2018 was around Rs. 10,000 crore which amounted to about 0.0004% of the 2018 Union Budget of India. To understand the broad reasons behind this investment, it is important to highlight the direct and indirect benefits of Space to the country. The reasons behind the establishment and continued existence of national space programs can be broadly classed under ‘Geopolitical’, ‘Societal’, ‘Scientific’ and ‘Commercial’ gains to the country. In this post, I will briefly summarize how these individual gain areas were the primary motivations for major space agencies of the world. How do these play out as opportunities for India to capitalize on, as it moves ahead? Read on for my two cents.  

Geopolitical Coercion  

Since the late 1950’s, the Soviet Union and the United States were using their launch vehicles and space-based capabilities to demonstrate global superiority during the Cold War. As early as the 1930s, Soviet researchers (such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Friedrich Zander and Sergei Korolev) had conceptualized space travel using rocketry and had worked out theoretical equations. By the mid-1940s, both the countries had conducted initial  experiments with staged rockets for launching satellites into Earth orbit. After the defeat of Germany in the second World War, some of the German rocket scientists joined the Soviets, while many immigrated to the United States. Their efforts in building larger and heavier rockets led to enabling the two countries to conduct upper atmosphere research and launch objects into space. In 1957, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a plan to launch a satellite and place it in an Earth Orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year. This was quickly followed by the Soviets making a similar announcement and beating the Americans in placing Sputnik, the world’s first man made satellite into orbit. Thus, started the Space Race between the two countries, racing to get their astronauts (or cosmonauts, in the case of the Soviets) to the Moon. The prospect of Soviet communism reaching space and a Soviet Lunar Base motivated the Americans to beat them to the Moon. China and Israel too initiated work on rockets in order to place its conventional and nuclear weapons in space orbit.

Scientific Research

Universities in Canada had been engaged in upper atmospheric research since as early as 1839. Canadian satellites were launched on American rockets. Canadian avionics and communications hardware were part of NASA missions in the 1960s-70s. Canada eventually formed a national space committee in 1969. While the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in the space race, a few scientists banded together in Europe (among them were Pierre Auger of France and Eduardo Amaldi of Italy) and discussed the possibility of a European organization for civilian space science research. The idea was to steer clear of military constraints, (which would have brought bureaucracy and secrecy which hindered international collaboration), following the successful establishment of the CERN in Europe for atomic research. In 1960, a European Space Research Study Group met, leading to the formation of two bodies: European Space Research Organization (ESRO) and European Launch Development Organization (ELDO). The motivation to have a joint European organization was to encourage collaboration on large scientific projects, where countries could achieve a lot more together rather than individually. Eventually, ESRO and ELDO were united to form the European Space Agency.

Societal Benefits  

In 1961, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru realized the importance of scientific research of upper atmosphere and space environment, and placed Space Research with the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Homi Bhabha, the chairman of DAE and father of the Indian Atomic Program later shifted Space Research under a body known as the Indian National Committee of Space Research (INCOSPAR) under the able leadership of another visionary, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai in 1962. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was created in August 1969 and later shifted under a new Department of Space in 1972. Thanks to visionaries such as Dr. Sarabhai, India focused on indigenously developing rockets and satellites for broadcasting, communications and remote sensing. The objective was clear, to focus on programs that benefitted the common people. By developing her own satellite technology and launch services, India became self-reliant and steadily progressed into becoming a successful space faring nation through the 1990s into the 2000s, until present. Today, India operates navigation, weather, communications, remote sensing, military reconnaissance and scientific instruments placed into different Earth orbits by Indian launch vehicles. India has also ventured into Space Exploration with its two successful missions, Chandrayaan-1 to the Moon in 2008 and Mangalyaan to Mars in 2014. After establishing the first and foremost practical capabilities for Earth observation and communications, India is now focusing on exploration and science. India also launched GSAT 9, South Asia satellite, for the benefit of her neighboring countries’ remote sensing and tele-broadcasting requirements.

Economic Development and Industry Building

In the last decade, we have seen several private companies enter the space domain, building and launching smaller, lighter payloads. The mantra, started at NASA for ‘smaller, cheaper, lighter and faster’, has been followed by space companies around the world. The opportunities that open up have led to several space payload requirements and technology capabilities for low Earth orbit. Today, the space industry is valued at around US$ 400 billion, with many countries forming space agencies to be a part of the global supply chain, foster private companies and create employment in their regions. Some examples include UAE, Mexico, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Australia.  

Picture credit: (AFP) Agence France Presse

What’s in it for India?

India’s capabilities are well poised to support the country in all these areas. Given India’s volatile relations with Pakistan and border standoffs with China, being self-reliant for satellite reconnaissance and navigation is critical in times of conflict and war. Space attracts students at a young age and can be a career or a catalyst for a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Several efforts are being undertaken by ISRO to mentor students to work on building satellites for launch to Low Earth Orbit. Building scientific payload missions would contribute to the Indian science community comprising of astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists and planetary and atmospheric scientists. The consistent success and accuracy of ISRO rocket launches and orbit insertion of satellites has attracted customers from several companies and governments around the world. ISRO is undertaking steps to foster the New Space companies in India and setting up incubators at National Institutes of Technology campuses around the country. Being a self-reliant space player in the Indo-Pacific region, India sets an example for young emerging space faring nations to utilize the benefits of space for their citizens, for the planet and for human kind’s understanding of the Universe.  During the Soviet-US Cold War, the public in both countries passionately followed and supported these developments. The space race though fueled by the desire to hold ‘higher ground’ in a conflict, eventually shifted public discussion towards the future. Becoming a scientist, an astronaut or an engineer were popular career ambitions among children and people valued the importance of science and technology in overcoming national or global challenges. The United States reaped significant economic benefits by becoming a world leader in aerospace, material science, semiconductors. Cut to 2019, according to the All India Council of Technical Education Report for 2018, around 70% of graduating engineers in India are unemployed. Yet, there are shortages for skilled scientists, engineers and technical managers both in Government and Industry. What India needs today is a young, motivated, skilled workforce that can take on the challenges of tomorrow. Space projects lead to better facilitation between the government and industry sectors. Space, with all its unanswered questions, its limitless boundaries and glimpses of the future can help bridge these critical gaps.


About Siddharth Pandey

Siddharth Pandey
Siddharth Pandey

Siddharth Pandey is a Director with Mars Society Australia and Research Scientist with Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, USA. He recently received his PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the University of New South Wales at Canberra, Australia. His work was on Understanding Thermal Convection on Martian Surface to aid Design of a Mars bound Rover. Previously, he was an Education Associate at NASA Ames Research Center. He worked on investigating Fluidized Granular Flows in reduced gravity to aid design of Pneumatic Sample Acquisition Systems for Mars missions. He also worked with the Space Biosciences Division at Ames to design and develop Microgravity Bioscience Payload for research conducted on board the International Space Station. Towards this, he received the NASA Spaceflight Awareness Team Award in May 2014 for two successful spaceflight experiments and co-owns a registered US patent. He holds a Master’s degree in Space Systems Engineering from Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands and a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering from Amity University, India. Siddharth is the Project Coordinator for NASA Spaceward Bound India 2016, an international planetary science expedition with outreach objectives to the Himalayan region of Ladakh in India, the first of its kind in the country. Siddharth has also been involved in development of Venus surface technology systems and has presented at and supported several NASA Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) meetings since April 2015. 

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