Space startups see Isro as both inspiration & rival

Space startups see Isro as both inspiration & rival

For Indian space entrepreneurs trying to get their projects off the ground, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has come to serve not only as a guiding light but a rival in the struggle for the future for space dominance.

A conference on Saturday, which was attended by about a hundred innovators, investors and students aspiring to jump on the bandwagon of the international space race, was overshadowed by the failure of soft landing of Vikram Lander on the lunar surface in the wee hours of the day. 

The ‘failure’ appeared not have dampened the faith of attendees in India’s engineering spirit. Several students maintained that they remained committed to learning about opportunities in the Indian space industry and gathering new ideas in emerging domains.

However, when quizzed if the industry offered lucrative opportunities, Rohan Ganapathy, a young aerospace inventor, was blunt. “This is a field in which it is unusual to make money,” he said. 

It was a statement which carried some weight. Since 2015, Ganapathy’s startup, Bellatrix Aerospace, has been toiling to develop an electric propulsion engine for long-range missions, while struggling to raise funds to carry out research.

“During development, we discovered that a vacuum chamber required to test certain aspects of Xenon gas, which is used in EV propulsion, costs nearly Rs 1 crore and that the gas itself costs Rs 13 lakh per kg,” he said.

He added: “There is a misconception that Isro wants a monopoly on space, but if you have anything they need, they will collaborate.” Bellatrix recently secured an agreement with Isro to work on Chetak, a two-stage launch vehicle powered by liquid methane with a reusable first stage. 

However, Susmita Mohanty, CEO of Earth2Orbit, cautioned that Isro had a habit of enfolding partners. She said that Isro’s prime goal should be focusing on research and development while leaving manufacturing to the industry.

“Isro is the only space agency in the world which manufactures all of its own systems. It is like an overprotective parent which does not trust private innovators, even those engaged in collaboration,” she said.

Divanshu Poddar, a former Isro scientist, called on the industry to develop an ecosystem independent of Isro, likening the space agency to a corporation, where innovation is slow. According to Ganapathy, an industry will soon grow up around launching satellites into orbit and de-orbiting defunct satellites.

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