National Treasure | Learning by Proxy

The space agencies the world over are being exploited by private organisations

The Americans had no idea how to launch a rocket. In fact, after having smuggled Nazi scientists out of Germany in the 1940s, they did not put them to much use. They were imprisoned at a mansion in America instead of in jail in Germany for nearly 10 years. This was till USSR put Sputnik in space. They say one could see Sputnik with a pair of binoculars at night.

That was the trigger to bring out the Nazis. The agency was rebranded and NASA came to be. NASA developed Nazi technology to its pinnacle. With a lot of public money, they figured out fuel, propulsion, gravitational dynamics, orbital dynamics, orbital insertion and much more. Then they worked on human spaceflight and perfected that as well. It would not be a stretch to call NASA a national treasure.

On the other side of the world, Vikram Sarabhai in India took interest in space technologies and with the blessings of Jawaharlal Nehru, he started the development of an Indian space program. It was not really a program as much as it was a committee debating how to get started. Although work on it started in 1962, it was on Independence Day 1969, almost a month after Neil Armstrong walk on the moon that the Indian Space Research Organisation was formed.

But ISRO would yield a lot more than any of the founders, then, had even imagined. They found a nice piece of land in Kerala where a shed and a church doubled up as offices. We established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS). Blasting off sounding rockets made with the help of Russian technology was the beginning of Indian space ambitions. There is a famous photo of Dr Abdul Kalam carrying a rocket payload on the back of a bicycle at TERLS.

Our initial collaborations were all with the Russian and Aryabhatta was launched in 1975 with Russian help. Once the USSR collapsed in 1989, ISRO started warming up to NASA and we sent a bunch of our scientists to learn more about the American technology and they came back to kick start the Indigenous rocket and propulsion development program. Till then, we used to be dependent on the Russians or the Americans to sell us engines to power the rockets.

ISRO is actually an even greater gem than NASA. The reason for that is cost. ISRO has funding of about USD 2 billion each year as opposed to NASA with has about USD 22.6 billion. Undoubtedly NASA was far more heavily funded back in the 1980s and 1990s. In the US, NASA has been squandering public value by handing a lot of the knowledge that they have accumulated over the years to Billionaire raiders. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are bleeding the agency dry, in terms of intellectual property, talent as well as contracts from the country.

The people of the US are not getting the short end of the stick - they are getting no stick at all.

Skyroot Aerospace, a Hyderabad-based space technology startup, has become the first private company to formally enter into an agreement with ISRO to use its expertise and access facilities to test and qualify its small rocket ahead of launch next year.

"The Framework MoU will allow the company to undertake multiple tests and access facilities at various ISRO centres and avail the technical expertise of ISRO for testing and qualifying their space launch vehicle systems and subsystems," the Indian Space Research Organisation said on Saturday.

Skyroot, founded by former ISRO scientists, is building the Vikram series of rockets to carry small satellites into space. The startup has already test fired its solid propulsion rocket engine named Kalam-5, whose bigger version will power its rockets.

Source: Times of India

Skyroot is a company started by engineers who quit ISRO and were determined to chart their own course. Quite an inspirational story. Also, their heart is in the right place; I have met them. ISRO operated under the constraints of the government and there is only so far that they can go and show aggression, given diplomatic relationships.

The same does not apply to a private company. They are free to compete.

That said, the public has financed ISRO for years and it should not squander that value for little in return. India should not do a USA.

The Department of Space (DoS) has recently entered into a framework agreement with Chennai-based aerospace technology startup Agnikul Cosmos for access to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) facilities and expertise towards the development and testing of subsystems/systems of space launch vehicles.

The framework MoU will enable the company to undertake multiple tests and access facilities at various ISRO centres for testing and qualification of their single piece 3D-printed Semi-Cryo engine and other systems. The MoU also enables Agnikul to avail technical expertise of ISRO for testing and qualifying their space launch vehicle systems and subsystems.

Source: Inc42

There is also Bellatrix which will sooner or later tap the ISRO as well.

On the one hand, it is great to see that space and for that matter, deep technology is finding backers in India and these projects that would have been considered impossible a few years ago are moving forward today!

I think ISRO should put an equity-based program through which it supports these startups wholeheartedly but is able to participate in their rise. If there is knowledge and infrastructure that people of this nation have paid for, they should be able to benefit from the same. Facilities like that of ISRO cannot be treated like a lab for rent that anybody could have put in place.

The American government has already squandered this opportunity, we in India should not repeat the same.