From its initial rockets and satellites that were transported on a bicycle and bullock cart, to a world record of 104 satellite launch, the Indian Space Research Organisation has come a long way. Yesterday’s PSLV-C37 mission is an outstanding achievement for the institution, finally establishing its long-due leadership in the launch area.
The 104-satellite PSLV launch cost ISRO a total $15 million. In comparison, it costs SpaceX about $60 million to send each rocket into space. NASA’s launches cost more than $100 million. Those by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ariane-5, Japan’s H-IIA, and the Chinese Long March also cost about the same. A Russian Proton costs $68 million to launch.
In fact, the NASA cost was so high that American satellite operators have found a far more cost-effective option in SpaceX. However, as ISRO set the bar even higher (actually lower in terms of cost), it even earned a kudos from the maverick Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO, who called the Wednesday launch an “awesome achievement” in a tweet.
US space industry rattled by ISRO’s low cost
So rattled is the private space industry in US with ISRO’s cost-effective launches that last year they lobbied hard with Congress to oppose efforts to facilitate a “government-subsidised foreign launch company (ISRO)” saying the move would be detrimental to the future health of the private sector space companies in America. There is, in fact, a US policy preventing US satellites from being launched on Indian launch vehicles, which came into effect in February 2016. Companies like Planet, whose 88 Doves were part of Wednesday’s launch, have to take a special waivers for the PSLV ride.
It must be noted that ISRO’s costs are not low because the PSLV is a reusable rocket. It is not. Another thing is it scores high on safety. The PSLV has been used 39 times and it has suffered only one total failure – in 1993 when its maiden flight crashed — and one partial in 1997. In comparison, SpaceX has suffered two notable failures very recently – the most recent one being the Falcon-9 which exploded during a routine pre-launch check last September, destroying Facebook’s $200-million Amos-6 satellite in the process. Failures come as a huge cost to not just SpaceX, but companies whose satellites are being launched. Further, while SpaceX is still struggling to land back its re-usable Falcon 9 rockets, ISRO last year successfully tested its Reusable satellite Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD).
ISRO’s remarkable record
But ISRO is not just about cheap launches. Though it has been serving the nation and many countries across the world with its series of remote sensing satellites since its first scientific satellite — Bhaskara 1 — went up in 1979, many do not know that ISRO’s PAN cameras (aboard IRS-1C) were the highest resolution civilian camera in the world till the launch of IKONOS (by DigitalGlobe) in 1999.
The world actually woke up to ISRO’s tech prowess in 2013, when it succeeded with the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) — the Mangalyaan. What was pathbreaking about MOM was not just the fact that it was the first successful attempt to send a probe to the red planet, but the mission’s amazing cost — it was achieved at $74 million, which is one-ninth of the $672 million spent by the NASA on Mars mission. It was even cheaper than even the Hollywood blockbuster Gravity, the Sandra Bullock and George Clooney starrer that cost $100 million.
What’s special about ISRO
Set up in 1969, ISRO is a stellar testimony that in a nation where bureaucratic incompetency, political meddling, indifference towards sciences, lack of political will, endemic corruption and a culture celebrating mediocrity rules, the sheer grit and talent of our scientists is no less than their global peers. While the rest of India continues to whine about all the limitations, ISRO has shown that it is possible to deliver despite the stifling regulations and corrupt political system. It has successfully managed to break the stereotype of an archaic, inefficient public sector company to emerge as an institution that is giving cut-throat competition to national space agencies like NASA or innovative private sector giants like SpaceX.
As for money, there was never enough. ISRO’s annual budget was about $1.2 billion till very recently. This year the Indian government had announced a 23% hike in its budget. This is peanuts when compared to NASA’s $19.3-billion budget for 2017. In fact this shoestring budget is what holds it back from participating in the International Space Station (ISS) mission. To participate meaningfully with the ISS, ISRO will need an almost 50% hike in its budget.
Making the best with what’s available
Wednesday’s PSLV-C37 mission was more about using the available technology to its fullest to stay competitive and earn some extra revenues. As ISRO Chairman AS Kiran Kumar said afterwards, “We are not looking at it as a record or anything. We are just trying to maximise our capability with each launch and trying to utilize that launch for the ability it has got and get the maximum in return.”
With these kind of limited resources ISRO doesn’t only have a space program that is dedicated to national development but has also taken up space exploration like the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions. It successfully completed the IRNSS constellation (India’s own navigation system). Other than US, only three others – Russia, China and the European Union – have this capability. While the US’s Global Positioning System and Russian GLONASS are globally operational, EU’s Galileo is still under works (though it entered initial operational capability phase in November 2016 with four satellites in orbit).
Soon to come is Chandrayaan II – India’s second moon mission which is set to be launched later this year.
Meanwhile, even as it continues to break all cost barriers and earn international accolades, ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre’s scientists and data analysts are silently playing a key role in Government of India’s earth observation and disaster management support programmes to realize Vikram Sarabhai’s space vision: “If we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”