Feature

Space-tech India is raring to take off, except it is short on ‘fuel’

Start-ups are working on small satellites, launchers, propulsion systems and geospatial data analysis; investors are interested but wary

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India’s first rocket launch in 1963 happened only after relocating a St Mary Magdalene church in what was then Trivandrum. The parishioners helped. At the research centre, with the church building converted to a workshop and cattle sheds to labs, the rocket was assembled with its parts transported on cycles and bullock carts. This country leapt into the space age with little more than enthusiasm and intelligence, and it is at a threshold once more. This is the era of private space exploration. This May, Elon Musk’s SpaceX even launched the first, commercial crewed mission to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center.

Understandably, startupreneurs across the globe want a piece. Does Indian enterprise stand a chance? A bunch of start-ups – Pixxel, Kawa Space, Astrome, Skyroot Aerospace and Bellatrix —and few investors think so (See: Reaching for the stars). They have planned their first phase of ‘launches’ between end-2020 to 2022, and have their fingers crossed. Not all are going to launch rockets and send out satellites. While some are indeed looking to develop miniature satellites and small launch vehicles, others are working on ancillary services (such as propulsion systems) and more are using data from satellites to provide insights to industries— from agriculture and infrastructure to mining and oil exploration.

Traditional vendors to ISRO such as Godrej Aerospace are taking note of this boom. In fact, Godrej Aerospace is setting up a new facility to cater to orders from these private enterprises, which began pouring in 2019. Their current capacity is tied up for the next five years with orders from ISRO, says the company’s vice president and business head Surendra Vaidya. According to a PwC-Antrix report, India’s $7 billion market for space technology is expected to reach $50 billion by 2024.

For now, India only has 2% market share in the global industry. This could mean plenty of headroom for growth, or plenty of room for improvement in our products and services. The jury, we must add, is still out on that one.

Beyond the Karman Line
Perh

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