A Falcon 9 lifting off in 2014. Credit: SpaceX

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn’t make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?


KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

Is it so blasphemous to think ISRO ought not to be compared to other space agencies?

ISRO is one of those few public sector organisations in India that actually do well and are (relatively) free of bureaucratic interference. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we latched on to its success and even started projecting our yearning to be the “world’s best” upon it – whether or not it chose to be in a particular enterprise. I’m not sure if asserting the latter or not affects ISRO (of course not, who am I kidding) but its exposition is a way to understand what ISRO might be thinking, and what might be the best way to interpret and judge its efforts.

So last evening, I wrote and published an article on The Wire titled ‘Apples and Oranges: Why ISRO Rockets Aren’t Comparable to Falcons or Arianes‘. Gist: PSLV/GSLV can’t be compared to the rockets they’re usually compared to (Proton, Falcon 9, Ariane 5) because:

  1. PSLV is low-lift, the three foreign rockets are medium- to -heavy-lift; in fact, each of them can lift at least 1,000 kg more to the GTO than the GSLV Mk-III will be able to
  2. PSLV is cheaper to launch (and probably the Mk-III too) but this is only in terms of the rocket’s cost. The price of launching a kilogram on the rocket is thought to be higher
  3. PSLV and GSLV were both conceived in the 1970s and 1980s to meet India’s demands; they were never built to compete internationally like the Falcon 9 or the Ariane 5
  4. ISRO’s biggest source of income is the Indian government; Arianespace and SpaceX depend on the market and launch contracts from the EU and the US

While spelling out any of these points, never was I thinking that ISRO was inferior to the rest. My goal was to describe a different kind of pride, one that didn’t rest on comparisons but drew its significance from the idea that it was self-fulfilling. This is something I’ve tried to do before as well, for example with one of the ASTROSAT instruments as well as with ASTROSAT itself.

In fact, when discussing #3, it became quite apparent to me (thanks to the books I was quoting from) that comparing PSLV/GSLV with foreign rockets was almost fallacious. The PSLV was born out of a proposal Vikram Sarabhai drew up, before he died in 1970, to launch satellites into polar Sun-synchronous orbits – a need that became acute when ISRO began to develop its first remote-sensing satellites. The GSLV was born when ISRO realised the importance of its multipurpose INSAT satellites and the need to have a homegrown launcher for them.

Twitter, however, disagreed – often vehemently. While there’s no point discussing what the trolls had to say, all of the feedback I received there, as well as on comments on The Wire, seemed intent ISRO would have to be competing with foreign players and that simply was the best. (We moderate comments on The Wire, but in this case, I’m inclined to disapprove even the politely phrased ones because they’re just missing the point.) And this is exactly what I was trying to dispel through my article, so either I haven’t done my job well or there’s no swaying some people as to what ISRO ought to be doing.


We’re not the BPO of the space industry nor is there a higher or lower from where we’re standing. And we don’t get the job done at a lower cost than F9 or A5 because, hey, completely different launch scenarios.


Again, the same mistake. Don’t compare! At this point, I began to wonder if people were simply taking one look at the headline and going “Yay/Ugh, another comparison”. And I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t a social/political-spectrum thing. Quite a few comments I received were from people I know are liberal, progressive, leftist, etc., and they all said what this person ↑ had to say.


Compete? Grab market? What else? Colonise Mars? Send probes to Jupiter? Provide internet to Africa? Save the world?


Now you’re comparing the engines of two different kinds of rockets. Dear tweeter: the PSLV uses alternating solid and liquid fuel motors; the Falcon 9 uses a semi-cryogenic engine (like the SCE-200 ISRO is trying to develop). Do you remember how many failures we’ve had of the cryogenic engine? It’s a complex device to build and operate, so you need to make concessions for it in its first few years of use.


“If [make comparison] why you want comparison?” After I’ve made point by [said comparison]: “Let ISRO do its thing.” Well done.


This tweet was from a friend – who I knew for a fact was also trying to establish that Indian and foreign launchers are incomparable in that they are not meant to be compared. But I think it’s also an example of how the narrative has become skewed, often expressed only in terms of a hierarchy of engineering capabilities and market share, and not in terms of self-fulfilment. And in many other situations, this might have been a simple fact to state. In the one we’re discussing, however, words have become awfully polarised, twisted. Now, it seems, “different” means “crap”, “good” means nothing and “record” means “good”.


Comments like this, representative of a whole bunch of them I received all of last evening, seem tinged with an inferiority complex, that we once launched sounding rockets carried on bicycles and now we’re doing things you – YOU – ought to be jealous of. And if you aren’t, and if you disagree that C37 was a huge deal, off you go with the rocket the next time!


The Times of India even had a cartoon to celebrate the C37 launch: it mocked the New York Times‘s attempt to mock ISRO when the Mars Orbiter Mission injected itself into an orbit around the red planet on September 27, 2014. The NYT cartoon had, in the first place, been a cheap shot; now, TOI is just saying cheap shots are a legitimate way of expressing something. It never was. Moreover, the cartoons also made a mess of what it means to be elite – and disrupted conversations about whether there ought to be such a designation at all.

As for comments on The Wire:


Obviously this is going to get the cut.


As it happens, this one is going to get the cut, too.

I do think the media shares a large chunk of the blame when it comes to how ISRO is perceived. News portals, newspapers, TV channels, etc., have all fed the ISRO hype over the years: here, after all, was a PSU that was performing well, so let’s give it a leg up. In the process, the room for criticising ISRO shrank and has almost completely disappeared today. The organisation has morphed into a beacon of excellence that can do no wrong, attracting jingo-moths to fawn upon its light.

We spared it the criticisms (offered with civility, that is) that would have shaped the people’s perception of the many aspects of a space programme: political, social, cultural, etc. At the same time, it is also an organisation that hasn’t bothered with public outreach much and this works backwards. Media commentaries seem to bounce off its stony edifice with no effect. In all, it’s an interesting space in which to be engaged, as a researcher or even as an enthusiast, but I will say I did like it better when the trolls were not interested in what ISRO was up to.

Featured image credit: dlr_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

An identity for ISRO through a space agreement it may or may not sign

Indians, regardless of politics or ideology, have a high opinion of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Conversations centred on it usually retain a positive arc, sometimes even verging on the exaggerated in lay circles – in part because the organisation’s stunted PR policies haven’t given the people much to go by, in part because of pride. Then again, the numbers by themselves are impressive: Since 1993, there have been 32 successful PSLV launches with over 90 instruments sent into space; ISRO has sent probes to observe the Moon and Mars up close; launched a multi-wavelength space-probe; started work on a human spaceflight program; developed two active launch vehicles with two others still in the works; and it is continuing its work on cryogenic and scramjet engines.

The case of the cryogenic engine is particularly interesting and, as it happens, relevant to a certain agreement that India and the US haven’t been able to sign for more than a decade now. These details and more were revealed when a clutch of diplomatic cables containing the transcript of conversations between officials from the Government of India, ISRO, the US Trade Representative (USTR) and other federal agencies surfaced on Wikileaks in the week of May 16. One of themdelineates some concerns the Americans had about how the Indian public regarded US attempts to stall the transfer of cryogenic engines from the erstwhile USSR to India, and the complications that were born as a result.

In 1986, ISRO initiated the development of a one-tonne cryogenic engine for use on its planned Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Two years later, an American company offered to sell RL-10 cryogenic engines (used onboard the Atlas-Centaur Launch Vehicle) to ISRO but the offer was turned down because the cost was too high ($800 million) and an offer to give us the knowhow to make the engines was subject to approval by the US government, which wasn’t assured. Next, Arianespace, a French company, offered to sell two of its HM7 cryogenic engines along with the knowhow for $1,200 million. This offer was also rejected. Then, around 1989, a Soviet company named Glavkosmos offered to sell two cryogenic engines, transfer the knowhow as well as train some ISRO personnel – all for Rs.230 crore ($132 million at the time). This offer was taken up.

However, 15 months later, the US government demanded that the deal be called off because it allegedly violated some terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export control regime that Washington and Moscow are both part of. As U.R. Rao, former chairman of ISRO, writes in his book India’s Rise as a Space Power, “While the US did not object to the agreement with Glavkosmos at the time of signing, the rapid progress made by ISRO in launch vehicle technology was probably the primary cause which triggered [the delayed reaction 15 months later].” Officials on the Indian side were annoyed by the threat because solid- and liquid-fuel motors were preferred for use in rockets – not the hard-to-operate cryogenic engines – and because India had already indigenously developed such rockets (a concern that would be revived later). Nonetheless, after it became clear that the deal between Glavkosmos and ISRO wouldn’t be called off, the US imposed a two-year sanction from 1992 that voided all contracts between ISRO and the US and the transfer of any goods or services between them.

Remembering the cryogenic engines affair

This episode raised its ugly head once again in 2006, when India and the US – which had just issued a landmark statement on nuclear cooperation a year earlier – agreed on the final text of the Technical Safeguards Agreement (TSA) they would sign three years later. The TSA would “facilitate the launch of US satellite components on Indian space launch vehicles”. At this time, negotiations were also on for the Commercial Space Launch Agreement (CSLA), which would allow the launch of American commercial satellites onboard Indian launch vehicles. The terms of the CSLA were derived from the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), a bilateral dialogue that began during the Vajpayee government and defined a series of “quid-pro-quos” between the two countries that eventually led to the 2005 civilian nuclear deal. A new and niggling issue that crept in was that the US government was attempting to include satellite services in the CSLA – a move the Indian government was opposed to because it amounted to shifting the “carefully negotiated” NSSP goalposts.

As negotiations proceeded, the cable, declassified by the then US ambassador David Mulford, reads:

“Since the inception of the NSSP, reactionary holdouts within the Indian space bureaucracy and in the media and policy community have savaged the concept of greater ties with the US, pointing to the progress that India’s indigenous programs made without assistance from the West. The legacy of bitterness mingled with pride at US sanctions continues in the present debate, with commentators frequently referring to US actions to block the sale of Russian cryogenic engines in the 1990s as proof that American interest continues to focus on hobbling and/or displacing India’s indigenous launch and satellite capabilities.”

The timing of the Glavkosmos offer, and the American intervention to block it, is important when determining how much the indigenous development of the cryogenic upper stage in the 2000s meant to India. After ISRO had turned down Arianespace’s HM7 engines offer, it had decided to develop a cryogenic engine from scratch by itself over eight years. As a result, the GSLV program would’ve been set back by at least that much. And it was this setback that Glavkosmos helped avoid (allowing the GSLV development programme to commence in 1990). Then again, with the more-US-friendly Boris Yeltsin having succeeded Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Glavkosmos was pressurised from the new Russian government to renegotiate its ISRO deal. In December 1993, it was agreed that Glavkosmos would provide four operational cryogenic engines and two mockups at the same cost (Rs.230 crore), with three more for $9 million, but without any more technology transfer.

The result was that ISRO had to fabricate its own cryogenic engines (with an initial investment of Rs.280 crore in 1993) with little knowledge of the challenges and solutions involved. The first successful test flight happened in January 2014 on board the GSLV-D5 mission.

So a part of what’re proud about ISRO today, and repeatedly celebrate, is rooted in an act whose memories were potential retardants for a lucrative Indo-US space deal. Moreover, they would also entrench any concessions made on the Indian side in a language that was skeptical of the Americans by default. As the US cable notes:

“While proponents point to ISRO’s pragmatism and scientific openness (a point we endorse), opponents of the [123] nuclear deal have accused ISRO of selling out India’s domestic prowess in space launch vehicles and satellite construction in order to serve the political goal of closer ties with the US. They compare ISRO’s “caving to political pressure” unfavorably with … Anil Kakodkar’s public statements drawing a red line on what India’s nuclear establishment would not accept under hypothetical civil-military nuclear separation plans.”

How do we square this ‘problematic recall’ with, as the same cable also quotes, former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair saying a deal with the US would be “central to India’s international outreach”? Evidently, agreements like the TSA and CSLA signal a reversal of priorities for the US government – away from the insecurities motivated by Cold-War circumstances and toward capitalising on India’s rising prominence in the Space Age. In the same vein, further considering what else could be holding back the CSLA throws more light on what another government sees as being problematic about ISRO.

Seeing the need for the CSLA

The drafting of the CSLA was motivated by an uptick in collaborations between Indian and American entities in areas of strategic interest. The scope of these collaborations was determined by the NSSP, which laid the groundwork for the civilian nuclear deal. While the TSA would allow for American officials to inspect the integration of noncommercial American payloads with ISRO rockets ahead of launch, to prevent their misuse or misappropriation, it wouldn’t contain the checks necessary to launch commercial American payloads with ISRO rockets. Enter CSLA – and by 2006, the Americans had started to bargain for the inclusion of satellite services in it. (Note: US communications satellites are excluded from the CSLA because their use requires separate clearances from the State Department.)

However, the government of India wasn’t okay with the inclusion of satellite services in the CSLA because ISRO simply wasn’t ready for it and also because all other CSLAs that the US had signed didn’t include satellite services. The way S. Jaishankar – who was the MEA joint secretary dealing with North America at the time – put it: “As a market economy, India is entitled to an unencumbered CSLA with the US”. This, presumably, was also an allusion to the fact that Indian agencies were not being subsidised by their government in order to undercut international competitors.

A cable tracking the negotiations in 2009 noted that:

“ISRO was keen to be able to launch U.S. commercial satellites, but expected its nascent system to be afforded flexibility with respect to the market principles outlined in the CSLA. ISRO opposed language in the draft CSLA text on distorting competition, transparency, and improper business practices, but agreed to propose some alternate wording after Bliss made clear that the USG would not allow commercial satellites to be licensed in the same way as non-commercial satellites … indicating that commercial satellites licenses would either be allowed through the completion of a CSLA or after a substantial period of time has passed to allow the USG to evaluate ISRO’s pricing practices and determine that they do not create market distortions.”

ISRO officials present at the discussion table on that day asked if the wording meant the US government was alleging that ISRO was unfairly undercutting prices (when it wasn’t), and if the CSLA was being drafted as a separate agreement from the TSA because it would allow the US government to include language that explicitly prevented the Indian government from subsidising PSLV launches. USTR officials countered that such language was used across all CSLAs and that it had nothing to do with how ISRO operated. (Interestingly, 2009 was also the year when SpaceX ditched its Falcon 1 rocket in favour of the bigger Falcon 9, opening up a gap in the market for a cheaper launcher – such as the PSLV.)

Nonetheless, the underlying suspicion persists to this day. In September 2015, the PSLV C-30 mission launchedASTROSAT and six foreign satellites – including four cubesats belonging to an American company named Spire Global. In February 2016, US Ambassador Richard Verma recalled the feat in a speech he delivered at a conference in New Delhi; the next day, the Federal Aviation Administration reiterated its stance that commercial satellites shouldn’t be launched aboard ISRO rockets until India had signed the CSLA. In response to this bipolar behaviour, one US official told Space News, “On the one hand, you have the policy, which no agency wants to take responsibility for but which remains the policy. On the other, government agencies are practically falling over themselves to grant waivers.” Then, in April, private spaceflight companies in the US called for a ban on using the PSLV for launching commercial satellites because they suspected the Indian government was subsidising launches.

A fork in the path

India also did not understand the need for the CSLA in the first place because any security issues would be resolved according to the terms of the TSA (signed in 2009). It wanted to be treated the way Japan or the European Union were: by being allowed to launch American satellites without the need for an agreement to do so. In fact, at the time of signing its agreement with Japan, Japan did not allow any private spaceflight entities to operate, and first considered legislation to that end for the first time in 2015. On both these counts, the USTR had argued that its agreement with India was much less proscriptive than the agreements it had struck with Russia and Ukraine, and that its need for an agreement at all was motivated by the need to specify ‘proper’ pricing practices given India’s space launches sector was ruled by a single parastatal organisation (ISRO) as well as to ensure that knowhow transferred to ISRO wouldn’t find its way to military use.

The first news of any organisation other than ISRO being allowed to launch rockets to space from within India also only emerged earlier this year, with incumbent chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar saying he hoped PSLV operations could be privatised – through an industrial consortium in which its commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, would have a part – by 2020 so the rockets could be used on at least 18 missions every year. The move could ease the way to a CSLA. However, no word has emerged on whether the prices of launches will be set to market rates in the US or if ISRO is considering an absolute firewall between its civilian and military programmes. Recently, a group of universities developed the IRNSS (later NAVIC), India’s own satellite navigation system, alongside ISRO, ostensibly for reducing the Indian armed forces’ dependence on the American GPS system; before that was the GSAT-6 mission in August 2015.

If it somehow becomes the case that ISRO doesn’t ever accede to the CSLA, then USTR doubts over its pricing practices will intensify and any commercial use of the Indian agency’s low-cost launchers by American firms could become stymied by the need for evermore clearances. At the same time, signing up to the CSLA will mean the imposition of some limits on what PSLV launches (with small, commercial American payloads) can be priced at. This may rob ISRO of its ability to use flexible pricing as a way of creating space for what is after all a “nascent” entity in global terms, besides becoming another instance of the US bullying a smaller player into working on its terms. However, either course means that ISRO will have to take a call about whether it still thinks of itself as vulnerable to getting “priced out” of the world market for commercial satellite launches or is now mature enough to play hardball with the US.

Special thanks to Prateep Basu.

The Wire
May 23, 2016

The GSLV Mk-III is no jugaad

December 18, 2014

(Note: This piece was written in the future-tense and published before ISRO’s successful test flight this morning.)

Come Thursday, the Indian Space Research Organisation will launch its GSLV Mk-III rocket from its launch pad in Sriharikota. In the run-up, most media attention has been on a conical module the rocket will carry on board. But of greater interest is the rocket itself, which holds the key to making ISRO a serious contender in the international satellite-launch sector.

The module is part of the Crew-Module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment, which will see it being released at an altitude of 126 kilometres, upon which it will re-enter earth’s atmosphere and crash into the Bay of Bengal, some 200 kilometres west of the Andaman Islands.

Scientists at ISRO will monitor CARE during its journey and gather important data about its surface and interiors. If the module’s performance matches their predictions, India will be that much closer to using it as a crew capsule for a manned mission into space planned in the early 2020s.

Cashing in on the growth

Forgotten in the media buzz around the module is the rocket itself.

The Mk-III, a next-generation variant of ISRO’s fleet of geosynchronous satellite launch vehicles, boasts of India’s highest payload capacity yet: 10,000 kilograms to low-earth orbit and 4,000 kilograms to the highly elliptical geostationary-transfer orbit.

If the launch is successful – and if future test flights establish reliability – ISRO’s commercial space programme will be in a position to cash in on the rapidly growing global satellite-launching industry as well as give domestic engineers the leeway to design more sophisticated satellites.

This was an important consideration during the Mars Orbiter Mission. The orbiter itself, currently revolving around the Red Planet, weighs only 15 kilograms because the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s payload limit to earth orbit is 1,350 kilograms. This includes all the other instruments on board to ensure a smooth journey. A heavier orbiter could have included more than the five instruments it did.

Dependence on others

In this regard, the GSLV Mk-III will be important because it will determine where India’s native space research programme is headed and how it plans to leverage the increased payload mass option.

It will also reduce India’s dependence on foreign launch vehicles to get heavier satellites into orbit, although self-reliance comes with problems of its own. The common choice in lieu of a reliable GSLV has been the French Arianespace programme, which currently serves almost 65% of the Asia-Pacific market. The Mk-III bears many structural similarities to the Ariane 6 variant. Also, both rockets have a liquid main-stage, a cryogenic upper-stage and two solid-fuel boosters.

The Ariane 6 can lift 6,500 kilograms to the geostationary-transfer orbit, and each launch costs India about $95 million. Assuming the cost-per-launch of the Mk-III is comparable to the Mk-II’s, the number approximately comes down to $40 million (this is likely to be slightly higher). Compare this to the global average price-per-launch of vehicles capable of reaching the geostationary-transfer orbit: $145.57 million, as of 2013.

Skyrocketing profits

From 1999 to 2014, ISRO launched 40 foreign satellites, all with PSLV rockets, and earned EUR 50.47 million and $17.17 million (or Rs 505.74 crore) from 19 countries. Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO in charge of handling the contracts with foreign space agencies, has reported profits ranging from Rs 19 crore to Rs 169 crore between 2002 and 2009.

This is a pittance compared to what Arianespace made in 2013 alone: EUR 680.1 million. A reliable launch vehicle to the geostationary-transfer orbit can change this for the better and position ISRO as a serious contender in the space-launch sector, assuming it is accompanied by a more efficient Antrix and an ISRO that is willing to work with foreign counterparts, both private and governmental.

It must also consider expanding its launch capabilities to the geostationary-transfer orbit and prepare to keep up with the 5-15% growth rate recorded in the last five years in the satellites industry. Now is an opportune time, too, to get on the wagon: the agency’s flags are flying high on the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Facing other challenges

ISRO has to be ready to confront the likes of SpaceX, a space transport services company which already has the Falcon 9 rocket that can launch 13,150 kilograms to low-earth orbit and 4,850 kilograms to the geostationary-transfer orbit at starting costs of $57 million per launch.

On another front, ISRO will have to move the public dialogue away from its fixation on big science missions and toward less grandiose but equally significant ones. These will help establish the space agency’s mettle in reliably executing higher-altitude launches, enhancing India’s capabilities in the space-launch and space-research sectors. These will also, in turn, serve to make high-cost missions more meaningful than simple proofs of concepts.

For example, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan has announced that a project report compiled by the agency envisages a Rs 12,400-crore manned space mission by 2021. In the next seven years, thus, ISRO aims to master concepts of re-entry technology, human spaceflight and radiation protection. This will happen not just through repeated test flights and launches of crew modules but also using satellites, space-borne observatories and data analysis.

For all these reasons, the GSLV Mk-III marks an important step by ISRO, one that will expose it to greater competition from European and American launchers, increase its self-reliance in a way that it will have to justify its increasing launch capabilities with well-integrated projects, and help the agency establish a legacy over and beyond the jugaad that took it to Mars.

The Mars Orbiter Mission was launched around the same time as NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, and with comparable instrumental specifications. While MOM cost ISRO $74 million, MAVEN cost NASA $672 million. In fact, ISRO’s orbiter was by far the least expensive Mars satellite ever built.