Milind Deora column: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch sets the stage for India with new opportunities

SpaceX is merely the beginning, and we can expect to witness a massive industry for space exploration to bloom in the next couple of decades.

The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket on 6 February, orchestrated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, was ground-breaking and revolutionary in more ways than one. SpaceX was established to explore the possibility of human colonisation of other planets, particularly Mars, and to find cost-effective methods for space travel and exploration. Falcon Heavy has brought us one step closer to both.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur - HP1EE27008RO6

SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Reuters

The most powerful operational rocket to have been invented, Falcon Heavy, with its reusable boosters, has the capacity to lift nearly 1,41,000 pounds of payload into orbit at a record low cost – at $1300 per kg of payload, as against the space shuttle’s $60,000 per kg.

Since the very beginning of space exploration, it has only been government agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States that have led breakthroughs and inventions. The Falcon Heavy launch is monumental particularly because it is a reflection of what the future looks like for private sector-led innovation in space, truly the last frontier left for mankind to conquer. The US has allowed private competition to flourish in this space, and we’re witnessing cutting-edge competition between the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, battling to find cost-effective ways to discover and unravel this final frontier.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established only eleven years after NASA, but our country’s financial limitations have been a barrier in spearheading the kind of innovation that NASA has showcased. Nevertheless, because of those very limitations, we have often been forced to find innovative ways to navigate around them in order to stay competitive. The Mars Orbiter Mission is a case in point. In order to overcome technological shortcomings and operate on a record-low budget, ISRO used the Hohmann transfer orbit method, better known as the “slingshot” method, where the Mangalyaan was made to orbit around the Earth six times to gather the velocity to be catapulted towards Mars.

ISRO has made global headlines several times with their successful deployment and execution of such missions, led by a talented and innovative pool of engineers and scientists. I see no reason why India can’t at the very least piggyback on this revolution in the US and the world, if not to establish companies rivalling SpaceX, then to transform the country into a hub for research.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy. SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy. SpaceX

SpaceX is merely the beginning, and we can expect to witness a massive industry for space exploration to bloom in the next couple of decades, from colonisation of planets to drilling on asteroids and everything in between. There is time for India to take action in spearheading some of these innovations and become important players in the space industry.

The argument that space exploration or travel is a niche market in India does not hold, because it is a truly global market that transcends geographical and national boundaries. Innovation in this industry cannot be equated to the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix or Uber. It is not hard to imagine why these companies were birthed in Silicon Valley, given its competitive advantages and inherent efficiencies such as test markets and the like. These products were developed for the American consumer and then tweaked to suit the tastes and practices of other markets.

Innovation in space is not subject to standard business practices. You’re building a product not for an individual market, but for mankind as a whole. This is important because innovation can stem from any part of the world, it can arise from within India itself. Our talented pool of aeronautical and aerospace engineers and scientists have the capability to attract global capital and lead innovation without having to compete with Silicon Valley, because they have to cater to global demand and not the Indian market specifically.

The stage is already set for India to take advantage of this burgeoning market – ISRO has an exciting space program, several Indian start-ups are attempting to penetrate this market, and for the very first time, the private sector is poised to lead efforts in space exploration and travel. India has the potential to take charge in conquering this final frontier and compete with the US, and even overtake China and Russia because we have a much more robust private sector than the latter two.

As coders and IT persons slowly get replaced by artificial intelligence, the space industry could very well prove to be the next revolution to re-energise services, manufacturing and employment in the country.

The author is a former member of Parliament and has served as minister for communication and IT, and shipping and ports.

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