India Reaches Red Planet, But at Home Red Tape Binds Space Firms

As India celebrated becoming the first Asian nation to reach Mars, S.M. Vaidya, head of business at conglomerate Godrej's aerospace division that made the spacecraft's engine and thruster components, sounded surprisingly downbeat.

The mission was, indeed, a major achievement, he said, and one of which the state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) should be proud.

But a single trip to Mars was not enough to sustain a promising yet relatively small industry, he added, and ISRO should be doing more to foster it.

“Unless they fly more, they will not buy more from us,” Vaidya told Reuters, shortly after news broke on Wednesday that Mangalyaan, Hindi for “Mars craft,” had entered into orbit around the Red Planet about 10 months after launching.

“How many Mars missions are you going to have?”

This image provided by the Indian Government Press Information Bureau shows what the agency says is one of the first images of the surface of Mars taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission satellite, on Sept. 25, 2014.

India's successful mission, completed on a shoestring budget of $74 million, has boosted its prestige in the global space race and, back on Earth, raised the profile of Indian companies involved in the project.

But Godrej and some other firms are frustrated at what they say is the slow execution of projects and lack of government support, which are hampering India's efforts to compete with China and Russia as a cheaper option for launching satellites.

ISRO did not reply to questions for this article.

The Mangalyaan was built in 15 months with two-thirds of its parts manufactured by domestic firms such as Godrej & Boyce and India's largest engineering company, Larsen & Toubro.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he wants to expand India's 50-year-old space program. The government has increased funding for space research by 50 percent to almost $1 billion this financial year.

But the program is still small, and the small number of launches limits the growth potential of private companies that supply them.

Between 2007 and 2012, ISRO accomplished about half of its planned 60 missions, government data showed. The government cited “development complexity” as the reason for the delay in some missions.

Between 2012 and 2017 the target is 58 missions. The agency has completed 17 missions so far, and ISRO did not say why the number remained low.

Some company executives and experts do not see that changing any time soon, with the absence of heavy rocket launchers, too few launch facilities and bureaucratic delays hampering growth.

Mars means more for some

Larsen & Toubro, which manufactured motor casings and the antenna for India's Mars probe, is more positive about working with the ISRO, saying it has opened doors to other commercial opportunities.

Space projects have helped enhance its expertise in other sectors such as defense and aerospace, including missile technology and welding, said M. V. Kotwal, president of L&T's heavy engineering division.

“Volumes of business [from ISRO] have been relatively small, of the order of $40 million over the last five years, but the technological fallout in terms of high-precision manufacture has been considerable,” Kotwal told Reuters.

L&T has been working with ISRO for over four decades and between 1-5 percent of its heavy engineering division's revenues come from ISRO.

Godrej wanted to explore opportunities with U.S. and European space programs after its success in India, but Vaidya said government-to-government clearances posed a hurdle.

“We don't want to be only dependent on ISRO,” he said.

Now Godrej plans to shift focus from space technology to the aviation export industry, catering to the likes of Boeing Co and Airbus and trimming ISRO's contribution to their aerospace business to 40 percent from 70 percent currently.

Handful of launches

India's space program began in the early 1960s and the country has launched 30 Indian and 40 foreign satellites.

The program developed mainly after Western powers imposed sanctions following India's first nuclear weapons test in 1974.

Still, it remains a small player in a global space industry estimated to be worth more than $300 billion a year.

India performs only a handful of launches annually, compared with 20 or more carried out by the United States, Russia and China, according to the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyzes (IDSA), a defense ministry think-tank.

ISRO has struggled to develop heavier launchers to put larger payloads into space, which could attract more business from foreign nations and help it compete.

Progress slowed in the 1990s when, under U.S. pressure, Russia refused to transfer cryogenic engine technology to India that could have helped develop a heavier capacity Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

After spending over a decade developing the complex engine, India successfully launched its first GSLV powered with an indigenous cryogenic engine earlier this year.

“They have to make that [GSLV] reliable … we need three or four launches to claim it is efficient,” said Mayank Vahia, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Vahia recommended that ISRO allowed private companies more freedom to develop space technologies, saying the organization was excessively conservative.

“ISRO needs to put more faith in the industry to deliver the kind of technology they want,” he said.

ISRO said last year it planned to bring in the private sector to produce Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) within five years, allowing it to focus on research.

Ajay Lele of the IDSA said the privatization of programs with a proven track record, such as the PSLV, should have started sooner.

Space startups also complained about the lack of state support.

Susmita Mohanty, head of Earth2Orbit (E2O), said India lacked the kind of support given in the United States, such as NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program which offers funds for research and development of technologies that fulfill its needs. 

“With the new pro-business government in Delhi, we are hopeful that we can put the spotlight on 'space commerce', not just 'space diplomacy',” she told Reuters via email.  

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