Planetary Radio • Jan 05, 2024

Space Policy Edition: India’s growing space ambitions

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Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

The history of India’s space program is, in many ways, the inverse of that of the US and Russia. While the two superpowers were outpacing each other in space spectaculars in their early decades, India — which began its space program around the same time in 1963 — prioritized practical programs by developing its own launch capability and launching satellites for weather, communications, and regional positioning systems. It is only in the 21st century that India began embracing the more symbolic feats of spaceflight, first with its launches of robotic spacecraft, including the Chandrayaan series and the Mars Orbiter Mission, and now by establishing its own human spaceflight program.

Buoyed by the success of Chandrayaan-3, as well as recognizing increasing competition with China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced ambitious plans for Indian space stations and lunar missions in the coming decades.

UK-based space writer Gurbir Singh, who literally wrote the book on the Indian space program, aptly titled The Indian Space Programme: India’s Incredible Journey from the Third World towards the First, joins the show to help us understand the history and motivations behind these achievements and India’s growing ambitions in space.

Chandrayaan-3 Pragyan rover images Vikram lander
Chandrayaan-3 Pragyan rover images Vikram lander ISRO's Pragyan rover captured this image of the Chandrayaan-3 Vikram lander on the Moon's surface on Aug. 30, 2023.Image: ISRO


Casey Dreier: Hi, this is Casey Dreier, the chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society, welcoming you to another episode of Planetary Radio, Space Policy Edition. It was in July of 2023 with Chandrayaan-3 that India became the fourth nation to ever safely land a spacecraft on the moon after the US, Russia and China. This was even more notable, I think, because it came after a string of high profile lunar landing failures, including India's previous attempt, Chandrayaan-2. And so the success of this mission truly helped establish India as one of the most capable space powers on the globe and really helped cement its growing ambitions in space. Now, the history of India's space program is in many ways it's fascinating, but it's also the inverse, I think, of how the US and Russia progressed. While these two big space powers were outpacing each other in terms of space spectaculars early on in their existence, India, which founded its space program in the early 1960s around the same time, instead focused on the more practical and immediate benefits of space. It developed its own launch capability. It then developed satellites for weather and communication and positioning systems and really avoided pursuing the type of high profile symbol driven events that defined other nations and is really only in the 21st century that this began to change. And the symbolic aspects of space flight are now a function of, or an aspect of Indian space flight. First with its launches of interplanetary spacecraft, including the Mars Orbiter Mission, obviously landing now on the moon and now establishing its own long-term human space flight program. Buoyed by the success of Chandrayaan-3, as well as frankly increasing competition with China, prime minister Narendra Modi has announced ambitious plans for Indian space stations and crude looter missions in the coming decades. So to help us understand that the history and motivations behind these big changes and achievements with Indian space flight, we are joined by UK-based space writer, Gurbir Singh. He literally wrote the book on the Indian space program aptly titled The Indian Space Program; India's incredible Journey from the Third World towards the First, he joins us now. Gurbir Singh, thank you so much for joining us on the space policy edition this month. I'm happy you're here.

Gurbir Singh: Well, thanks very much for reaching out. I'm really delighted to be here.

Casey Dreier: This is a big topic and we might as well start at the beginning. Why did India relatively still kind of fresh off of its post-colonial establishment as a democratic nation start a space program in 1963?

Gurbir Singh: Maybe just as a beginner, I can just outline where India's space program is these days. I'm sure many of your listeners will be familiar, but just for a quick hop, skip and a jump through what's available, what India does in space right now. You're quite right. It started in 1963 and it was the launch of the very first rocket from Indian soil that I used as a marker as the start of that program. That was from an American rocket launched from Southern India, and it was suborbital. The payload was a small sodium capsule, which diffused in about 150 kilometers altitude and watching how that dispersed was the actual payload in the experiment. So that started what we today call the Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO. But back then it was called the Indian Committee for Space Research, INCOSPAR. INCOSPAR is an organization started back in the late '50s and it's still around. To date, India has launched about 100, almost 100 rockets, now, lots of satellites, but individual rockets to orbit, to earth orbit and beyond just 100, and about 50 satellites are in operation right now. They're mostly remote sensing, communication, navigation. India has a very small GPS they called it, but it's not global. It's just local, regional satellite navigation system. It also has a series of space science missions. Recently people may be aware that India's launched the Solar Observatory Aditya-L1, which has almost reached its Lagrangian 0.1 from where it's going to start observing. It's also had a space telescope, AstroSat in earth orbit. It's soon launching XPoSat, its X-ray polarimetry satellites soon. And this of course the planetary explorations. So far, three spacecraft to the moon, one to Mars. And it's done a whole range of collaboration work with Germany, France, USA, of course. And in the early days, a lot of the early work was done with the Soviet Union. It's got up today three space ports, but only one of them is actually the one that most people will be familiar with, Sriharikotta, which is where all the spacecraft that have ever gone into earth's orbit or beyond have been launched from. Thumba, the one that was used in 1963, still used, but sounding rockets only suborbital. And there's a new one that's in the works, it's not ready yet, but in the Southern India, it's a place called Kulasekharapatnam, now that's a name that I won't get you to say Casey, but it is something that will be online in a few years. We'll be having fun trying to say that. And there are at least, well, there are three operational launch vehicles. Polar satellite launch vehicle, which is the one that is used most of the time by ISRO for geosynchronous and equatorial launches. It's also used for the lunar missions. The heavy launch vehicle, the LVM three, it's been operational for just over a decade now, and it's really one of the areas that where there's great deal of development taking place. And ISRO itself as an organization has got about two dozen centers all over India and it's a huge place and it's quite an interesting organizationally how it all works together. So to your question, why did it start its program in 1963? And I think the thing that you mentioned actually is the key, India was by then independent for about a decade and a half. And it was part of the nation building activities that were taking place. At that time, 1960s, there was this post World War II developments, certainly here in England and most of Europe where there was pretty much televisions, telephones, transport, commercial flights. These were really becoming available to just about everybody. One other thing of course was the space race had started or the space age had started with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin's flight in 1961. So it's a lot of space in the news at the time, and the Indian government really couldn't let it go. But also because, and this is a very important subtle point for India, which is a surprise to me, the Indian prime minister then Jawaharlal Nehru, really believed in science. And he believed that the new nation of India, independent India, should be forged on what he called the scientific temper, the temperament of science. He was officially a Hindu, but he wasn't really a practicing religious individual. So he put science at the forefront, and that's really why space was almost inevitable.

Casey Dreier: What's interesting to me is that India is creating this not as a Cold War competition. It's not throwing their hat in to compete directly or to establish even it seems like regional power through symbolism. It's more of an internal and domestic reason that it wants to establish itself as a space capability. Is that an accurate way to think of this?

Gurbir Singh: Yes, and you've got to remember India is huge and it has a very long history. And there were and there have been, in fact, my book on the Indian space program was really so big because as I was researching, I discovered the very long tradition of science in Indian history. So by the time India became independent, and there were many very successful Indian scientists of international repute, and I'll be mentioning a couple of them associated with the Indian Space program, Homi Bhabha, he was somebody who happened to be studying in Cambridge in England during the 1930s to the Cavendish Laboratory. And that was a period when there was so much discovery and work going on into atomic physics. And he worked with guys like Schrodinger, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and he was almost going to, in fact, he had been appointed, he got a job here at the University of Manchester in England in the summer of 1939. He went home to India, war broke out. He never came back. So Homi Bhabha because of his special place in international science, and although Vikram Sarabhai, who's considered as the father of the Indian space program also studied in Cambridge, he also studied cosmic radiation and is a physicist, both of those individuals as well as having this international connection at a right time in the scientific development, particular period in scientific development, they were quite bright, gifted and in India, they had the right connections that came from very successful industrial families. So they would have a lot of cash, and they also had contact in high society. In both cases, Sarabhai and Bhabha would know the Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, the prime minister. So they were moving in the right circles. And I think that synergy, those connections helped to kickstart India in the direction it took.

Casey Dreier: You write that unlike the space programs being established at the time in the US and Soviet Union, that India from the outset was wholly non-military and targeted entirely to meet the social needs of its huge population. And again, I think that's what really is interesting here that the way that they're framing this, so there were still the symbolic value of space, which seems to be this consistent motivation among nations to do it, but it was really almost inwardly directed as a modernizing force rather than demonstration of technological competition or global hegemony. Would you agree with that statement? I mean, it seems like, again, I'm just trying to drill down on the unique aspect of how ... because this really directs the future, the next few decades of what is ISRO then decides to do or what became is ISRO decides to do is this internal domestic focus on its population as a function of modernization rather than external statements of power.

Gurbir Singh: There is an element of national pride and also I think what in China they call a century of humiliation. If you remember that these countries, China and India and many others having lived under suppression under the control of another nation was seen as a national humiliation. So they did not want to return to that. So this desire for self-sufficiency rather than some sort of hegemony or sense of superiority over other countries, it was the sense of we need to stand on our own two feet, make sure we are capable. And you're quite right that initially the security in the military side was not a factor, but I think that's only because it was in the early days, and that's exactly what happened. India is probably the only country with a space program which had entirely non-military foundings. But since then, it has got military aspects to it. There is communication satellites that ISRO has launched for the Indian Navy, Indian Air Force and the Indian Army, and there's a whole set of other ... 2019 India conducted the anti-satellite test, which further increased its military presence. But that's just the change now compared to how it started in 1963.

Casey Dreier: In terms of how the government justified spending on space, has that been consistent over the decades or has that evolved? It sounds like it's evolved now with this addition of more national defense, but also exploratory science that ISRO really didn't begin until just 15 or so years ago, 20 years ago, maybe from the start of it. But how has the public reception and support for ISRO evolved over time since its establishment?

Gurbir Singh: I think the nature of space exploration, it really is such an inherently exciting, desirable activity that irrespective nations, within the population, is always welcomed. It's exciting, especially for the younger generation. But what you find that drives certainly the growth and the development of the program once the decision is taken to have one is two factors. Both of them are pretty boring, but politics and economics, and once you have the political commitment and the economic commitment to go with it, then you will see the kinds of ever increasingly challenging missions being taken. And on with the growth of the Indian economy over the last few decades, I think that's what mirrors the growth in the development of the space program. And that's what happens I think throughout society. In fact, if you think about what was the ultimate decision maker for the victory of the allies in World War II, it was the economic capability, especially of the USA, but also of the West. And the same thing with the Cold War or the space race when certainly the Apollo, the success of the Apollo and many other factors, but one of them was the fact that the economy of the USA and its partners in Europe was really not something that the USSR could match.

Casey Dreier: You identify this challenge within India, within your book of these ongoing inability to focus R and D over long periods of time or have a culture of R and D that feeds into overall technological development. And it sounds like that might be or that is changing, but is ISRO seems to have bucked that trend. Why did space capture that government commitment from the beginning if fundamental R and D has been more of a challenge?

Gurbir Singh: Well, certainly the R and D is a challenge in the sense that India does not have anything like the Silicon Valley that you have in the US or the Route 128 around the East Coast. But actually India does have a very long tradition of research and development into pure science. And I'll just mention a few of the organizations. This is before India became independent, but after the USA was independent from the British. So back in 1864, there was an organization called the Aligarh Scientific Society, and it was set up with the sort of traditions of scientific research institutions like the Royal Society we have here, the astronomical societies you would have in the US. And today, so this is founded in 1864, today it exists in the form of a university. It's called the Aligarh Muslim University and is one of the top universities in India. In 1876, there was this organization called the Association for the Cultivation of Science, it's still around today, and it's where the industrial and scientific research was conducted. There was in 1910, there was the Astronomical Society of India. Now, it didn't last long or it wrapped up by 1920, but it also nurtured the scientific minds, not only of the British residents in and around Calcutta where it was based, but also the very interesting and curious minds of the Indian population as well. And one of the guys who joined that society was a guy called C.V. Ramen, and he not only went on to win the Nobel Prize for physics in 1929, but also became the director of one of the leading educational institutions. He was the very first Indian director. This was still during time of British occupation. So just moving forward in time 1972, so this is after ISRO was founded, the Astronomical Society of India, same name, completely different organization was set up. And that organization is still around today and is full of very techy, science heavy professional astronomists and scientists. And ISRO does make use of that organization when it's planning, thinking about ideas about where the future missions should go or where proposals are considered. There's the Indian Institute of Science, it's based in Bangalore, and many of the scientists who end up in ISRO come from there. And there's also the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. This is something that Homi Bhabha set up. It's right on the coast in Mumbai. And many of the sensors used in particularly the science instruments on pretty much every science payload that ISRO has launched usually has either a founder who got the idea started there or a principal investigator in Tata Institute for Fundamental Research or was actually physically developed and then brought to ISRO for launch. So all of these organizations bring together, I think the idea that the nature of research is still very powerful and rich. It's just the access to the funding that limits it. And the commercial sector, which we'll come onto shortly, is really providing some of that funding, so that research, it's actually not as bad as you might think.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, maybe I misinterpreted some of your book because you had identified R and D maybe as this broader maybe policy topic that has struggled to have a consistent, and maybe that's the key, is funding, that these long-term investments while is ISRO seem to at least be stable over the time. And I was trying to understand the distinction between that, but it sounds like they feed into each other. And I was wondering if space itself serves a unique role in that ecosystem as an anchor or foundation of driving this type of investment or pulling bright minds into higher technology and scientific fields in that sense of servicing the population in a very practical and direct sense.

Gurbir Singh: I think I know what you're referring to now. You're quite right there is this with R and D, you can have huge investment, not obvious returns from it. That's just the nature of R and D. But I think what is perhaps the root cause of that is the way that the Indian government has traditionally operated. It's quite in contrast to the way that the governments in many of the west and certainly in the US operate, which is government tends to hold onto many of the sectors as it possibly come. Back in 1992, for economic reasons it had to, but back in 1992, the Indian government opened up the technology sector to private industry. And it as a result benefited. One of the reasons why you have so many Indians in high ranking tech businesses in the US and Europe is because of that. I'm suggesting the thing that happened more than 30 years ago, the desire for Indians to study technology and science subject is very strong, and it's been there for a very long time. What was holding it back in addition to the funding was this desire by the government to hold on. And as soon as it let go of the technology sector in 1992 that things opened up. And I think that's what's happening now with space sector. We will be talking about specific companies, but generally speaking, one of the most exciting reasons why I think Indian space is going to be coming up with some incredible missions soon is because the private sector will no longer have the restrictions that they've had to suffer so far.

Casey Dreier: Yes, I do want to get to that and let's work towards that because this has been a really fascinating, again, reading through your book and seeing one of this you identify as almost a unique aspect of ISRO up to a recent point was that a lot of it, or the majority of its work was done in-house versus NASA, which farms out 80% of its funding to contractors in industry. ISRO was, you mentioned it was a workforce of at right now, at least 16000 people around these have these dozens of centers across the country. And in a way that was both an advantage but also a limitation in terms of that it wasn't sparking or the industry itself could be a functional limit into the rate and pace of space development or even the number of rocket launches kind of limited to this one launch center up until very recently that India had online. And so this policy approach of opening up this additional sector to invest in space and perhaps this R and D that you're identified is I think an interesting and very telling development that's happened in terms of public policy over the last few decades. And you can almost draw this line since 1992, this kind of shift, is it correct to say that there's been a shift in ISRO in terms of what its mandate can be? So the first few decades you said again, this real focus on servicing the Indian population, that's through communication satellites, you identified navigation, you have a whole chapter in this early experiment with educational programming through a geosynchronous satellite, through a cooperation with NASA, these very practical and servicing this huge, not just in number but in disparate in land area, population without having to build massive physical infrastructure. And in a sense ISRO did that it seems like by building these communication systems and servicing its population and developing the scientific and funding infrastructure within government, but it took so long, what started to change? You said you identify, I think it was 1999 and this is why I'm curious that that connection exists between the reforms in the early '90s and in the late '90s, this proposal to, well, why don't we start going to the moon? Let's send a scientific mission to the moon in Chandrayaan-1. That's almost 35, 37 years from its founding to even the proposal. So what fundamental aspect switched? Was there a political expectation that switched? Was there a scientific confidence that developed? Was there, as I may be suggesting here, some sort of fundamental infusion of energy from broad public sector reforms? What would you identify as causing this different era of is ISRO to develop starting with the 21st century?

Gurbir Singh: Well, certainly the moon mission and indeed many other space programs that ISRO started has been modulated by what's been happening in China. The moon mission was announced in the mid 1990s, and China got its spacecraft Shuguang-1 one to the moon in 1997. In 2003, China had the very first of its human space flight success. And more recently with Tiangong one and two, it had its own space station. So what India has been doing is been following in the footsteps, just like what happened in the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, if China had not gone to the moon, India wouldn't have gone to the moon. There's this wonderful quote, I think it's in the book from the Soviet Union engineer Boris Chertok, and he says that if there hadn't been a Gagarin, there would not be an Armstrong. And in the sense, this is what we were saying earlier about politics and economics, they're really as boring as they are, they drive the kind of development in space and accelerate it. And I suspect that had it not been for that kind of one-upmanship that I certainly wouldn't have seen the exploration of the moon and the solar system in my lifetime. I think it was Carl Sagan who said that there's only one time when we as humans will explore the solar system for the first time. And that by chance happened to have happened in my lifetime. And I'm just of course delighted and pleased by it, but understanding, and this is what your podcast does really well, it gets under the crooks and crannies of trying to understand why and it's because of politics. And China recently came back with a Luna sample from PAC [inaudible 00:28:20] more than two years ago now, and India is now developing that technology. It's also announced only a week or two ago that there will be an Indian space station. Just to bring you up to date with Chandrayaan-3, I know that everybody's aware of the fact that it landed successfully, but there was two other operations which have been ... three more things which have not been really commented on very popularly. And one of them was a hop test. So the Lambda, just before they packed up for the lunar night, the ISRO engineers asked it to take off again. The engines flied only for about a second or two, but it allowed it to test that the engines would start again after landing the propulsion module for Chandrayaan-3, I keep thinking of it, I keep calling it the orbiter, but ISRO calls it the propulsion module that was still in lunar orbit, that had on board a device that is something which will be onboard future missions from ISRO to the moon. You're familiar with the RTGs, the radio isotope thermal generators, they produce electricity. There's also the simpler, less complex device called a radioisotope heater unit, and you need one or the other or both on the spacecraft on the lunar surface to help it survive the lunar night. So Chandrayaan-3 lander never made it more than the first lunar day. This propulsion module had on board a lunar radioisotope thermal unit, which is technology demonstrator, but now that's been tested and it'll be used in future missions. And then ISRO's mission to the moon will last much longer than just the one lunar day. The other thing that has happened only this week is that the propulsion unit came back to the earth.

Casey Dreier: Surprise. Yeah, it's back.

Gurbir Singh: And that's the way that India does things. And so the kind of planning and China does this really well, they lay out their plans in five, 10 years times and then they stick to them, whereas India tends to be more ad hoc and certainly the announcement from the prime minister that India would be going back to have it's space station sample return from the moon land on Mars, mission to Venus, all these there. But of course the focus right now is on India's Gaganyaan or the crude mission, which is taking up a lot of ISRO's time and money, of course.

Casey Dreier: I find it interesting in the way that we've kind of developed it or you developed it here, it's almost the inverse of, say, the US space program where it begins with this highly symbolic high profile human space flight, dramatic interplanetary, robotic missions, and then sought to justify itself from a very practical position after that, whereas ISRO started with that as we're going to serve the needs of the people through communication, navigation, being able to track fishing and drought and other types of agricultural needs and serve the people. And then now starting to push more and more for the symbolic geopolitically, notable demonstrative missions of great attention and renown in reaction to you point out China. It's a funny inversion in a sense that they're starting to move in this direction at this point. I was wondering if you could give a bit of a short as possible history. What is this relationship between China and India? So it sounds like the way that you've framed it is that India in a sense is being somewhat reactive to China's pursuit of high profile space endeavors. What are the politics, the regional politics between these two nations and how have they evolved in the last, again, 20, 25 years that seems to match this increasing investment in interplanetary and human space flight ambitions by India's space program?

Gurbir Singh: Well, it's highly geopolitical. In the early days, India's approach was the approach it had because it had no other option. It relied very heavily on support from both the USA and the USSR, and it was really quite interesting how Vikram Rabi played both the east and west. During the days of the Cold War, you could either join the East, the Warsaw Pact or remain with the West and India through Jawaharlal Nehru's deliberate desire chose to remain non-aligned. And that allowed it to exploit, let's say, both the USSR and the USA, because in the early days following the success of both the USSR and the USA, each country was trying to ... went on a charm offensive with trying to help countries to develop their own space program on the basis that they would eventually join their political side. So the first decade or two, India just relied heavily on support. It just didn't have the economic mite to do anything more. Now, things have changed. India and China and many other countries are investing heavily in space because it gives them some geopolitical edge as well as the self-sufficiency and control over what kind of services their country has. As you know these days, most of the, it's incredibly surprising how many services we use on a day-to-day basis that are space based, so unless you develop your own provision for those services, you will have to buy them from somebody else. And that comes with two problems. One is they set the price, secondly, if they choose, they can pull the plug anytime. And this idea of self-sufficiency is so important. But with China it has, India and China have had, I suppose, proper military conflict twice, and there have been many skirmishes on the borders which are disputed in the foothills of the Himalayas. So there's a border between China and India, and it's really interesting how countries can both fight each other at one place and then negotiate with each other in a UN setting or in another commercial settings at the same time. And China and India are both part of the BRICS organization, B-R-I-C-S, the organization, which is supposed to, amongst other things, collaborate in space. There was some talk about sharing information from remote sensing satellites and pulling it between the Indian and Chinese space satellites. But no, the tensions are still there and they're mostly from politically strong men who lead both China and India right now. So they're particularly heightened. And it's going to be quite some time before the relationships change. It's a bit like the weird situation that we have in terms of the International Space Station relationships between the west generally and the US in particular, and Russia really dodgy. But when it comes to the International Space Station, no problem. It's still carrying on as it's going.

Casey Dreier: We'll be right back with the rest of our space policy edition of Planetary Radio after this short break.

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Casey Dreier: You write that in 2013, India went to Mars, the Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan, excuse my pronunciation, because both Japan and China had tried and failed. If India could succeed or Japan and China had not, it would be next after the US Russia and ISRO orbit Mars. And it did. Interesting that China then followed up with its own Tianwen mission again and landed, and you're seeing this kind of increasing visible kind of tit-for-tat soft competition, would you say? It's not explicitly stated as a reaction, but you seem pretty confident that these types of investments, and I find it again somewhat ironic, that these investments in the more elevated scientific ambition, the more elevated human exploration ambition has to come in the context of a far more basic geopolitical rivalry and competition rather than endogenous to the ideals of a nation.

Gurbir Singh: The Mars orbiter mission or Mangalyaan is particularly interesting because it highlights exactly the point we're talking about. The whole reason why India went to Mars in 2013 is because there was a Chinese spacecraft on board, the Fobos-Grunt spacecraft launched by Russia. It was going to be landing on Fobos, but it carried a spacecraft from China. Because that spacecraft launched, but it never left earth orbit, so it failed, and because of the celestial mechanics that mean that you can only go to Mars every two years or so. So India discovered that in 2011 when this FORBIS grant mission failed, that there's to be an opportunity to launch a space after a small one, in the end, it was only the payload of five instruments and only about 15 kilograms, could get to Mars in 2013, and if it did so would get led before China. And that was really very stark, very obvious to many of the people who followed this. But India of course didn't admit that, except when a few years after the ISRO chairman had served his time and wrote a book, and in that he admitted that the whole reason why India went to Mars was at that time was because China failed, and the whole intention there was to be able to say that India got to mass before China. And these kinds of firsts, and we saw them during the Cold War, Sputnik, Gregorian, Valentina Tereshkova, [inaudible 00:40:03], every country's trying to get to something that it can wave a flag and say, we did this, and there's nothing more than politicians like that. So yes, it's geopolitics all the way.

Casey Dreier: Let's talk about the Modi government here a bit and his government's relationship to space. Would you characterize that as a natural extension of previous government's approach to ISRO and space, or is there something different in their approach and embrace of ISRO and its ambitions?

Gurbir Singh: So India has always treated ISRO as something of the goose that lays the golden eggs. It's something which parties of any political cover can benefit from because apart from the fact that it allows the incumbent prime minister to wave India's flag at every ISRO's success, ISRO actually is one of the more successful and competent departments of government. So it's traditionally been supported throughout India's history, whoever the government is. And in this prime minister Modi's case, I don't know if you saw the live stream of the Chandrayaan-3 touchdown, he happened to be in South Africa, but he was in a live stream split screen. You could see the Lander land coming into land. And he was there with a small Indian flag waving. And it was quite interesting to me to see that immediately after the soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 lander, the chairman Somanath got onto the pedestal, made the announcement that India was on the moon. He just said those words. He said, "India is on the moon." And then he handed the microphone virtually to the prime minister. And it was something that was quite extreme. I hadn't appreciated how blatant that opportunity to have access to the international audience that he did have at that time would be. And he made quite a long 10-minute speech. He said all the things that any politician would say, and I suppose it's the sort of thing that happened way back in 1957 with Sputnik and Gregorian in '61, Khrushchev made use of those events for political gain. And certainly when Apollo 11, Neil and Buzz were on the surface, president Nixon had a real-time telephone conversation with them. So it's nothing unusual. This is one of the reasons why politicians put so much effort in there. It just allows them to make a bit of political gain as a result.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. You wrote in your book, and so I should say your book came out in 2017, is that right? Six years ago at this point, A lot has happened since. But you identify this, you said that the Modi government, a dynamic government with a nationalist and aggressive economic agenda has been positioning itself to use the Indian Space program as an instrument for regional influence. Has that played out in the way that you thought it would using Chandrayaan-3 as an example here?

Gurbir Singh: It's surprising. Since then there's been a lot more development.

Casey Dreier: I mean, let's highlight, so what are some of the changes that from when your book was published that are quite notable, that have been coming fast and furious here?

Gurbir Singh: But on this very important point you make about the desire for India to be a regional superpower, that hasn't quite worked out, mainly because the countries around the border of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India hoped to capture the market for launch services at the very least or indeed building satellites. But the growth in the international commercial space sector has meant that it's actually quite practical and cost-effective for these countries not to go to the nearest provider, India, but go beyond because the competition makes it worthwhile. Other than that, India itself has continued to grow and develop. Now, there was a bit of a pause that India suffered more than most of the space agencies during the Covid lockdown. So its cadence of launch is still very low. It's surprising to realize that the highest launch, and this is to earth orbit or beyond that India's managed to date has been seven, seven launches in the year. And this year alone, China has already achieved 47, the USA more than 100. So this problem with India's capability, the capacity is really the issue, I think that's been driving the political changes that's opened up the commercial space sector in India. And that of more than anything else, I think will still early days, but there are quite a few private sector companies in India that are now making use of the legal frameworks that have been established in India to make life for ISRO a lot easier because a lot of the bottlenecks for ISRO was just developing the hardware. Sure, they make use of quite a few of the existing private sector companies have been around for a long time. But the innovation and the dynamics that new startups bring that has just got the legal frameworks out of the way. And so the next two or three years, that's where I think the development will take place. But the main thing that's been preoccupying ISRO this year and the next year is the Gaganyaan program. The intention was it was announced in 2017 just when the book came out, but with the intention of the first launch in 2022, which would've been the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, but Covid sorted that, it never happened. And now there's a good chance that it will take place in the end of 2025. But during all this time, India has been developing its testing the launch board systems, paddleboard system, parachute landing, recovery of the capsule, and this recent signing of the Artemis Accord and the agreement to have an Indian astronaut go to the International Space Station with NASA has really, I'm sure will help accelerate the Gaganyaan program because the kind of opportunities that exist now of collaboration between India and NASA in particular will mean, I'm pretty sure they don't say this out loud, but there will be various deals of technology transfer, systems components being sold to India for its Gaganyaan mission as a result of the collaborative arrangements that are now in place.

Casey Dreier: Well, particularly if the US is increasingly seeing China as a competitive nation in space, then it starts to become a US interest to support India, their program, just as a backstop against regional influence from China for that soft power development.

Gurbir Singh: And that's spot on. And that's really the reason why India in June this year signed the Artemis Accords. And it's a fascinating development in the same way that competition's been driving just about everything, the Artemis Accords would not have been significant or profound if the International Lunar Research Station did not exist. And the International Lunar Research Station is something that came about in 2021, and it's essentially an organization that China and Russia established, but now really China's running with it. So this decade particularly, you'll see not only more companies, more countries getting into space, but going to the moon. So the moon, Luna orbit, Luna space and Luna surface, it's going to be a lot of people there. It's going to be pretty busy. And to accommodate how individuals and individual companies and countries can cooperate, operate, share, support each other. There's no rules. And the Artemis Accords came out. There were many attempts to establish an international agreement, but because of, I suppose the same forces that have challenged the international agreements on space debris, space debris removal, the provision of nuclear weapons in space, it's very difficult to get international agreements on those very tough subjects. So instead of an agreement, a legally binding agreement, the Artemis Accords is something that was set up by America and Russia and China because Artemis Accords was American couldn't join, they set up their own. And as a result, now that we have two competing organizations, and India joined this year because they got a really good deal from the US and the US offered a really good deal because they didn't want India to go to the International Lunar Research Station. And the reason for that, why India assigned eventually is because it was mutually good for both India and the USA. In addition to signing up to the Artemis Accord, India got some deals on artificial intelligence and 6G development infrastructure in India as well as joining some mineral support groups. But I think the main reason why India signed is because as part of this agreement, and this is the geopolitics at play, was that your president offered the Indian prime minister to come speak to a joint assembly of Congress. And any prime minister, especially one who has an election coming up next year is not going to let that go. And he had I think four day state visit to the US and it's that package deal that made India sign the Artemis Accords. And at the same time, USA made sure India didn't sign and go with the China and Russian option.

Casey Dreier: So kind of again, in the same pattern in the last few years, this increasing commitment towards, let's say or opening up to commercial space flight beginning a serious effort for human space flight, and just in the last month, Modi announcing or his government announcing that there will be, as you mentioned earlier, an Indian space station by 2035 and Indians, he sees at the moon by 2040 to this point of Artemis Accords, this just strikes me again as this profound transformation about what the role ISRO is going to play in Indian geopolitics, but also in Indian society once some of these higher profile events start to occur. And it seems like that the organization, as you've described it has a huge amount of capability to do things, but it's struggling with a capacity to enable what it is able to do technologically to move forward with any sort of pace. Does that strike you as the biggest challenge facing ISRO, or at least maybe the Indian space community in the next few decades, is expanding capacity?

Gurbir Singh: I think capacity issue has been something that many previous ISRO chairman have stated, and that's been the motivating factor for opening up the private space sector. It was not too long ago that the, it was actually this year finally the final version of the Indian space policy was published only this year. That's quite remarkable. And there was the space activities bill, which has been hovering around in the draft form since 2017, that really facilitates the operations of private sectors because India is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty. So any Indian entity launching or operating spacecraft has to do it with the authority of the Indian government. And as a result of the space policy, the space capabilities bill, the range of new commercial startups that have been operating in India only this year just ran nominally about 200 companies that are now considered as startups. About half are probably significant. And I'll just mention a few if I may, and I think this is where the future of Indian space activities lies, not with ISRO, but ISRO supported by the many startups. And at this point it's happening the other way around. ISRO is helping the startups to startup because there aren't any launching facilities that a startup can build. And many of the test facilities that you need for spacecraft, ISRO is making those available. I'm sure they're charging a fee. It's a commercial operation, but there's an organization called Sky Root who was established in 2010, one of the oldest one, it's developing launch systems for, and in fact it conducted last year, the very first suborbital launch from a launch vehicle produced by a private sector player. It was launched from ISRO launch site, Sriharikota, but it's well underway. Bellatrix, it's another company founded in 2015 located in Bangalore and it's developing propulsion systems for spacecraft and satellites, mostly ion thrusters. Another Hyderabad-based company, Dhruva Space, it was founded way back in 2012, and I remember contacting Sanjay, one of the founders back then. Now it's really a multi-million going concern. They build tele satellites and they're going to be building them at a very high rate, very large and more complex satellites as well, not just the small peak of satellites. There's a company called Agnikul, and it's producing a mobile launcher facility. Its key innovation is that it's building using 3D printing technology, which is the way that I suspect in future many things will be built. And just one more, Pixxel, that's another Bangalore based company founded in 2018, and it's using a lot of small satellites, but producing images of the earth through remote sensing in hundreds of spectral wavelengths, and that's producing the value in processing that data. So there's going to be plenty of companies that just analyze data that's been produced or attained from spacecraft. But one lastly very important thing I want to mention is this guy who's in charge of this organization called IN-SPACe and IN-SPACe allows any private space operator to develop through a single door, get all the clearances that they need to produce whatever it is they're working on. It's an Indian businessman, he's called Pawan Goenka. He has a lot of private sector experience, and that's quite an interesting thing. He comes from outside ISRO. And he's Indian, studied in India, but then he went abroad, did his PhD at Cornell, studied at Harvard, worked for General Motors, and they put him in charge of this interface between the private sector and ISRO. And I'm really impressed, I've seen him a couple of times in these international conferences, and I think he's driving the kind of transformation that ISRO needs to go through. And I think that is what will show results in the rest of this decade.

Casey Dreier: Is that the bulwark against, I saw that ISRO is facing a budget cut from the Modi government despite all these new ambitions being proposed. What does that tell you about the political commitment to the Indian Space program writ large? Or is it purely, is it rhetoric or is it just really going to be the reformation of the bureaucracy that's going to be the key feature moving forward?

Gurbir Singh: Bureaucracy. Where did you see the reference to the budget cut?

Casey Dreier: I saw a news article I can send you. It looked like a 12% cut proposed for ISRO that happened not long after Chandrayaan-3 landed.

Gurbir Singh: Yeah, I mean these things will happen. I'm not quite sure what motivated that. I suspect there is some specific project that that money is being targeted at, but ISRO's losing out. But generally over the last decade or so, ISRO budget has been increasing every year. It's about one and a quarter, one and a half billion US dollars annually. The Gaganyaan program itself, just as a standalone, it's a multi-year program, has also been awarded about one billion US dollars. And there was some unspent budget from 2020 and 2021 when not much happened. So this is all as well as politics and economic, this funding and where it goes, it's very difficult to get the finger on where the money's coming from or where it's going to. But I suspect that the reports I've read, the Indian economy is doing really well relative to, especially in many of the other Western countries. So economic growth this coming year should see that budget increase in the next year.

Casey Dreier: So I take your point, it's a complicated and multifaceted set of inputs here, and I think everything we've talked about today, really in that context of recent growth in ISRO's budget, the ambitions themselves, it just seems like you don't go back from this in terms of a national expectation for what the space program does. And the addition of human space flight, the success of Chandrayaan and the Mars Orbiter Missions seem to feed directly into these grander ambitions, not just with the government funded space station and launch attempt to the moon, but also what you talked about in terms of this growing dynamic private and commercial space industry, that this all seems intertwined. And that to me is maybe the most exciting shift, at least in terms of rhetoric for the Indian Space Program over the last 20 years. This move beyond peer practicality, if that's even accurate to say into this grander ambition to say, we need to be present on this broader cosmic stage.

Gurbir Singh: Absolutely. And one of the things that's happened of recent years, and this is as you say, it's very dynamic given that Russia, apart from its interactions with the International Space Station, it as a launch service provider, has pretty much gone to zero, for example, there's nothing being launched from the Roskosmos element in Guyana. So this is one. You saw earlier this year, ISRO stepped in and launched two of its heavy lift vehicles, the LVM3s and put one web satellites into low earth orbit, did it twice. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Chandrayaan-3 was delayed. So I think what India's doing as well as the opening up of the internal markets to private sector, it's also a feeling quite buoyant about what it can do for the international space community. The whole idea of having a launch capability and building satellites is that you can do it for commercial basis. And I know we think about national space agencies, particularly those involved in space exploration as being a net sink for funds. But there is plenty of scope, I think in the coming years that India, maybe not ISRO, but India will make a lot of economic developments through its space activities on a global scale.

Casey Dreier: Gurbir Singh is the author of the Indian Space Program, a book that I just want to say I really enjoyed and highly recommend to anyone fascinated by this topic and the growing capabilities and presence of India in space. Gurbir, how can people find you online? You're quite findable, but why don't you plug your writings?

Gurbir Singh: The web address for me is, and that's spelled G-U-R-B-I-R. And if anybody's interested in the podcast, I do that on

Casey Dreier: That's great. Thank you so much for being here this month. I hope to have you back in the future.

Gurbir Singh: Great talking to you.

Casey Dreier: Hi, it's Casey again. Just wanted to say thank you for joining us this month. As always, you can find more episodes, all of the episodes in fact of the Space Policy Edition, as well as our sister show, the Weekly Edition of Planetary Radio, all at You can also find us on all the major podcast networks. And I'd just like to encourage you, if you like the show, please make sure that you're subscribed to it. And if you really like it, consider dropping a review for us on those major distribution networks. It really helps us get found by others. The Space Policy Edition is a production of The Planetary Society, an independent nonprofit space outreach organization based in Pasadena, California. We are membership based and anyone can be a member like you. Memberships start at just $4 a month at I hope you consider that, support this show and all of the other great work that we do at The Planetary Society. So until next month, ad astra.