The PSLV C25 mission takes off on November 5, 2013, carrying the Mars Orbiter Mission to Earth orbit. Photo: ISRO.
India has invested six decades in building self-reliance in access to space and space-based applications. The credibility and capabilities built over eight decades has put India’s industry today in a position to integrate itself into the global space industry by exporting space-based products and services. More recently, the Government of India also realised that the country’s space sector can go beyond R&D and support space entrepreneurs, too.
The recent reforms by Prime Minister Narendra Modi triggered new excitement for emerging space industry players to compete globally, thanks to their newfound access to the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) facilities. These reforms are likely to help the country replicate the success of its IT industry by leveraging a large talent pool and the infrastructure needed for space activities, alongside a much-needed entrepreneurial vision.
About 50 space startups have sprung up in the last few years, targeting everything from building rockets, satellites to providing applications for farmers and fishers using space-related technologies. For example, Numer8 uses satellite data to help fishers save time and fuel, and promises to increase their catch by providing a service to navigate to the most fish-rich spots in the ocean.
The current reforms are centred around the creation of a regulator in the sector, called the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe). IN-SPACe is to allow the private industry to use Department of Space (DoS) facilities. The DoS has provided some preliminary details, including IN-SPACe’s organisational structure. The body will include the ISRO chairman, technical experts for space activities, a safety expert, experts from academia and industries, legal and strategic experts from other departments, and members from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs.
There is still some uncertainty as to whether IN-SPACe will be under the DoS or if it will operate independently, as a true regulator. Much like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) are the regulator and appellate bodies, the DoS wants to have IN-SPACe and an appellate tribunal as the regulator and dispute-resolver for the space sector.
There have also been some reports suggesting the TDSAT itself as an appellate tribunal in the interim. This is because creating a formal appellate body for space activities will be attached to the Space Activities Bill in parliament.
IN-SPACe could eventually provide procedural clarity for space entrepreneurs as well as the necessary authorisations complying with international law.
As such, much of this progress is laudable – and is creating an environment of certainty for the Indian space industry, so that it can attract both local and foreign investments, create products and services that use space technology, and serve both local and global markets.
But this said, neither IN-SPACe nor the appellate tribunal will allow industry to directly interface with the government to suggest policy changes. The reforms will be better-rounded if both end-users of space technology (both civil and strategic) and the industry are able to consult with the government on a regular basis on policy changes. Policymaking has currently been assigned to the Space Commission, which operates directly under the prime minister.
Although the prime minister is directly in charge of the space sector, many policy aspects are entrusted to the Space Commission, which oversees DoS and ISRO activities as the highest decision-making body on space policy. IN-SPACe and the appellate tribunal could provide support in the conduct of business but they fall short of providing industry representation a voice at the policy debate table.
The current constitution of the Space Commission primarily includes members from the administrative branches of government (both from within the DoS and without). The sole exception is a representative from academia. The US National Space Council had a similar structure of representation by various administrative nominees, to dispense its function as the principal policy development body overseeing civil, commercial, national security and international space policy. But in 2018, then vice-president Mike Pence created the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group to ensure industry and allied experts and other non-federal entities involved in space activities, including in particular commercial entities, were adequately represented at the National Space Council. Such a model has clear benefits for local industry and end-user agencies, including to interact with the policymaking body.
So as part of its broader space reforms, the Government of India should also consider creating an ‘End-users and Industry Advisory Group’ that can interface with the Space Commission to provide inputs that consider the requirements of end-users (civil and strategic) and help economically integrate space activities into the country’s overall GDP. This will provide a direct channel for both end-users and local industry to provide their perspectives to the highest policymaking body in the country, especially since neither voice is currently represented at the Space Commission.
The overall goal of such an exercise is to help develop a stronger space economy in India, and enhance its ability to compete worldwide.