Former ISRO chairman warns against structural changes in space agency

G Madhavan Nair pointed out the similarities between Elon Musk's SpaceX and ISRO and commented on industrial participation.
Former ISRO chairman warns against structural changes in space agency
Former ISRO chairman warns against structural changes in space agency
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Veteran space scientist from Kerala G Madhavan Nair has warned against structural changes in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), as he sought to draw similarities between the space agency and Elon Musk's SpaceX in terms of having a unified command for delivering efficient performance.

The former Chairman of ISRO said that some of the recent media reports project an alarming picture about Indian space programme on its ineffectiveness to make industrial participation and an idea of possible restructuring to bring about more expansion.

"The public has the right to know the factual situation considering the evolution and growth so far," he insisted.

ISRO, Nair said, is the best performing government organisation which has not only mastered most sophisticated space technologies totally indigenously, but also provided space missions in a timely manner meeting common mans requirements as well as security needs.

It's the far sighted approach which has enabled India to get a front seat among the global space players, he said.

ISRO is a unique organisation not only doing high tech R&D (research and development) but also applications for societal benefit like tele- education, tele-medicine, disaster management, applications for agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure development, he pointed out.

"India had undertaken planetary missions to the Moon and Mars as well, not leaving out Indian constellation for navigation satellites. All these were accomplished in a shoe- string budget. India's annual (space) budget is slightly above USD one billion compared to about USD three billion of China and about USD 25 billion of USA."

The government recently said the private sector would be allowed to use ISRO's facilities and assets and provided a level-playing field in satellites, launches and space-based services.

"Lot of hue and cry is made on industry participation," said Nair, during whose tenure of six years as Chairman of ISRO and Secretary in the Department of Space, 25 successful missions were accomplished, he told PTI on Tuesday.

Right from SLV3, ISRO’s first satellite launch vehicle (more than four decades ago), onwards, industry had shared the production responsibility and today even the cryogenic engine is manufactured by industries.

"Nearly 60% of ISRO's budget is spent through industry. The fact that the space agency's manpower is stable around 17,000 over the last two decades while the number of missions grew by a factor of 10 is a proof of effectiveness of industrial policy in space activities," he underlined.

As a next step for enabling industry to take up full system realisation, the new entity NSIL (NewSpace India Limited) was formed nearly a year back and it is progressing well, Nair noted.

Satellite manufacturing, earth observation applications and navigation applications have got enough scope for industry participation and opportunity for start-ups whereas, large rockets are a difficult technology to master, having sensitive dual use applications and has to be closely guarded.

Even in the USA and other countries, secrecy and security norms are stringent in the launch vehicle sector.

Nair said the SpaceX is marvelled as a success story in private space launch vehicle development and it is really so as he recalled the history of the space programme in the US.

After space shuttle failure and retirement, the US space agency NASA was going rudderless on new vehicle development, he said, adding, its industrial partners came up with a USD five billion project to provide a new launcher for manned missions.

In fact this was the opportunity Musk captured taking personal initiative and with his own funds to develop a man- rated vehicle. He did that too extremely well over a 10 year period at one fifth the cost projected by NASA.

"If you study carefully, it is the mismanagement of NASA programmes which led to the success of a private player. It is interesting to note the similarities of Elon Musks SpaceX and ISRO. Both have a unified system under single command and under a single roof design/production concept. Only very small items or parts available commercially are subcontracted. This is exactly what ISRO has been following all these years. SpaceX claims that this is the single factor which led to cost cutting substantially compared to the NASA model," Nair elaborated.

SpaceX, he said, had spent nearly USD 800 million as development cost and offering launch at about 11,000 USD per kg. In India, ISROs GSLV Mk3 (launch vehicle) is the same class and of course, without booster recovery.

"Still our development cost was around 300 million USD and payload delivery cost is around 5000 USD per kg, less than half of the US competitor. SpaceX had captured nearly one billion USD orders. Can any Indian industry or start-ups make use of this opportunity to get at least a hundred million USD business for launch even after developing a launch vehicle? Instead of crying foul all the time, industry should take up such challenges as done by SpaceX," Nair said.

He added, "Perhaps one wonders whether it is vested interests trying to de-motivate ISRO, which is putting up an exemplary performance."

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