India’s space program has been known for credible and cost-effective space launch missions. Speaking at a recent webinar, Jitendra Singh, India’s minister of state for atomic energy and space, highlighted the country’s emergence as a “hub” for cost-effective satellite launches. He also spoke about India’s major space milestones, including its lunar probe and Mars missions. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is one of the rare Indian public sector organizations that has been very successful in its field, placing India among the top global space powers.
Earlier in the month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the creation of the Indian Space Association (ISpA), an industry association of space and satellite industries, meant to contribute to making India Atmanirbhar (self-sufficient) as well as “a global leader in the space arena,” which is seen as “the next growth frontier for mankind.” The ISpA is expected to engage the different stakeholders across the entire space ecosystem in order to formulate “an enabling policy framework,” taking India closer to the goal of self-sufficiency. The new association is supposed to establish global linkages for the Indian space industry in order to facilitate transfer of critical technologies and bring in funds that could result in the creation of more high skilled jobs.
Establishing the ISpA, Modi said India’s space program has been primarily driven by Indian government institutions, but that there is a need to bring in actors with different capabilities from both the public and private sector to strengthen India’s space competitiveness. In his speech, he identified four pillars that would be driving space reforms: first, “the freedom of innovation to the private sector; second, the role of the government as an enabler; third, to prepare the youth for the future; and fourth, to see the space sector as a resource for the progress of the common man.” In his address, he added that outer space is open to the private sector and the government’s role will be to be a “enabler and not handler.”
These steps come against the backdrop of India’s establishment in 2020 of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), which was set up to increase industry and non-government private entities’ (NGPE) participation in India’s space story. The logic of IN-SPACe was to make it a single window agency that will address all aspects of private industry participation in India’s space program.
Prior to this, in 2019, India set up the NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), under the Department of Space, to further Indian efforts at expanding the commercial aspect of its space program. The establishment of NSIL comes from the Modi government’s goal to make space a key industry under the government’s Vision 2030 agenda, which includes making India the “launchpad of the world and placing an astronaut in space by 2022.” NSIL, the second commercial arm of the ISRO, is to enable technology transfer from the ISRO to industry, with the NSIL pursuing licenses from the ISRO and sub-licensing it to various industry players. Some of the key projects envisioned under this include the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLA). According to Minister Singh, India wants to be the “hub for the small satellite launch market, which is estimated to be valued at around $38 billion by 2027.”
With the importance of, and demand for, space access growing, there is a clear recognition that the ISRO alone cannot deliver what India needs and that private sector is an important way of augmenting its competitiveness. The establishment of NSIL and IN-SPACe is in line with this recognition. These steps have already manifested in closer relationship between the ISRO and industry partners, from the public and private sector, who are taking on larger responsibilities in the country’s space program. In fact, there is a recognition that the ISRO should renew its focus on space science and interplanetary missions while the industry actors should take on much of the routine operational aspects of India’s space missions.
Why are these measures significant? The recent institutional additions and the Modi government’s announcement of the space reforms are important for a number of reasons. There are both security and commercial drivers pushing the changes in India’s space program. The growing importance of outer space in India’s national security – in navigation; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and military communication – is a reality that India can no longer ignore given the changing security dynamics in India’s neighborhood in the Indo-Pacific.
The second consideration relates to New Delhi’s hope to capture a sizeable chunk of the global commercial space market. The global commercial space market is growing and is expected to generate a revenue of more than $1 trillion by 2040. India has so far launched 342 foreign satellites belonging to 34 countries, but India has the potential to do significantly more. Stepping up its competitiveness, in terms of both manufacturing and launching of satellites, can change the game significantly in its favor. A failure to do so will mean losing this commercial market space to a number of globally competitive space industries and other state players such as China, which is also pushing itself out as an attractive partner.