Indian Space Startups: More Growth Required

Indian Space Startups: More Growth Required

I conducted another analysis for Laura Forczyk’s Astralytical. For those folks interested in other parts of the space business, here are some trends in spacecraft deployments through the middle of 2023: Spacecraft Trends and Increasing Opportunities.

Space Startups and India’s Space Base

Last week, the New York Times posted an article praising India’s space industry growth–specifically, the rise of Indian startups during the last three years. According to the NYT, there were only five startups in the country in 2020. But now, about 140 space startups exist in India. That seems like fast growth, and based on that growth, the article paints an optimistic picture of India’s space industry. The author mentions the possibility of using India's space growth to counter China’s.

There are many reasons to be bullish about India’s space industry, including startup growth. India’s government has implemented policy changes to encourage commercial space industry growth. That nation also has a great base, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), from which to grow. The ISRO has facilities all over India to support its space endeavors.

However, India, the ISRO, and its startups must up their game in order to influence the global space industry as much as the NYT article indicates it will.

Take rocket launches, for example. India is one of a small group of nations that can launch rockets and spacecraft into orbit. It launches rockets that allow the nation to reach out and explore the Moon. The ISRO will launch another lunar exploration mission, Chandrayaan-3, in mid-July. India’s launch capability is pretty good, too. One could argue that India’s rocket inventory puts it a step ahead of Europe’s launch capabilities.

Boosting the Base

But it doesn’t seem to have the ability to launch often. It has three rocket families–the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV–including the LVM3), and the new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). Of those three, the PSLV is the one the ISRO uses most often. Of the 19 total launches attempted from India since 2019, 12 used the PSLV. And that’s correct for the astute–India attempted merely 19 launches (two of which were failures) during the past 4.5 years. That’s nearly three months for every launch.

France’s Arianespace (India’s closest comparable) attempted 41 launches during the same period–an average of 1.3 months per launch. Arianespace’s launch cadence sounds pretty good until one realizes that SpaceX launched 46 times from January 2023 through mid-July 2023. That’s a 7-launch per month average.

Even when considering using India’s space industry as a foil to China’s (which doesn’t seem to be the primary driving factor for India’s activities), the comparison in launches makes it clear that India still has a way to go to equal China’s launches. From January 2019 through mid-July 2023, China’s launch operators launched 206 rockets–successfully. That’s about a launch per week for that entire period. The launch operators also used a variety of rocket families–at least 16–to achieve those launches. Based on history, this means that for every rocket India launches, China’s launch providers launch 11.

China also has quite a few operational commercial launch providers, at least four, versus India, which has none (NewSpace India Ltd. seems more like Glavkosmos or China Great Wall). The launch startups the NYT article mentions have yet to launch rockets to orbit. One notable difference shows India is more active in global space activities overall.

Despite China launching more rockets more often and having more commercial launch providers, they rarely, if ever, deploy satellites for operators of other nations–6 out of 206 successful launches (~3%). The estimated total foreign spacecraft deployed during those six launches is 17. India, on the other hand, attracts quite a few spacecraft operators from other nations. About 37% (7) of India’s launches were used to deploy over 100 spacecraft for other nations since the beginning of 2019.

And India made a name for itself before 2019 for providing launch services to other nations. In February 2017, the ISRO set a record (broken since by SpaceX), deploying 104 spacecraft from a PSLV rideshare launch. Five other countries had spacecraft on that launch.

Primed for Growth? With Work.

Still…India’s current challenge is overcoming what appears to be a launch bottleneck. It has three launch vehicle families and two launch pads, which likely constricts launch activities. The NYT article notes that companies such as Skyroot are working on smallsat launch options. Maybe the other startups can leverage Skyroot’s offering (if/when it becomes available) to provide launch services. Maybe others will step in with more capable, possibly less expensive launch options. But until those companies do that, India’s space startups may have to go elsewhere to get their spacecraft in space.

None of the above information indicates that India’s space industry can’t grow. The fact that the country’s government is putting policies in place to foster commercial growth is heartening. And something seems to be working because there are significantly more Indian space startups now than in 2020. And, as noted, India encourages other nations to use the country’s existing launch services. It has a professional space cadre that many nations could only dream of. But, much work needs to be done to bring India on equal footing to nations such as China or the U.S.

The limited rocket inventory and launch infrastructure and extremely low launch cadence point towards very visible challenges that will take time to address. And even though many startups exist, as we’ve seen from startups elsewhere, it takes time to build a rocket–and more time to build a reliable one. So India could gain more shares of launch activities, spacecraft deployments, and space services, but it will take years to get there. The good news is that it can observe the other stakeholders in the industry and learn from their experiences.

Watch for Indian Zombies

One of those experiences, however, should be avoided. Hopefully, India’s space industry professionals and businesses will learn from some of the, um, cruft that roams at large in the U.S. space industry. There’s at least one Indian firm currently forecasting that the Indian space industry will eventually create…$1 trillion. That is an interesting and familiar number, one which is usually associated with the global space industry and not just one country. It’s almost as if that group looked at other space economy forecasts and grabbed the biggest pile of industry optimism released.

Again, these types of forecasts take hold because they sound nice. They help justify agendas and more spending. But the people promoting these numbers base them on irrelevant/non-credible data, constantly raising space industry zombies from the forecast graveyard. India’s space industry doesn’t need that kind of zombie shambling down its streets. Other, better, and more practical reasons exist for investing in the space industry that are grounded in reality.

I, of course, have had some things to say about numbers like that (others have, too). They just reanimate without rhyme or reason. Maybe India’s space professionals will be smarter and less foolish than some others.

Put that zombie down before it infects others.