Based on all the chatter about last week’s Starship launch, it appears there is one most crucial thing about it in the minds of several space industry pundits and journalists. That is, ensuring everyone inside and outside the industry understands that blowing up Starship is a positive step. Then there are those insistently pointing out that blowing up Starship is a negative thing. These positions and the inevitable side-taking and drama they cultivate bring to mind the arguments about whether Slytherin is better than Hufflepuff.
But not as sophisticated.
Providing more examples of Starship’s potential impact would have been fun. But the test, the damage beneath the launch stand, and the damage that seems to have occurred in the surrounding protected habitat, well…all of it indicates work remains for Starship to become operational. It appears that no one was killed by flying concrete through sheer luck. Thus, it remains within the ranks of planned but non-operational launch vehicles like Vulcan, Ariane 6, and Terran R.
Although it’s the only one of those four that has launched, so it’s got that going for it.
Experienced in Space
For those, especially Europeans, looking for ways to become involved in the global space industry, there may be some reasons to look into India. While the country’s space activities aren’t at the level of China’s or the U.S., it still has earned quite a few achievements. First, it has a homegrown ability to get spacecraft to orbit. That alone places India as one of the few nations that can do that. While the nation never comes close to the annual launches the top 3 (China, Russia, and the U.S.) conduct, it launches about five annually (three launch attempts for 2023 so far). It usually surpasses launches conducted from Japan.
Other accomplishments include the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and a lunar probe. In addition, India deployed NavIC, an Indian navigation constellation. The nation operates remote sensing/Earth observation satellites as well. India has built an industry supporting those activities and planned crewed missions.
The activities and achievements indicate an educated workforce with space experience. Usually, that workforce has been employed by the Indian government. That might change, however, because last Thursday, the Indian government released a policy update that it believes will impact its space industry. Titled “Indian Space Policy-2023,” it redefines the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO–India’s NASA equivalent) responsibilities. The policy also allows non-government entities (NGEs) to provide space-based communications through leased or owned systems, ground system services, and launch vehicles. The Indian government and the ISRO seem to believe this new policy will encourage the commercial growth of India’s space industry.
Historically, the ISRO usually was the go-to organization for anything to do with India and space under the auspices of the Department of Space (DoS). It manufactures and launches India’s rockets, such as the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), and the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). The PSLV is the most reliable rocket of the lot, but SSLV is still too new, and the different GSLV iterations may solidify over time. In addition, the ISRO also manufactures and operates satellites with all kinds of payloads, from remote sensing to navigation. Almost all have been for government missions.
The ISRO is also the primary research and development group within the DoS, responsible for and coordinating several centers. For those who didn’t understand just how seriously the Indian government takes space, the map dotted with centers and corresponding lists provides a clue. For example, the centers include the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC), a facility where India’s satellites and rockets (among its many projects) are developed. Others include the Human Spaceflight Centre or the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC).
Or perhaps it is better to say that some of the centers “were” developing satellites and rockets. The newest space policy makes the ISRO the primary research and development group focusing on “...new space technologies and applications and expanding the human understanding of outer space.” This most recent Indian space policy is moving the ISRO out of manufacturing “operational space systems,” including launch vehicles and satellites.
It’s likely that the NRSC and Human Spaceflight Centre will continue their research, but the VSSC’s responsibilities have been pared down a little. That might sound like an alignment with NASA’s commercial cargo and crew initiatives. But India appears to be taking an approach similar to how China supports its space industry.
Within its latest space policy update, the Indian government reinforces that NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) will be the primary group heading commercialization efforts in India’s space Industry (instead of Antrix). NSIL is not an NGE. It seems more like many of China’s primary space companies, a government-sponsored organization, in this case, one that falls under the DoS. However, it is opposite to the top-down changes in Russia’s space industry, where everything is theoretically coordinated in lockstep. Based on the Russian space industry’s stagnancy, that’s probably a wise path to avoid.
NSIL has been conducting commercialization efforts through relatively high-profile launches such as the two conducted to deploy OneWeb’s satellites using the GSLV Launch Vehicle Mark-III (LVM3). In addition, NSIL and SpaceX stepped in to launch OneWeb’s remaining satellites as the Russian Soyuz was made unavailable. NSIL’s latest launch was this last Saturday: PSLV-C55. That launch deployed a Singaporean remote sensing satellite, TELEOS-2. Based on those three launches, NSIL seems to be accomplishing its goals.
NSIL is also trying to gain efficiencies in the PSLV rocket-stacking process. It used to be that the ISRO would need to wait a while between launches for the launch pad preparations. Then, after preparations, the ISRO would stack the PSLV rocket on the pad. That process took 30 to 60 days. Instead of building the rocket on the pad, which interferes with launch pad preparation, NSIL is using an integration facility as the location for stacking the PSLV. That way, the company doesn’t have to delay stacking the rocket due to waiting for launch pad preparation.
Seeking Non-Government Entities
The activity including NSIL, is interesting, demonstrating changes in India’s space industry. However, it doesn’t give a sense of some opportunities that others, such as NGEs, can glom onto. India’s Indian National Space Promotion & Authorisation Centre–IN-SPACe–is the primary lead for getting NGEs interested in those opportunities. Launch vehicle manufacturing is one example. The Indian government appears to encourage NGEs to build launch vehicles in India. That’s already occurring with an existing Indian rocket–the PSLV.
While India’s current space policy highlights the offloading of launch vehicle manufacturing from the ISRO, privatization efforts were already in motion. Late last year, the Indian government awarded a contract to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Larsen & Toubro (HAL-L&T) to manufacture five PSLVs. It’s interesting to see the Indian government contract out the manufacturing of its most reliable and successful rocket. But it’s also a good idea. The government can understand how well HAL-L&T will assemble an existing launch vehicle. It’s a system that government engineers are already very familiar with. That existing knowledge will allow comparisons to ensure (hopefully) standards are still met.
For the future, contracting out PSLV manufacturing can almost guarantee that the rocket will still be available, even if the ISRO decides it wants a bigger or better rocket (the development and manufacturing of which would also be outsourced). It may be that the ISRO looked at the challenges in the Ariane 6 process, where a design that was working, the Ariane 5, was sacrificed to get Ariane 6 online. The result is what the European space industry is undergoing…diminishing access to reliable, European-made rockets with no replacement to be seen. The ISRO may be seeking to avoid that situation.
It may also be that Indian Space Policy-2023 is taking advantage of the European launch dilemma. The Indian government sees the opportunities presented there and is providing opportunities to others while exploiting the European opening. Making its industry accessible to NGEs may prove attractive to European space companies, especially those seeking launch options that don’t include SpaceX. It’s established; it’s got rockets; and, perhaps most importantly, India seems hungry for competition. We may be about to see if government policy will make a difference in the space industry.