Market-driven Space Programmes lift the game

Vasudevan Mukunth – 

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is a state-backed, not market-driven organisation, while its two launchers were conceived 30 to 40 years ago to meet specific domestic needs.

After the PSLV C37 Mission was successfully completed on February 15, multiple articles published in the media have been full of praise for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Granted, the C37 launch was awe-inspiring in its numbers and lent itself well to chest-thumping celebrations about how awesome ISRO is; but the words that many media outlets reserve for ISRO and its feats often give the impression that they believe that the organisation is actually free from any blame, stain or fault.

This will not do.

Unique Mission

At the same time, this is not to say that ISRO is doing badly.

By all means, it did a wonderful job of the C37 mission, which was a unique example of how launch complexities need not be confined to the flight path or complex manoeuvres but can also include logistics, mission planning, payload integration and so on.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) also has almost three dozen consecutive successes (in operational missions); the advanced CE20 cryogenic engine is almost ready after over 15 years of development; and the Indian space programme has launched an interplanetary probe and a space telescope, explored the moon, lifted over 200 satellites from 19 countries, and is planning advanced scientific missions to Mars and Venus.

But on the flipside, efforts to establish the significance of these accomplishments have increasingly led analysts in the media to compare ISRO’s launch costs with that of Roscosmos, Arianespace and SpaceX. They launch the Proton, Ariane 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, respectively. Specifically, many analysts compare launch costs of the PSLV – and not the GSLV Mk-III, whose first flight is due this year – with these rockets.

Comparison problems

There are two problems here. First: The PSLV is a low-lift launch vehicle that cannot deploy more than 1400 kg of payload to the geostationary transfer orbit (GTO, 35,786 km above sea level). In contrast, Proton can carry 6300 kg; Ariane 5, 10500 kg; and Falcon 9, 8300 kg – all to the GTO.

Second: It is often cited that it costs ISRO US$15 million to launch the PSLV and that it costs SpaceX around US$62 million to launch a Falcon 9.

Notwithstanding the first point, these numbers do not stand for what it costs to purchase a kilogram on board these launchers. And in ISRO’s case, no one knows these numbers anyway, so claiming that PSLV is a ‘low-cost launcher’ would be premature.

No commercial sense

NewSpace enthusiast Narayan Prasad said, “In the present model of engaging the local space industry in India, there is no extensive commercial exploitation of space infrastructure due to lack of deregulation and privatisation. Therefore, there is heavy reliance on the government for either space infrastructure to host services or orders to manufacture parts and systems.” An important, though not the only, step in alleviating this situation was ISRO’s decision to outsource PSLV launches from 2020 to a consortium of private industries led by Antrix.

For another, on the policy-making front itself, lawyer Ashok G.V. has argued, “The discretion vested with the committees and bodies under the (satellite communication) norms do not come with deadlines prescribed for authorising (private parties to) launch satellite systems, nor is there an explicit policy framework for the exercise of such discretion – which potentially violates Article 14 of the Constitution.”

And so forth.

Vasudevan Mukunth is the Science Editor at ‘The Wire.’ The above article, (under the title, Why ISRO’s Rockets Are Not Competing With Falcon 9 or Ariane 5) is a highly edited version. The full text appears in our web edition ( and (February 18, 2017). Established in India on May 10, 2015, as an editorially and financially independent entity, ‘The Wire’ is committed to promoting the values of democracy and journalism.


The launch of PSLV C37 Mission at Satish Dhawan Space Centre located in Sriharikota, a barrier island off the Bay of Bengal coast off Andhra Pradesh on February 15, 2017.

Add a Comment