Insights into Editorial: Working on the ISRO principle
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket, has now set the global standard in a field in which only a few nations even dare to dabble.
- Its launch of 104 satellites from a single rocket was a world record most satellites launched at the same time from a single rocket. The country that comes second to us in this aspect is Russia, who is far behind with a maximum of 37 satellite launches from a single rocket.
- With the launch, India moves past Russia in terms of the sheer number of satellites launched by a single rocket. Russia now stands far second with 37 satellites in one single go, which it had achieved in 2014 using a modified inter-continental ballistic missile.
- This was India’s first space mission of 2017 and the most complicated one yet, considering the sheer number of satellites it carried.
- Of the 104 statelites that go into space, the PSLV-C37 rocket also carries a Cartosat-2 satellite which will be used to produce high-resolution images of the India. This will help in security and warn us against natural disasters.
- An earth observation Cartosat-2 series satellite and two other nano satellites were the only Indian satellites launched: the remaining were from the United States, Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan and Switzerland. Of the 101 foreign satellites launched, 96 were from the U.S. and one each from the other five countries.
- Till now Russia held the record of launching 37 satellites in a single mission, in 2014, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the U.S. launched 29 satellites in one go in 2013. Last June, ISRO had come close to NASA’s record by launching 20 satellites in one mission.
About the launch vehicle:
The XL version of the that was used for the satellite launch is known to have a 100% success rate. It had earlier been used in India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) after it had debuted in 2008 in India’s first attempt to reach moon, Chandrayan-I.
This is also not the first time that the PSLV has carried multiple satellites — it has achieved this feat 18 times. Before today, PSLV’s personal payload record was in June 2016 when it carried 20 satellites to space at once. The first time it carried a multiple satellite payload was in 1999, when a satellite each of South Korea and Germany along with an Indian satellite.
Comparison of ISRO with other space organisations:
ISRO has consistently been in the headlines over the last few years for its rapid developments in space technology, including the cheapest Mars mission ever designed and its indigenously built cryogenic engine that will be the first step towards putting heavier loads including humans and large satellites into space.
But how does ISRO stack up against other space organisations, both government and private?
There are two ways to assess this: technological developments and commercial growth.
- The Cold War era of intense rivalry between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics led to a “space race” after the USSR launched Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, in 1957. The two countries pushed each other to the limits to send ever-larger satellites and finally humans into space and to the moon.
- The European Union, Japan, Canada, Russia and the US jointly operate the International Space Station, a habitable artificial satellite. These countries also have the world’s premier space organisations that conduct both research and launches. While the US and Russia have scaled back on human spaceflight, China is still pursuing this technology. It sent its first astronaut into space in 2008. Neither the European Space Agency nor the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have independently sent humans into space.
- Along with these five, India’s is only the sixth space agency in the world to have complete launch facilities, to operate cryogenic engines and to send probes to extraterrestrial bodies.
- However, India still has a long way to go. Although it successfully sent an orbiter to Mars in 2013, and was the first country to achieve this on its first attempt, India is only just beginning to harness the potential of its cryogenic engine to launch Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles into space. These vehicles travel into higher orbit than PSLVs and can carry satellites weighing more than 2,000 kilogrammes.
But what is it about ISRO that makes it stand for excellence when a plethora of government agencies suffer from severe challenges in terms of capacity and execution?
Autonomy: ISRO is fortunate that it reports to the Prime Minister and his office rather than a line ministry. This has been critical to its success. ISRO, therefore, has a real autonomy that most other government agencies do not.
Geographical location: The geographical location of the organisation also matters in terms of creating an appropriate ecosystem to nurture excellence. Being located in Delhi will leave government agencies particularly vulnerable to the diktats of the parent ministry and the slow-moving, cautious culture of an omnipresent bureaucracy. ISRO, headquartered in Bengaluru, is distant from Delhi and immune from the capital’s drawbacks. More importantly, it is located in the appropriate geography in what is India’s science and technology hub. It has the right ecosystem to attract talent and build its knowledge capabilities more than most government agencies do.
Human capital: Human capital is critical to the success of an organisation. Unlike many government agencies which are staffed by generalists, ISRO is staffed by specialists right from its technocratic top management. ISRO is also more agnostic than most government agencies about cooperating with and working with the best in the private sector. The building blocks of many of ISRO’s successes come from outside the government system.
Learning the right lessons from ISRO’s example is crucial for India. The conventional view is that the government is poor in project execution and if one looks at the state of infrastructure or of the quality of public services that is not an unreasonable conclusion to reach. What ISRO shows is that it is possible, indeed feasible, for the government to build high-performing organisations/agencies.
Cutting-edge research and development in spheres where there may not be ready profits is one area the government should focus on building ISRO-like institutions. Defence could be one such. A completely reformed Defence Research and Development Organisation based out of Pune or Bengaluru (not Delhi) which reports to the PMO and which actively collaborates with the private sector would be worth considering. Or a central vaccine agency, based in Ahmedabad or Pune, which focusses on solutions to under-researched diseases.
The creation of high performing government bodies requires starting from scratch and focussing on a few basics: real autonomy from ministries, right geographical location/appropriate ecosystem, a team of specialists, partnership with the private sector and operating only in spheres where there is no alternative to government. The creation of a handful of such agencies could have a transformative effect.