Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken up for Isro, attending important satellite launches and celebrating the achievements of Indian space science, especially the Mangalyaan mission. Now, his government has taken the hint. Reportedly, Isro chief K.S. Kiran Kumar has been approached by 45 secretaries in 30 days, a pleasant surprise for an organisation accustomed to petitioning government and industry to use its technologies and services. To brainstorm, the department of space proposes a conference next month to explore the technology needs of 70 government departments.
Space organisations like Isro are generally perceived as suppliers of remote-sensing data and communications platforms. Isro does provide data for weather forecasting, water conservation and mapping crops, minerals, forest cover and other resources. Its communications network delivers telemedicine, distance education and media. However, the design and fabrication of space systems, and even the infrastructure to develop them, offer spinoffs that can accelerate development or be commercialised by industry. The political and economic lead that the US took during the Cold War was perceived to be driven, in part, by technologies developed by — and for — the space race. Nasa created or perfected several technologies that we take for granted today. It was a pioneer in video imaging and transmission techniques, which found use in satellite TV. It perfected the smoke detector, and the cochlear implant was born of its signal processing technology.
Isro contributes to the material sciences, using its experience with ceramics, refractories, structurals and coatings, which space components need to survive the hostile environments and massive accelerations that they are exposed to. Besides, communications hardware and electronics designed for space can be spun off into cheap market products. As it grows, Isro will have an endless stream of technologies and methodologies to offer. While India has become the liveliest player in the space race, Nasa, the old hand in the US, is still spinning off new technologies. Its latest public contribution is the cloud computing platform, OpenStack, in which almost all major IT brands participate, and whose users range from Walmart and BMW to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. In that light, Isro’s story has only begun. The possibilities are limitless.