The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has traveled a long distance from the time it used to send off sounding rockets from makeshift launch pads at a fishing village called Thumba in Kerala in the late 1960s.
Headed by a series of visionary chairmen, starting with the late Vikram Sarabhai, it has transformed itself into an institution of international repute. Today, some of the world’s largest satellite manufacturers in the US and Europe plump for Indian remote sensing imagery and satellite subsystems.
With its emphasis on self-reliance and indigenous knowhow, ISRO has been increasingly outsourcing the manufacture of satellites and launch vehicles to the private sector in India.
Private industry already handles around 60 per cent of the work of building launch vehicles and 30 per cent of it in satellite fabrication. According to present ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair, this allows the agency to focus more on research and development.
“In the last 10 years we have not increased the number of personnel employed at ISRO by even one per cent,” he says, “though our programmes have multiplied more than three-fold. This shows the extent of industrial participation. In the long-run, I am sure some major industries will pitch in to build overall systems themselves.”
ISRO boasts of a launch capability that offers up to 35 per cent cheaper launches than its counterparts in any other country. The Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota has the potential to emerge as a major space launch hub, rivaling similar facilities in Europe and the US. But to make that happen, ISRO must compete harder with big players like NASA, Intelsat of Russia, Eutelsat of France, or JSAT Corp of Japan. As an ISRO official says, “Low cost in access to space is the mantra for success”.
In the future conventional boosters may make way for reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) whose low maintenance and quick turnaround time could cut launch costs to less than a tenth of current costs. It is with in mind that a moonstruck ISRO is developing technologies like air-breathing engines for an RLV too.