What Does India's Space Budget for 2020 Tell Us?

It tells us that we have a production problem.

On February 1, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman delivered the Union budget for 2020-2021, during which she announced an allocation of Rs 13,479.47 crore for the Department of Space (DOS). This is a 7.5% increase from last year – but a 45.2% increase relative to the allocation in 2015-2016. This signals India’s increasing, and continued, commitment to space activities.

Note that the Government of India has already approved a budget of Rs 10,911 crore for the construction of 30 Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) and 10 Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs), and Rs 10,000 crore for the country’s maiden human spaceflight mission, ‘Gaganyaan’, which aims to send three astronauts to space.

Indeed, ISRO has been drawing from the success of its interplanetary missions to broaden its horizons and set up a Human Spaceflight Centre (HSFC) to train astronauts in a new campus in Karnataka’s Challakere, increase the number of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) projects (including Project NETRA) and to set up a dedicated control centre for SSA.

K. Sivan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said at a recent press conference that the space agency intends to undertake 25 missions in 2020. Some of the more interesting among them, as well as other developments, include the launch of ISRO’s new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) to capture the emerging global small-satellites market; an effort to get back to the lunar surface with Chandrayaan 3; preparations for Gaganyaan; the establishment of a new launch pad in Kulasekarapattinam, in Tamil Nadu, to ease SSLV launches; and the launch of Aditya 1, India’s first space mission to study the Sun.

Interestingly, the NewSpace India, Ltd. (NSIL) – the public sector enterprise setup by the government to commercialise ISRO products – was given Rs 10 crore last year but nothing this budget. A.S. Kiran Kumar, Sivan’s predecessor at the helm of ISRO, had indicated three years ago that ISRO was exploring a consortium via a joint venture to build enough launch vehicles to support 24 launches a year. In retrospect, ISRO managed to conduct only six PSLV launches in 2019 and rented an Arianespace rocket to fly a geostationary satellite, instead of using a GSLV. So it looks like there hasn’t been much progress since Kumar’s statement, and this year’s allocation to NSIL suggests that the DOS has not made any concrete decisions about using NSIL to develop a joint effort with industry to augment India’s launch capacity.

Additionally, in October 2018, ISRO announced a roadmap to launch 50 satellites in a three-year period. The number of missions conducted in 2019 clearly indicates the lack of production capabilities within ISRO to support the burgeoning demand in the country for space-based services. Given the indifference towards making timely and strategic decisions towards creating an ecosystem of industry players that can augment the capacity, ISRO should perhaps consider tripling its workforce and increasing its in-house infrastructure to meet the demand by itself.

China has taken just this approach and today, state-owned and operated entities drive all major requirements. As a result, they were able to increase the number of launches to nearly 40 per year in 2018 from six in 2009. The same goes for supply-chain problems in realising enough satellites for all needs including weather, remote sensing, navigation, communications, science and experimental missions.

Another count on which we need to have some progress – and soon – is the formalisation of specific missions of the Defence Space Agency (DSA) and the Defence Space Research Organisation, which the government announced last year. The DSA is expected to employ 200 personnel together with existing capabilities in the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre, New Delhi, and the Defence Satellite Control Centre, Bhopal. However, the budget itself presented no more information nor do we know any mission timelines for these entities, conceived in an attempt to modernise the Indian armed forces with the integration of space technology.

Overall, the Government of India has been very supportive of the space programme and its ability to develop applications for society. However, the DOS has not been able to effectively address the problem of production to keep up with demand. Together with the fact that there have been no bold steps in increasing private sector participation in the space programme, the government should consider increasing both personnel and infrastructure instead. This seems to be the only way out as long as we also desire a balance between having the ability to focus on new technologies for spaceflight and having to undertake run-of-the-mill production of established space systems.

Narayan Prasad is the host of the NewSpace India podcast, India’s only talk show focused on space activities.