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Can ISRO do what SpaceX did?

The COVID-19 affected, first half of 2020, has been a productive period for the human spaceflight industry. On 25 April, Russian space agency, Roscosmos, launched the Progress logistics space capsule, bound for the International Space Station (ISS)[1]. On 5 May, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA), General Armaments Department, test launched its human-rated space capsule, Next-Generation Crewed Spacecraft, successfully. The PLA’s test launch is another step towards a successor to Shenzhou, its first crewed spaceflight programme, which can help build and operate the Chinese Space Station starting 2021[2].

The third and the most momentous flight was on 30 May, when private U.S. space company, SpaceX, successfully launched its newly-developed, human-rated, space capsule, Dragon-2, ferrying two astronauts to the ISS[3].

SpaceX’s Dragon-2 was the first astronaut launch from American soil and an American spacecraft after nearly a decade. This mission is notable for another achievement – becoming the first reusable, Two-Stage-To-Orbit (TSTO), heavy-lift, human-rated, space mission. The core-stage of the Falcon-9 launcher that launched Dragon-2, returned to the autonomous, space-port, drone-barge, within minutes after take-off.The Dragon-2 will return to Earth in three months, by August 2020, making the entire mission almost entirely reusable.

This is a landmark for low-cost human transportation to outer space and a culmination of NASA’s and the Pentagon’s diligent efforts for greater privatization and empowerment of the space sector. The ecosystem developed works well. NASA’s competitive civilian contractual projects such as the Commercial Orbital Transport Services, the Commercial Resupply Services and the Commercial Crew Program,as along with the Pentagon’s National Security Space Launch programme, have given new-age U.S. space-launch companies such as SpaceX surety of contracts, access to NASA and Pentagon launch sites, steady business growth, and  access to technological evolution.

These companies have many advantages over predecessors. First, they do not have a military or space-agency heritage; instead, they have a business culture completely immersed in commercial space activities. Second, they have a futuristic brand-appeal that attracts a young, driven, work force ready to toil at early-scale wages and on multiple career-progressing tasks. Third, they build most of their products in-house with near-flat management structures, seamless system engineering that uses automated systems and new cost-reducing technologies such as additive manufacturing (3D printing). Their final products have fewer number of parts and components, and the designs are simple with minimum instrumentation, making product integration simpler and quicker. Fourth, these companies work on the mantra of profit, and while the profit-margins are low as compared with their private-sector predecessors, their efficiency assures them business continuity and growth.

Finally, adding to these organizational advantages; these companies are cutting down the crew and logistics transport cost by focusing on partial or full reusability of space-systems, defining the rocket configuration strictly to TSTO and shunning expendable launch systems[4].

India should take serious note. The Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) expendable Polar Synchronous Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has enjoyed a steady and successful business run with medium-lift launches (~3.8 ton to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO)) for nearly two decades. With the corroboration of the agile, sustainable, and cost-effective business models and best practices set by new-age space transportation companies; Indian space-launch players such as Antrix, new startups, and the potential, private, industrial consortium that will build PSLV; will have to imbibe and surpass these models.

India’s private space-launch industry is likely to limit itself to small and medium-lift launch businesses. The responsibility of India’s heavy and super-heavy space-launch ambitions will remain on ISRO. The heavy-lift launch market was, for a long time, dependent on the flourishing business of launching communication satellites (>1.5 tonnes) to geostationary orbits. But the satellite communications market has significantly shrunk, and is awaiting technological revolution in the form of high-throughput performance by miniaturized communication satellites.Once communication satellites are miniaturized, their business will move to small satellite launchers. This business shift compels the Indian heavy-lift launch industry to garner contracts from new customers, as well as make their launchers cost-effective and appealing.

All of ISRO’s currently operational launch vehicles – the PSLV, GSLV Mk-II, and GSLV Mk-III – are based on modular expendable architecture where none of the modules ( boosters and the other three-or-four stages), can be reused. There have been some indications of ISRO building a reusable Vertical Take-off Vertical Landing (VTVL)[5], but there is no apparent headway on that front. ISRO has also overshot its scheduled landing experiment – the second of a series of four tests – with the Reusable Launch Vehicle space plane that was scheduled for 2019 [6].

The soon-to-be-operational, Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) is also a classical four-stage rocket with no scope for reusability for any of the stages, nor does it seemingly entail any of the VTVL capabilities[6].  The numerous space-launch companies and startups, could  develop a small-lift, reusable, TSTO-VTVL launcher. But, a heavy-lift, reusable, TSTO-VTVL will only be possible from ISRO’s domain capabilities.

New Delhi’s newly-initiated space liberalization[7] has generated enormous scope for the private sector to build spacecrafts and payloads for human spaceflight and planetary exploration, space observatories, space tourism and space-based micro-scale manufacturing.These new business opportunities can create an enormous demand and surety of contracts for the heavy-lift launch industry in India. To that end, ISRO should begin work on cost reducing elements – reusability and TSTO – for its ULV’s under-development, and move away from the pricier, expendable, launch system architecture. Individually, India’s private space launch companies can take a cue from global trends and absorb cost-effective best practices in the small satellite launchers they build.

The four astropolitical blocs – China, Russia, Europe and the U.S. – have identified low-cost TSTO and reusable heavy-lift space launchers as a critical technology and are working on them at a furious pace[refer Table 1]. They have already worked on several completely reusable Single-Stage-To-Orbit launcher concept designs. These blocs are not using that competence for engaging in a militaristic space race, but to contest for a greater economic footprint in outer space.

For India too, heavy-lift launchers will allow commercial human-led and robotic activities in Earth’s orbit, on the Moon, and thereafter on Mars. The successors of Gaganyaan, Chandrayaan, and Mangalyaan will have to emerge from strong public-private collaborations, where both sectors have equal opportunities to lead. Exploring the frontiers of space is now more than just a national aspiration limited to ISRO; it is a strategic nation-wide untapped opportunity that will propel the country’s economy.

Rocket Manufacturer Usability Rocket Configuration Space Capsule
Existing human-rated/potentially human-rated heavy-lift launch vehicles
Soyuz-2 Roscosmos/TSKSB Progress/NPO Lavochkin/ KB Khimavtomatika Expendable Three-Stage-To-Orbit Progress
Falcon-9 SpaceX Partially Reusable Two-Stage-To-Orbit SpaceX Crew Dragon
Long March-5 CNSA Expendable Three-Stage-To-Orbit Next-generation crewed spacecraft
Atlas-V United Launch Alliance (Boeing & Lockheed Martin) Partially Reusable Two-Stage-To-Orbit Boeing’s Starliner
GSLV MK-III ISRO Expendable Three-Stage-To-Orbit ISRO’s Gaganyaan
Upcoming human-rated/potentially human-rated heavy-lift launch vehicles
Angara A5P Roscosmos/Khrunichev/ KB Khimavtomatika Expendable Two-Stage-To-Orbit RKK Energia’s Orel
Vulcan-Centaur United Launch Alliance (Boeing & Lockheed Martin) Partially Reusable Two-Stage-To-Orbit Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaserand Boeing’s Starliner
Ariane-6 Airbus-Safran Launchers Partially Reusable Two-Stage-To-Orbit


Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] Retrieved from the Roscosmos website, 25 April 2020.


[2] Xinhua Headlines: China launches new Long March-5B rocket for space station program. Xinhua, 6 May 2020.

[3] A. Heiney, NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 Launch: ‘A Great Day for America’. NASA Commercial Crew Program. 30 May 2020. https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/2020/05/30/nasas-spacex-demo-2-launch-a-great-day-for-america/

[4] Note: The two-stage-to-orbit is a rocket configuration consisting of a large core stage and an upper-stage that carries the payload. This configuration is being pursued by commercial space launch companies for both their heavy-lift (>1000 kg) and small-lift (<1000 kg) launches.

[5] India’s ISRO seeking to develop ADMIRE VTVL Reusable Launch Vehicle. Space Watch Global.


[6] Department of Space, Government of India. 18 January 2019. http://pibphoto.nic.in/documents/rlink/2019/jan/p201911802.pdf

[7] Ministry of Finance, Government of India. Finance Minister announces new horizons of growth; structural reforms across Eight Sectors paving way for AatmaNirbhar Bharat. 16 May 2020. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1624536