Unignited: Has India fallen behind in the space race?

ISRO needs to maintain an ambitious operational tempo to catch up with other space powers
Last Updated : 06 March 2022, 04:04 IST
Last Updated : 06 March 2022, 04:04 IST

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Consider this: China made 55 space launches in 2021, overtaking the US in the number of missions it undertook last year. As the jingoistic Global Times gushed, it was a “Super 2021” for China in space. “The world saw a total of 145 space launches in 2021, of which 55 were from China, 51 from the US, and 25 from Russia.” India? Two launches — one of them a failure, passed off as ‘partial success’.

In 2020 – the first Covid year – China had 39 launches (4 were failures), the US 44 (4 failures), Russia 17. India? Two.

In 2019, pre-pandemic, China had 34 launches (2 failures), the US 27 and Russia 25. India had six launches (Chandrayaan-2 was a let-down).

2018 – China 39 (1 failure), US 34, Russia 20 (1 failure). India – 7 (the GSAT-6A launch was successful, but the satellite failed).

2017 – China 18, US 30 (1 failure), Russia 20 (2 failures). India – 5 (1 failure).

In these years, especially in the Covid years, China landed rovers on sample-taking missions on the moon and Mars, flew dozens of satellite launches and manned missions, built out its own space station, a Chinese woman astronaut did a space walk — a first for the country — and Beijing demonstrated new military space capabilities.

In the US, NASA performed as complex and sophisticated a feat as the Mission to Mars 2021 (parts of it helmed by Indian-Americans – think the Perseverance rover and its landing technology, and the fantastic Ingenuity helicopter). SpaceX launched multiple crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station (making retrievable, reusable rockets, and now even the space capsule, look easy), and ushered in the era of commercial space travel by training and launching non-astronauts into space – Inspiration4). Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, too, joined in the commercial space travel endeavour.

Clearly, we are in the midst of a multi-dimensional space race. The Chinese are racing against the US, Russia is trying to retain its relevance, demonstrating its chutzpah by launching a film crew who made an entire movie in orbit.

And SpaceX is racing to grab the global launch market. India and ISRO find ourselves left behind, way behind.

And so, when on January 3, 2022, K Sivan, the man who had been at the helm of India’s space agency in these years, wrote a new year greeting to all ISRO staff and admitted that “There is a feeling that very little happened in ISRO during 2021,” it was a gross understatement (and not just with regard to 2021). It is not a “feeling”, it’s a fact.

Sivan’s refrain elsewhere, too, has been that “everything was going ahead at full steam”, but unfortunately, “Covid delayed…”

Question: When the Chinese, the Americans, the Russians, the relatively new private companies largely kept up the pace of their space operations through the pandemic, which affected all of them, too, why couldn’t ISRO?

Obviously, the severe lockdown that Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed on India with just a four-hour notice, leaving ISRO — like the rest of the nation — no time to plan for its operations must have hurt. But then, did ISRO allow itself to be stalled as the months went by? Couldn’t it come up with a better ‘business continuity’ plan along the way? If not, why not?

Or was it simply that there was no sense of urgency of missions and challenges that ISRO and its leadership became lethargic? Or was it that it had been deprived of funds to conduct more missions but cannot say so publicly? Has ISRO since studied its working structures, organisational deficiencies and technological insufficiencies during the pandemic and made a report on it that it intends to act on?

Sure, one can say that we are not in a race with anybody and so we do things at our own pace. Except that those that are in the race are building capabilities – rockets, satellites, launch capabilities, landing and re-use capabilities – and capacities and business models that threaten to leave what has been India’s pride so far in the dust.

Call a failure a failure

Consider this, too: The Chandrayaan-2 (C-2) mission was approved by the Manmohan Singh government even before Chandrayaan-1 (C-1) was launched in October 2008. C-1 took nine years from PowerPoint Presentation to Prime Minister A B Vajpayee in 1999 to reaching moon orbit in late 2008.

C-2 took 11 years from approval to lift off in 2019. In these 11 years, it went through an unnecessary, tortuous journey. Initially, it was to be a joint India-Russia project, with India making only the orbiter while Russia was to make the lander and rover. Why? With C-1, ISRO had already demonstrated the ability to put a spacecraft in moon orbit. Shouldn’t it have stretched goals with C-2? Shouldn’t it have decided from the beginning that the lander and rover should be Indian, too? After years of dilly-dallying, Russia backed off from the project, deciding that its goals lay elsewhere, leaving ISRO to make a late dash to do the whole mission itself. ISRO’s ambition and decision-making fell short, and there was no one to point it out.

Worse, after C-2 ended in failure — the lander crashed onto the moon’s surface instead of making a soft landing — the ISRO chairman would not give a full, comprehensible explanation to the public as to why it failed, not even under RTI, except that it was caused by a “software glitch”. Failure analysis was conducted only by an internal committee.

Why was not an external investigation done as to how that software glitch, if it was that, came to be? In complex missions such as these, there is always a possibility that a whole series of choices made through the process of the design, engineering and making of the lander might have led to it. This is strange behaviour for a public organisation funded by taxpayer money.

Again, when the GSLV Mk III failed to put a satellite into earth orbit last year, it was described as “mission not fully accomplished.” ISRO must learn to call a failure a failure. And failure is acceptable. Giving it a spin or refusing to be accountable for it, is not.

The issues raised here are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, symptoms of deeper malaises that afflict India’s space agency — and India’s science establishment in general — ones that must be urgently tackled if it is to continue to be India’s pride. These issues have to do with organisational and regulatory structures, quality of leadership, ambitions and resources, work cultures, etc.

Private sector

There is a belief that now that space has been opened up to the private sector, India will suddenly leap to the front in the space race. There are problems with that assumption, not least how much business the private players can expect, and whether they have a giant whose shoulders to stand on to be able to see and go further. That giant has to be ISRO, like NASA has been for the likes of SpaceX.

As one former ISRO scientist remarked to me, in the earlier decades, ISRO was challenged in multiple ways — money, technology denial, etc — and it rose to the challenges, thanks to ambition and foresight at the level of the scientific leadership as well as the nation’s political leadership. Over the years, the quality of leadership declined, and the organisation became lethargic.

ISRO needs to be challenged again. What India needs is a more ambitious ISRO, not one that elevates jugaad to high virtue, and at the same time, a more transparent and accountable ISRO, perhaps overseen by a Parliament-mandated external agency.

Let’s hope ISRO’s new chairman and the PMO are thinking in this direction.

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Published 05 March 2022, 18:40 IST

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