Two years ago, the prime minister had foregrounded the Indian space programme by travelling to Sriharikota to congratulate the teams behind a landmark satellite launch. He had also endorsed its agenda of offering cheap launch services to the world by celebrating the economy with which the Mangalyaan project had been designed. But the launch of a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) from Sriharikota on Monday may have received an impetus from elsewhere, too. Nasa has dismantled its shuttle programme, and now Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies is at the forefront of the race to operate reusable space vehicles. It has already sent its craft to the International Space Station, but if ISRO can cancel out first mover advantage by slashing prices, it will gain access to a new and fast-developing market.
At Sriharikota, the prime minister had spoken of the distance that the Indian space industry had come from very humble beginnings, exemplified by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1970s photograph of the nose cone of a rocket being transported by bicycle at Thumba. The RLV is, similarly, at an early stage — Monday’s launch of the vehicle to low earth orbit only established the validity of the project. Innovation cycles move faster than ever before, but the target of a reusable, partly air-breathing two-stage shuttle which can hurl heavy satellites into space and land like an aircraft is still almost a decade away.
The Indian space programme must avoid the showmanship that marks space races. Two years ago, while lauding India’s capacity to launch satellites cheaply, the PM had also called for a SAARC satellite. But India should stay clear of such political projects. The reusable vehicle market promises to grow very rapidly and a space industry which pays for itself, operating commercially with private participation, is a much more attractive target.