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Indian startups prepare for country's first manned space missions in 2022

Indian startups prepare for country's first manned space missions in 2022
Photo Credit: Skyroot Aerospace
20 Dec, 2021

Even as India is readying to launch humans in space in the next couple of years, the government is likely to tweak its draft 'Humans in Space Policy 2021' document to include private space-tech startups in the programme, say industry experts.

Pawan Kumar Chandana, chief executive officer of Indian space startup Skyroot Aerospace, believes the Indian space policy in 2022 will define the role that private startups will play in the nation’s human spaceflight ambitions. “The space policies expected in 2022 include space transportation, humans in space policy, remote sensing, satellite communications and much more. The humans in space policy will apply to private players as well, and most of the upcoming regulations will be focused on catering to private entities in the space ecosystem,” he asserted.

Skyroot Aerospace, alongside fellow startup Agnikul Cosmos, are two Indian space startups that are building their own rockets. Both recently showcased and test-fired their engines, of which both are largely made on Indian soil. Both Skyroot and Agnikul Cosmos are set to launch their first rockets into space in 2022.

Chaitanya Giri, founder of space analysis and intelligence firm Dawon A&I, concurred that the Indian spaceflight policy defining the role of private entities in human missions will likely come “at the juncture of the two uncrewed Gaganyaan test missions scheduled for 2022.”

The Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), however, was yet to respond to an email for a comment on its upcoming policy at the time of going to press.

Jitendra Singh, union minister of state for the department of space and atomic energy, recently told Parliament that Gaganyaan--India’s manned space mission--will launch in 2023. The first manned Gaganyaan mission will take place in early second-half of 2022. The second uncrewed mission, scheduled for the end of 2022, will include Vyommitra--a humanoid robot developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).

India's own space station, meanwhile, is being earmarked for the year 2030, Singh further stated at the Parliament.

While the private Indian space industry, which includes space-tech startups, is expecting directives from the government on their specific roles in manned missions, they do not expect the missions themselves to take off any time soon due to lack of adequate funds for private startups, and the government’s need to understand the sector better.

“I see a horizon of 2035 and onward for human spaceflight involving private Indian players. The government needs prior expertise in this sector, and they already have bigger money bags than private players. The 2030 Indian space station plan, which would follow the Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission, will happen within the government’s overview. This will be an inter-ministerial mission. Protocols and mechanisms from multiple ministries working on such projects would then be carried forward -- to allow in private startups and industry players gradually,” explained Giri.

Homegrown space-tech startups, however, are not waiting--they already have plans involving human spaceflights. “We are into manufacturing rockets, and one of the very attractive long-term markets is human transport -- be it for tourism, exploration or other space-based services. This will be a natural evolution for us, but we’ll take time to mature to a level when we can launch human missions,” Chandana said.

Giri, however, cautioned that while the prospect of human spaceflight from Indian soil is attractive, the sector must not become overly dependent on it.

“The Indian space industry must not depend heavily on its civilian space programme. For commercial services, we should try to make sure that areas such as manufacturing of satellite constellations are facilitated in India -- instead of purchasing or sourcing from a foreign entity. We must ask questions around why launches are to be held from foreign soil -- and why our own Isro’s PSLV is not to be used for the launch?”

Giri added that private space players in the country can boost their revenue to eventually build up to human missions by "picking-up commercial contracts, and catering to the country’s own defence sector’s space-related needs".