Space for the Private Sector

There are many benefits that can be derived from space investments - including communication satellites, GPS technology, weather prediction, and various innovations. We need broad-based participation in the space sector, including private investments and to this end the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) is a positive step.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Last week, my timeline lit up with some of the most gorgeous photographs of space that I have ever seen. The first images from the James Webb telescope included stunning visuals of what the universe looked like soon after its birth and clear evidence that there was water in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a distant star.

What’s The Point?

But despite the breathless awe that has characterised much of the commentary, even at this time of great wonder, there were still some disgruntled murmurs about the wastefulness of it all. For almost as long as man has ventured out into space, naysayers have complained about how much it costs. We have, they point out, enough and more problems to solve back here on earth. Why waste resources on over-priced science experiments?

In developing countries like India, this criticism is, if anything, more acute. We still have a lot to do to bring our poorest and most marginalised into the mainstream of society. Surely, they argue, our space ambitions can wait until after we have addressed our urgent need for basic infrastructure.

What good has come, they ask, of the investments we’ve made so far? Space travel is hazardous in the extreme and many of the missions that we have spent vast sums of money to launch have failed on account of variables that are impossible to either predict or mitigate. And the fact that the James Webb telescope has identified a planet that might be capable of supporting life is of little use to us, considering how impossibly difficult it is going to be for us to get there.

Direct Benefits

Those who complain in this manner are clearly ignorant of the benefits that have accrued as a result of all the investments we have made so far. The fact that we can speak with anyone on the planet, no matter where they might be, is thanks to the constellation of communications satellites arrayed in the sky above us. This is also how we get to watch sporting events live from any place on Earth and receive news from the remotest corners of the planet almost as soon as it happens.

Our ability to find our way in an unfamiliar city, locate a place to eat, and have things delivered at our doorstep wherever we are would have been impossible but for satellite-based GPS technology that allows us to dynamically pinpoint our location and share it with others. This is also why we have made such remarkable progress in understanding how weather systems behave that it has got to a point where we can predict calamitous events so accurately that we rarely lose lives on account of dangerous weather.

Space Technologies

A number of the technologies developed for use in space were subsequently found to have applications in our daily lives. Insulin pumps that were invented to monitor astronauts’ health while in space are today being used by thousands of diabetes patients to their keep blood sugar under control. Fluid-based dampers that were designed to protect the ‘swing arms’ connecting a rocket to its service tower are being used today in over 500 buildings in San Francisco and Japan as seismic dampers to protect them from damage in the event of an earthquake. Embedded web technology developed to let astronauts remotely conduct experiments on the International Space Station over the internet was the forerunner of the Internet of Things. Efforts to miniaturise cameras in space resulted in the development of the CMOS image sensor and CCD technology that is now a standard in the billions of hand-held devices scattered around the world.

Just as many of the technologies in use on Earth today owe their origins to our space programme, in the future, space could become a venue for the industrial manufacture of products that need to be created in special conditions that only outer space offers. For instance, fibre optic cable produced in zero gravity has tolerance levels that are impossible to achieve on Earth. Optical fibre made in space will have 20 times less attenuation than the silica fibre we manufacture on earth currently offers. If deployed, these new cables will significantly reduce our expenditure on repeaters, which currently cost us about $1 million every 150km of cable.

For all these reasons and more, all I have to say to sceptics is that it is not only important to continue to invest in space, we have to broad-base participation in the sector. So far, space in India has been the exclusive preserve of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)—and, while our national space agency has given us much to be proud of, we need to allow the private sector to step in. Not only will this introduce significant diversity of enterprise, the resultant innovations will truly invigorate the sector.

Private Investments in Space

This is why I have been following with interest the establishment of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), a new agency under the Department of Space that has been designed to operate as a single-window authority for everything to do with space. Indeed, I would like to see IN-SPACe actively encourage private sector participation in the full range of space activities—from building spacecrafts to undertaking launches.

Around the world, private space endeavours have demonstrated the reliability and commercial feasibility of such technologies as re-useable rockets and cube satellites. This has in turn changed the way we think about space travel as a whole.

Given the opportunity, I see no reason why Indian ingenuity will not deliver similar results.

If it is allowed to.