Space has always provoked humankind’s curiosity. It is in the modern times that the boundless mysteries of the universe have also attracted the attention of economists and business people. Theories about space tourism, space capitalisation, asteroid mining, etc have emerged and rigorous attempts are being made to commodify the unknown. Along the same theories about commoditization of space, I had a conversation with Mr Ankit Bhatejha (AB) and AVM (Dr) Arjun Subramaniam (Retd.) (AS) who not only provided clearer insights but pointed out future prospects in the domain of space. Mr Ankit Bhateja is the Founder and Director of Xovian Aerospace, a manufacturing company that provides low-cost sustainable solutions in satellite fabrication. AVM (Dr) Arjun Subramaniam (Retd.) is a fighter pilot who recently retired from the Indian Air Force after 36 years in uniform.
Q. How have we evolved in terms of the way we understand space? In comparison to the 1955 Space Race, keeping in mind the current scenario, do you think that there is a possibility of countries going into a space race again?
(AB): When we talk about the Cold war, the significance of space was from a strategic point of view, where one country wanted to depict that they are way ahead in terms of technology. They wanted to showcase to the world that they were superior. That was the mind set back then. There was no viable business in space and therefore there was no monetization of space at that time. After the Cold war the two focused on developing basic technology that they needed for nation building, which were limited to satellites for weather forecasting, communication, and earth observation.
In the 2000s both these countries realized that they must use satellite technology not only for gathering information but also to explore space. They already had facilities such as radio, telecommunication, satellite television and therefore they wanted to advance into a program that delved into aspects of space exploration. This is when they launched missions such as the Voyager Program.
Talking about 2020, it is no more like being in a space race. Now it is the companies who have commercialized space to scale up their own business and the economy. After 2010 a few companies, mostly in the US and UK got the idea to commercialize space. We were seeing companies coming up with new satellites to supply data for developing the internet or improving maritime communication. Various other commercial applications of space technology have emerged.
Q. Is the main goal of space commodification to showcase power? Would countries use space technology as a weapon in war?
AB: Obviously these things represent ‘being more powerful’ but the main goal is to create deterrence: deterrence and gaining strategic advantage.
AS : There is a difference between militarization of space and weap- onization of space. We are now in a phase which is called militariza- tion of space which means how do you use space for military use. We are still far away from weaponization of space. Weaponization of space means you need to deploy weapons in space which is not easy. Having said that, recently Trump has set up a new space command. AB: Even India has.
AS: Yes, but I don’t think mankind is ready for war in space, at least in the next ten years. In fact, there is a treaty that forbids weaponizing space but no one can really stop a great power.
Q. What are the prospects for private companies in India? Is the government supportive of new ventures in space?
AB: In India we are at an initial stage where there are very few start ups in this field. There are private companies but most of them are vendors to the Indian space agency who supply components or parts of the satellite. Even companies like Godrej develops the vehicle to transport the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) from one place to another.
AS: Right now ISRO has a virtual monopoly. ISRO has demonstrat- ed a lot of performance, but for the next leap to take place we need more private companies in this field. The only problem is that invest- ments are huge and the private companies would require government support.
AB: The department of space directly comes under the surveillance of the President’s office. There is a genuine problem that hinders the government’s decision making capability. There are three types of companies- firstly, indirect space. Indirect space means that they are just taking the space base data and processing it. The government does not have any problem with such companies and they are work- ing well. Secondly – companies that have their hardware in space but are not of critical nature. Thirdly- companies who have hardware of critical nature such as rockets. The reason I am saying that start ups building rockets are of critical nature is because suppose if the government starts funding these start ups, they would ask for test facilities. If during the test, there is a blast and all the facilities get blown up, it will take another 2-3 years to develop it back again. Who will be responsible for the lag in time caused in the Indian space program?
AS: Exactly, the government should be able to protect innovation. There is high risk involved in this area. I don’t see the Indian govern- ment supporting any private ventures in the near future in these sort of high risk areas.
AB: We recently got a chance to meet the ISRO chairman and he said that the government would not support such startups due to the risk involved.
Vanshika Shah is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in International Relations