Although India has been a spacefaring nation since 1975, rocketry remains nascent in the country. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is the country’s official and only spaceflight organisation and has been quite successful at launching missions, so much so that it would seem the world is paying attention to the way it works. This is also why it is particularly disheartening that ISRO’s successes have not translated into enthusiasm on the ground, outside its high walls.
On the other side of the world, NASA’s efforts to push the boundaries of space have always been fascinating. The body’s efforts in the early 1960s influenced children around the world but especially in the US to fly toy rockets in their backyards. Apart from giving them astronauts to look up to, NASA’s endeavours were an important part of 1960s’ and 1970s’ America, influencing art, cinema, music, architecture, etc.
It wasn’t that way in India. While ISRO has been and continues to be admired, its cultural impact has been trivial.
This is why rocketry has become popular in the US – so popular, in fact, that it hosts the world’s leading model rocketry environment. A model rocket is a small rocket replete with fuel and a motor that hobbyists can launch up to a few hundred feet in the air. Numerous organisations, including the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), have become authorities in the field and have influenced regulation as well.
In fact, since its inception in 1957, NAR has helped launch more than 500 million model rockets. Add to that the numerous private sector players and you have a thriving ecosystem that is an industry unto itself.
Again, India sadly lacks this ecosystem. ISRO’s successes haven’t made themselves felt in the cultural sphere, and so rocketry in India isn’t exactly good coffee table discussion. A.S. Kiran Kumar, the former ISRO chairman, has himself acknowledged the need for independent players to take on larger roles. “Our current strength is around 16,000 people, which is not enough to achieve the throughput we have aimed [for]. We need the help of industry players to achieve our goals,” he told Geospatial World in 2017.
Rockets in pockets
Rocketry enthusiasts are constantly looking for novelty, paying attention to size and altitude, and trying to build rockets that score higher on both counts.
But while bigger rockets are exciting, they don’t necessarily contribute to building an ecosystem. And if they do stick to building that one big rocket, enthusiasts simply end up trying to solve very specific problems while working in silos that don’t communicate with each other. In effect, While their commendable work expands the conversation around rocketry, they remain unable to have national impact. To sustain an ecosystem, what we need instead are thousands of smaller rockets.
There are many student groups and enthusiasts’ clubs around India experimenting with such rockets. They avail model-rocket DIY kits and other components online but these products tend to be expensive if only because of import regulations. Moreover, these components aren’t made with the Indian context in mind.
The issue is compounded by a lack of regulation as well. “Deep tech” and “spacetech” are buzzwords in the entrepreneur space but they operate in their own niches and don’t have much of an impact on the rocketry ecosystem. Older efforts to improve this situation were unsuccessful owing to a lack of foresight and pragmatic, actionable guidelines.
What’s needed is a cohesive approach to building the ecosystem from the top-down and at the national level, with the following attributes:
Scale – India is a nation of over a billion, so scale is vital to ensure a simple hobby becomes a movement. Ergo, model rocketry will need to transcend geographies, economic background, language and gender to grow and become a viable ecosystem. Model rocketry should be exposed to people at the grassroots level, with measures to ensure it is and remains accessible and affordable.
Safety – Model rockets use fuels so they need to be safe. The NAR has crafted guidelines on this front that have become the gold-standard, and India needs to have something like this in place as well. The government should also create special flying zones equipped with failure management systems, and rocket motors on the market should have been tested and rated accordingly.
Policies and regulation – There are no formalised regulations pertaining to rocketry. Given the fact that model rocketry involves explosive substances, the corresponding law needs to needs to be clear on it. The Explosives Act of 1886 does pertain to explosive substances and by extension to rocketry but it hasn’t been updated in over a century and doesn’t cater to modern technologies. New rules put in place under the Act in 2008 fail to recognise model and amateur rocketry and only apply to large-scale industrial activities like mining, roadways, defence, fireworks, etc. So rocketry has been falling through the cracks.
We also need policies that guide safe handling, transportation, manufacturing, storage, trade and use of explosive materials.
Cost – India’s is a price-sensitive market, so if rocketry has to be successful, its various components and parts will have to be price-effective and readily available. If enthusiasts had to think too much about the cost, then model rockets aren’t going to lift off.
My colleagues and I started Rocketeers to address all of these issues, and we’re careful about not repeating the mistakes of our predecessors.
Through time and enthusiasts’ efforts, rocketry is slowly building momentum and acquiring mainstream popularity. It is heartening to see more enthusiasts join the fold as well as popularise the pursuit. We are committed to generating the escape velocity necessary to push matters past the tipping point and enable meaningful change.
Divyanshu Poddar is a serial entrepreneur and cofounder of Rocketeers. He is a rocketry enthusiast who hopes to to make humans a spacefaring species and to build a skilled human-resource pool for the Indian space industry.