Shooting for the moon

Topics Chandrayaan-2 | moon mission | ISRO

The postponement of the Chandrayaan II launch less than an hour before the scheduled lift-off means yet another delay in the moon exploration plans of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This is the seventh time this mission has been postponed, putting it six years behind the original schedule. The underlying reason for that delay, and for previous delays in the development of key technologies, such as the cryogenic engines of the GSLV series is, essentially, lack of resources. That, in turn, points to the misplaced priorities of policymakers.

It is often proudly claimed that ISRO is the most frugal of space agencies, functioning on budgets dwarfed by its competitors. It is seen by policymakers as a cost centre that buttresses India’s soft power, and it is budgeted for accordingly. The agency will receive Rs 11,538 crore in 2019-20. The Chandrayaan II mission will cost a little less than Rs 1,000 crore — that is roughly one-seventh the cost of the failed Israeli Beresheet mission, with comparable objectives. 

This parsimonious attitude needs review. ISRO has made very significant contributions to India’s communication and navigation systems, and weather forecasting. It could not only contribute more in multiple areas, such as renewable energy, road design and water conservation but also generate large revenue by competing more aggressively in the global satellite market.

ISRO should, therefore, be seen as a potential profit centre, which can more than pay for itself. To that end, it should not only be allocated larger budgetary resources but also be allowed to raise funds from the market like other public sector undertakings. Earlier attempts to monetise ISRO’s research & development (R&D) skills through the commercial arm, Antrix, were not very successful and were mired in controversy after the Devas deal. Creating New Space India Limited (NSIL), a PSU to commercially exploit R&D, market satellite launches, and so on, is a welcome development. The NSIL will look at the transfer of small satellite technology to the industry, manufacturing of Small Satellite Launch Vehicles (SSLV) in joint ventures and production of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Ideally, the NSIL will be able to identify other sectors where ISRO can contribute to profitably.  

The agenda for Chandrayaan includes a soft landing on the moon’s South Pole, followed by exploration by a robotic rover, which will conduct various experiments. If all had gone well with the launch on July 14, the landing would have occurred on September 6-7. However, the ISRO quite wisely now says that it will not announce a new launch date until it has fixed the technical problem that caused the abort.

Delays caused by technical hitches in such complex missions are not unusual. There was also a long delay to the development of cryogenic rocket engines for the GSLV after sanctions kicked in post-Pokhran II. ISRO’s intention of undertaking manned missions in future will involve solving even more complex problems to ensure that it keeps human beings healthy in airless, high-radiation environments with variable gravity. These technical challenges will require many man-hours to solve. The payoffs could also help to improve health-care, food/water preservation, and recycling technologies.

Given that India possesses a large pool of scientists with the requisite skill sets, R&D in aerospace can definitely be speeded up by giving ISRO the resources to deploy more skilled manpower to tackle these problems. Faster development of technology would also allow it to become self-sustaining.

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