When we talk about technology, space, companies, we think about national agencies like NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos. We also talk about private companies like Space X and Rocket Lab. One entity we’ve refrained to talk about is ISRO, The Indian Space Research Organization.
Today where does ISRO really fit in? And what makes it so special?
First of all, it is not fair to compare ISRO with any other space agencies because ISRO has never possessed the ambitions or the funding like the other space agencies. NASA’s budget each year is 20 billion dollars, 7 billion for European Space Agency ESA, 3 billion for the Chinese CNSA and the Russian Roscosmos.
How much does India spend on ISRO?
Yes, it is a traditional National Agency much like NASA of The United States but it’s also at the same time extremely cost-conscious and result-oriented like, a start-up. so let’s talk about it.
Well, it’s not how much India spends it’s how much India invests in ISRO. For perspective, ISRO gets only 44 paise from India’s 100 rupees budget.
ISRO’s budget this year is only near 2 Billion Dollars. It’s only 3% of India’s three trillion economies. Think about it.
With a 285 billion dollar cash reserve, Apple could have funded ISRO with cash for a hundred and sixty-seven years.
That is how little ISRO spends every year and that is why comparing ISRO with NASA wouldn’t be fair.
However, this is not to say that ISRO has not achieved extraordinary results. ISRO has two of the most successful launches. The PSLV C37 in 2017 and the Mangalyaan in 2013.
Till Jan 2020, PSLV C37 had the record for launching the most satellites in a single rocket (104 satellites) and Mangalyaan successfully helped ISRO to become the fourth country to orbit Mars, even before the Chinese. And ISRO holds the record of the first and only country to reach Mars in a single attempt.
But none of the mentioned achievements comes close to what ISRO has spent for both missions with around 70 million dollars each. This reflects the core philosophy of ISRO, which is to be ambitious by the same time cost-effective. ISRO recycles to build cost-effective satellites at 60% cost and also saves one-third of the time.
Do you know how much ISRO spent on Mangalyaan Mission (MOM)?
Mangalyaan budget was only 61.7 million dollars. This means each person of India spent only 4 rupees to reach mars on the first attempt. More simplified, It cost ISRO only 7 rupees per kilometer. Auto rickshaws and taxis have more fare than that.
Even these movies had a bigger budget than ISROs Mangalyaan Mission
- Martian – 108 million dollars.
- Gravity – 100 million dollars.
- Inception – 165 million dollars.
- Avengers Infinity War & Endgame – 316 & 356 million dollars each.
In the 1960s the Soviet Union and the United States competed fiercely in the space industry which eventually accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. And now, the Chinese are catching up with the Americans.
While other space agencies compete to make the most powerful rockets in the world ISRO never seemed to care about that.
Just look at the evolution of its rocket launchers. They’re all humbly named SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicles).
Different variations indicated by the first letter represent different orbit.
- PSLV (Polar synchronous Orbit)
- GSLV (Geosynchronous Orbit )
This is the first clue of how pragmatic ISRO is.
The second clue is in its vehicle design. If you take a closer look at ISROs rocket evolution it looks almost like Space X. The only difference is that ISRO has more stable financial support from the Indian government and Space X had none.
But in terms of the approach to design launch vehicles, both organizations are very similar.
- SLV and ASLV were initiated in the 1980s and ASLV’s capability are similar to that of Falcon 1.
- The three versions of PSLVs have similar capabilities comparing to early versions of Falcon 9.
- The GSLV has capabilities somewhat catching on to Falcon 9 block 5.
None of them could be classified as a super heavy-lift launch vehicle like Falcon heavy and Saturn 5 but they’re all super reliable and most importantly very cost-effective.
What’s more impressive about the evolution of ISRO’s launch vehicles is their adaptability.
Take PSLV as an example. It has three versions
PSLV CA stands for Core Alone, Standard PSLVG, and PSLV XL all of them focus on polar synchronous orbit, which is around 600 kilometers altitude. customers can choose which variations of vehicles to use based on the size of the satellite. This is the beauty of a cost-effective launcher.
Solve problems with engineering solutions, not money – ISRO
Because of its focus on cost-effectiveness, ISRO also has to come up with brilliant engineering solutions to the problems it faces.
One famous example is its experimental mission to Mars.
On top of being the only successful Mars mission on the first try, ISRO had to perform six orbit-raising maneuvers over three weeks before heading to Mars. Its because the vehicle does not have enough power like the Falcon Heavy to send satellites directly to Mars. It slowly raises the orbit of the satellite before injecting it successfully into a heliocentric orbit to Mars. The engineering and the problem-solving behind it are truly amazing.
This I think captures the essence of ISRO’s success.
As the founding father of ISRO Vikram Sarabhai used to say:
There are some who question the relevance of space activities in the developing nation to us. there’s no ambiguity of purpose. we do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or men’s spaceflight. but we’re convinced that if we’re to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the applications of advanced technologies to the real problems of men and society.
I think this is the key to understand what ISRO stands for and how it differs from other space agencies and companies. It didn’t have the funding NASA had, it didn’t have the start of mindset an institution that Space X had. but none of this stopped ISRO from doing something extraordinary.
This just comes to show how important passion and dedication are for any organization.
Talking about ISRO makes me feel like a proud Indian. And it makes me really happy because it’s clearly made out of people who are passionate and dedicated. And above all an institution that encourages it to look forward to the future.
- Chandrayaan-3 – Lunar mission.
- Gaganyaan – Human spaceflight.
- SSLV – Small satellite vehicle.
- Reusable Launch Vehicle.
- NISAR Satellite.
- Shukrayaan 2023
NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar ) is going to be the most expensive Earth-imaging satellite. It will launch with the ISRO’s GSLV Mark-II rocket. India has launched 328+ satellites for more than 30 different countries earning 25+ million dollars in revenue. With ISROs talent and NASAs maximum funding NASA has a lot more plans with ISRO.
ISRO will continue to do great things it’s setting out to perform its first manned mission in 2022. Good luck…
Can you believe it? In the early days engineers of ISRO had to send rocket parts with their bicycles to assemble them for testing. This is the situation that had to deal with every single day. They don’t have a lot of resources well they do have is passion and dedication. They only achieved what they did the hard work and a lot of practice.
All it takes is for you to start small in order to achieve great things. ISRO knows at the very beginning that if it were to build huge Rockets like Saturn 5 it won’t work. It has to start with something manageable like the satellite launch vehicles in order to slowly become the giant it is now.