The recent announcement that the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) may outsource the manufacture of communications satellites and launch vehicles marks a paradigm shift. The space agency needs to focus on research to meet ambitious targets like its planned Mars Mission, Chandrayaan II, developing higher-powered satellites and so on. If outsourcing enables designs to be re-engineered cost-effectively, it will help free up Isro’s funding and human resources for research and development (R&D). Isro has always outsourced components. It has dozens of successful communications satellite launches. The polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) is a workhorse of proven reliability. So it is not illogical to tender out for entire vehicles and systems and hope to maintain quality while saving costs. Given a competitive and level playing field, India Inc can surely make PSLVs and communications satellites cheaper.
Outsourcing would bring Isro closer to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in spirit. Astronaut Alan Shepherd once remarked, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realise that one’s safety was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” But counter-intuitive as it may seem, Nasa’s tendering policy not only enabled the US to decisively overtake the Soviet Union in the space race, it also forged an awesome industrial complex. Given a hunger for government largesse, competition for Nasa tenders drove innovation. Nasa set specifications and did proof-of-concept designs. The private sector filled in crucial details. The debut of Space-X’s Dragon – a privately designed shuttle – suggests that the private sector can develop end-to-end capability over time. The competencies developed in the space race were soon adapted for generic use. Apart from advances in miniaturisation, material sciences, IT, robotics, digital imaging, electronics, avionics, and communications equipment, technologies developed for space contribute to every modern walk of life. Micro-tip pens, barcodes, plastic lenses and bottles, quartz watches, assorted medical gear, sports equipment, water filters, smoke detectors and cordless power tools all originated from Nasa. Isro could buttress similar innovation, albeit on a reduced scale, given its more modest budgets. Unquestionably, Isro must ratchet up its R&D focus. To run successful Mars and lunar missions, it will first have to develop reliable cryogenic engines, and also advance its super-computing and telemetry capabilities, as well as push boundaries in terms of the use of solar power. This could come faster if it taps into the wider industrial landscape.
The danger is cronyism in the name of outsourcing. The Antrix-Devas controversy, where retired Isro personnel allegedly received a contract in opaque fashion, was a case in point. Space technology is not only cutting-edge; it has huge security implications. It is, thus, very easy to construct pre-qualification norms to exclude all but a few insiders. That must not happen. The examples of Nasa and the European Space Agency show that it is possible to construct transparent, competitive tenders that address security concerns. Isro must find a way to enable innovation while avoiding charges of favouring those within a charmed circle.