With an emphasis on ‘frugal innovation’, the space agency, which has written its name in the stars, touches hundreds of millions of lives every day

Think of Indians in various walks of life: a fisherman setting out to sea hoping for a good catch; a soldier in remote Siachen in urgent need of medical assistance; a farmer for whom accurate monsoon forecasts are the difference between a bountiful crop and a dismal one; and students in rural India, with lessons beamed into their classroom.

All these disparate characters are connected by the cosmic thread of an Indian scientific organisation that is reaching for the stars, quite literally, and touches the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians every single day.

That agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the BusinessLine Changemaker of the Year – 2020, has burst into the exclusive club of international space research organisations, on the strength of its frugal innovation and indigenous science capability.

Indicatively, fisherfolk benefit from bulletins on Prospective Fishing Zones (PFZs), put out by the Indian National Coastal Information System (INCOS), which harnesses space technology to identify fish-rich zones where fishermen stand the best chance of netting a good catch. People in areas under-served by medical infrastructure — including rural areas (and Siachen!) — benefit from ISRO’s Tele-medicine programme, which started in 2001. Farmers profit from ISRO’s remote sensing satellite data on monsoon prospects and water availability. And students in rural areas expand their academic horizons through ISRO’s Tele-education networks, which facilitate TV broadcasts, video conferencing, and web-based instruction.

That’s not all. Even ATM and stock market operations derive benefits from ISRO’s space tech. Without risk of exaggeration, it is hard to visualise any area of activity that ISRO does not touch.

Then and now

India’s tryst with space began in the 1960s. An iconic image from 1966 of a rocket cone being carted on a bicycle at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thiruvananthapuram — and an equally striking one of a satellite payload being carried on a bullock cart in 1981 — bear testimony to ISRO’s austere origins.

Fast forward to 2017, when ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launched a record 104 satellites in one go, and the space agency’s giant leap in just half a century becomes self-evident.

From Aryabhatta, the experimental satellite launched in 1975, to Project Gaganyaan, which is gearing up to send Indians to space in 2022 to mark the 75th year of India’s independence, the hallmark of India’s space programme has been its low cost, frugal innovation, industry participation, and very high societal benefits.

Along the way, ISRO, which drives the programmes, has reached the moon, through Mission Chandrayaan; Mars via the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM); put a cluster of navigational satellites in orbit; built launch vehicles such as the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which can place over 4.5 tonnes of payload into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. It is now aiming for the sun.

It has not always been an easy ride, though. Failures have been the stepping stones to success for the untiring and motivated ISRO scientists. Right from Aryabhatta to SLV-3 and from GSLV to the latest Chandrayaan-2, the agency has faced many setbacks. But each time, it has bounced back.

Frugal innovation is the key

A defining characteristic of ISRO’s success is that all of its technology and materials are uniquely indigenous. “Our USP is our cost-effectiveness,” says ISRO Chairperson Kailasavadivoo Sivan.

Over 50 years, ISRO has realised the vision of Vikram Sarabhai and the founding leaders by improving the safety, security and quality of life of every Indian. “Our job now is to sustain this momentum in technology development, applications and achieve greater heights,” says Sivan.

The coming decade promises to be an intense one for ISRO. In addition to the Gaganyaan project, it is looking to dramatically improve its launch capabilities through the GSLV; build and place into orbit advanced satellites; and move into interplanetary missions, says Sivan.

ISRO’s budget runs to barely $1 billion a year, which is a shoestring compared to developed nations, but it has maximised value from this with a variety of societal applications of its technology.

In 1983, ISRO took the help of European commercial launch service provider ArianeSpace to launch INSAT (Indian National Satellite) from France’s Kourou Island. It opened up a world of communication options for India.

In the late 1980s, ISRO again depended on Arianespace to launch the Indian National Remote Sensing Satellite (INRSS). Remote sensing paved the way for mapping out large areas of the country and generation of data that can be harnessed in various spheres.

Decades later, in 2013, it surprised the world with its ₹450-crore Mangalyaan project, sending the MOM at a fraction of the cost that international agencies command for the service. That probe had a life expectancy of just over a year, but it is still orbiting the Red Planet.

Into the 2020s, the space agency is gearing up for more big missions: Chandrayaan-3 in early 2021; the Aditya mission to the sun, also by early 2021; and Mangalyaan-2 by 2023, says Sivan. It is also firming up a mission to Venus.

At the application level, ISRO has a hectic satellite launch schedule — its own and on contract — from the Satish Dhawan space port in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Cartosat, Risat, and GSAT will expand coverage of the earth and the oceans.

Catalysing space entrepreneurship

While developing cutting-edge technologies and harnessing ‘frugal innovation’, ISRO has given a platform for entrepreneurs and private partnerships, and has built networks with institutions through technology transfer or as suppliers of crucial systems in the programmes. In this way, it has helped develop sound infrastructure, capabilities and a reliable ecosystem.

More than 500 industries are involved in the development of launch vehicles and satellites. Over 90 per cent of the launch vehicle cost is accounted for by indigenised technology and materials. The PSLV is highly cost-competitive in the lucrative commercial launch market. So much so that the domestic industry has matured and is now venturing into building satellites.

Space and society

The Indian space programme had its grounding in applications to society right from the beginning. Among the first of these was the Indo-US Satellite Instrumental Television Experiment (SITE) programme of 1975-76.

The PFZ bulletins for fisherfolk, developed in the early 1990s, offer arguably the most visible impact of space technology on communities. The information on fish-rich shoals helps fishermen save ₹15,000-20,000 crore a year as they do not have to spend on fuel in search of a catch.

In recent years, fishing boats have even been fitted with a gadget that transmits messages about PFZs in the local languages. Videos on the mobile phone app additionally help the fishermen navigate to the fishing zones.

India’s space technology has focussed on making rapid development in communication, broadcasting, tele-medicine and education, says former ISRO Chairman AS Kiran Kumar.

The real fillip for large-scale applications began in 1983, with the launch of the INSAT series of geostationary satellites. The INSAT series’ purpose was to boost telecommunications, meteorology, broadcasting and search-and-rescue operations.

To get a measure of the impact, remember that in the 1980s, TV broadcasting was confined to just Doordarshan; the service was only in black and white. Colour transmission began in 1982, with the Asian Games in New Delhi. INSAT, with the availability of more transponders of the Ku and S band, increased the range of television offerings — and triggered the birth of the television entertainment industry. Direct to home (DTH) television became real. With the availability of high bandwidth and satellite links, television programmes reached remote corners, including the North-Eastern States and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Three decades on, television has virtually reached every home, with channels in all languages.

Accurate weather forecasts

Thanks to ISRO, weather reporting, cyclone warning and disaster mitigation have undergone a sea change. Given the impetus provided by INSAT and earth observation satellites, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has refined its monsoon forecast and daily weather bulletins to a high degree of accuracy.

In 1977, in the absence of a warning, more than 10,000 people died, in the cyclone that hit Diviseema in Andhra Pradesh. In 2014, by contrast, when Cyclone Hudhud blew into Andhra Pradesh, fewer than 100 lives were lost, thanks to to the early warning, and the precision with which the cyclone path was tracked in real time.

Perhaps the best examples of impactful grassroots application of space technologies relate to the Remote Sensing Satellite programme. Launched in 1988, the INRSS group of earth and resources imaging satellites has generated a wealth of visual data about the country’s resources.

Various ministries use these data sets: Project Bhuvan, ISRO’s web-based utility portal launched in 2009, gives thematic maps and data on agriculture, water resources, land cover, and so on. It provides a platform for the government to host geospatial data for public consumption. A citizen can get data on everything from cultural sites to highways to disaster management.

The FASAL project (Forecasting Agricultural Output using Space, Afro-Meteorology and Land-based Observation) plays an important contributory role in agriculture operations. Space technology helps authorities get fast and accurate data about the crop situation. It provides digital data, which can be analysed in real time for crop type, area estimates, conditions, damage and growth. The Mahalonobis National Crop Forecast Centre was also established in 2012.

Popularising science

ISRO also plays an active role in popularising science — and in helping students conjure up audacious dreams of using science for social good. When the Chandrayaan-2 mission got under way, ISRO ran a popular campaign to familiarise students and others with the mission objectives and other interesting insights. It used social media platforms to reach out to larger audiences. That millions of people sat through the night to watch the live launch on July 22 and followed its journey is testimony to the public interest it generated.

In this way, ISRO has rekindled interest in the moon among the youth and has engaged young minds creatively.

At another level, it has catalysed a number of start-ups contributing to various aspects of space technology. Small enterprises are building micro satellites and are even contributing mission-critical technology; they have now set their eyes on bigger satellites and even space travel.

From Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, with entrepreneurial energy increasingly being channelled in exciting space ventures, ISRO is poised to expand the horizons of human knowledge by flying into newer and unknown spaces of the universe, in order to harness technology to serve humanity.