Is India The Next Space Superpower? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Is the rivalry between NASA and ISRO about to heat up? Join us... and find out!

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established back in 1969 (one month after the moon landings). In that time, however, it has emerged as a leading force for space travel... and could now be considered a space superpower! With past successes including the Mangalyaan Mars orbiter and the Chandrayaan moon mission... is it set to overtake NASA in the future?

Is India the Next Space Superpower?

The whole world knows about NASA. The American space agency was officially formed in 1958, and its long history is undoubtedly littered with iconic, ground-breaking moments. But, in the twenty-first century, is another space agency about to take the spotlight?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; is India the next space superpower?

Today, despite all the much-publicised cuts, NASA is the space agency with the biggest budget by far. But it’s certainly not the only successful space organization in the world. Russia’s Roscosmos has long stood as NASA’s most prominent competitor, followed closely (in more recent years) by the European Space Agency. Close behind and catching up very quickly, though, are the final three of the world’s big six agencies: The China National Space Administration, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation – the CNSA, JAXA, and ISRO.

ISRO currently has a smaller budget than five of those six - and is only just ahead of Japan - but as it was founded in 1969 it’s also older than most of them, too - except NASA. The Soviet space program does technically date back further… but Roscosmos in its current guise doesn’t, as it was only founded in 1992. ISRO was actually formed less than a month after the Apollo 11 moon landings… but according to the Agency’s leaders at the time, it didn’t have any intention of directly following in America’s footsteps. The scientist and astronomer Vikram Sarabhai is remembered as the driving force who most encouraged India to enter into space exploration. Sarabhai believed that though India couldn’t economically rival the likes of the US and Russia, it needed to develop advanced technology as soon as possible in order to earn a place on the international stage. It shouldn’t be left behind, because if it was it would suffer in the long-term.

First on the agenda for ISRO, then, was developing satellites. And designing (and building) the launch vehicles needed to send those satellites up. The satellites themselves turned out to be much easier and faster to build than most had anticipated, and in 1975 (just six years after ISRO was born) the first Indian satellite was sent into orbit. It was called Aryabhata and was launched with help from the USSR. It took another five years for India to develop a launch vehicle of its own, the SLV-3, but that first satellite was certainly remarkable… and is today held as a breakthrough moment for India in space.

Since then, though, ISRO has enjoyed many red-letter days, and has broken all kinds of records. Especially in recent years. In 2014, its Mangalyaan space probe, a Mars Orbiter Mission, successfully reached Martian orbit - making ISRO only the fourth agency to put an object into orbit around the Red Planet, after NASA, the Soviets, and the ESA. More impressively still, ISRO is also the only one to have managed that feat on the first attempt. China’s CNSA, by comparison, launched the Yinghuo-1 probe two years before Mangalyaan… but, despite the CNSA’s far larger budget, that probe failed to even get out of Earth’s orbit, let alone into Mars’. Elsewhere, in 2017, ISRO broke the record for the most satellites launched in a single rocket, when it sent 104 into space on PSLV-C37. Again, India had pushed itself to the top table of space.

It hasn’t all been unbridled success, however. Initially, India had a little less luck with its ongoing Chandrayaan lunar program, for example. The orbiter Chandrayaan-1 lasted just half of its intended mission duration… and the Vikram lander on Chandrayaan-2 mistakenly crashed into the moon (rather than soft-landing on it) to hastily bring that mission to a quick end, as well. Even so, ISRO still has a reputation for achieving a far higher success rate compared to other space agencies. Some of this is by design, some is because it’s attempting things after other organisations have already honed a method. The Soviet Union, for instance, didn’t have a successful Mars mission until Mars 3 in 1971. That was eleven years after its first attempt in 1960… but also forty-three years before India’s Mangalyaan Orbiter.

Nevertheless, because ISRO isn’t trying to directly compete with Russia or America, and because its budget is smaller than all other major agencies, it has always prioritized being cost-effective and efficient. Moving gently through space to ensure as little goes wrong as possible. It may seem like trying to save money is at odds with space exploration, but the results are beginning to speak for themselves. In recent years, ISRO has opened up to working with private space firms. It offers space start-ups an alternative to the often-costly partnerships with American or European agencies. And, while some of these start-ups will inevitably fizzle away… some will continue to grow, and it’s ISRO’s plan to be right at the heart of it. To become a hub for modern space travel. All while staying true to the philosophy set out by Sarabhai in the 1960s; success on a small budget.

In 2020, ISRO spent only $1.9 billion US dollars on its various initiatives. By contrast, NASA parted with $22 billion dollars. More than eleven times as much. Which isn’t to say that NASA’s way is the wrong way. It is, after all, still comfortably the world leader when it comes to space travel. But ISRO has still managed to enter the conversation in a big way, even without the big pay-out. As Sarabhai had hoped, the Indian space program has earned its place on the international stage. And, as ISRO’s first crewed mission, Gaganyaan, is on track to launch in 2022, all eyes are on India to see whether it will again be successful.

But, still, there’s arguably some distance to go between where it is now and a potential space superpower status in the future. If the Gaganyaan mission does go ahead, India will become only the fourth country in the world to send an astronaut into space on a craft they built themselves - after Russia, the US, and China. If that’s a measure of becoming a superpower, then India is well on track… and looks set to reach that milestone very soon. As of 2020, it also has the fourth-highest number of satellites in orbit around Earth… and is one of only four countries with more than 100 in operation (again alongside America, Russia and China). On the other hand, while there have been more than 100 astronauts aboard the International Space Station since it started hosting crewed missions in the year 2000, not one of those astronauts has been from India. In some ways, ISRO is becoming more and more a mainstay in space, but there are still ways in which it could improve, and ways in which it could increase it’s off-Earth influence.

What’s clear is that the foundations for ISRO are extremely solid. It has a long, busy and mostly successful space travel history. India, as a nation in general, is also a world leader by various other measures. It’s the second-most populous nation in the world, with only China ahead of it, and is one of only two countries with a population of more than a billion people. It’s also a nuclear force, with around 150 warheads at its disposal. So, as space travel progress has historically gone hand-in-hand with weapons development, India is well-placed there, as well. Considering too that India only gained independence in 1947, the progress made by ISRO is quite incredible. And it certainly dwarfs the progress made by the British space program, in the time since the British Empire withdrew shortly after World War Two.

The twenty-first century has in general seen a renewed interest in space exploration all around the globe… but perhaps nowhere more so than in India. ISRO may have been founded too late to compete with the Americans and the Soviets in the original race to the moon… but with the US, Russia and China all planning new lunar missions in the near-future, India is clearly and confidently entering the fray as well. ISRO also has its own plans for Mars, as well as an ever-growing list of private companies and initiatives that it is backing, supporting and partnering with.

We should expect to hear about vyomanauts more and more frequently over the next few years. Vyomanaut is the title given to ISRO astronauts, just as Russia has its cosmonauts… so, with crewed missions approaching ever closer on the horizon, these will be the people tasked with turning a nation’s cosmological dreams into a pioneering reality. Now, it’s very much a case of watch this space. Because that’s why India is on course to become the next space superpower.