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What If ISRO Had the Same Budget as NASA? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
What could ISRO achieve with the same budget as NASA? Join us... and find out!

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is fast becoming the next space superpower! With past missions including the Mangalyaan Mars orbiter and the Chandrayaan moon mission... it has future plans for a Venus probe, an all new space station AND its first ever crewed missions! But what could the Indian space program achieve if it had 10x as much money to work with?
Transcript

What If ISRO Had the Same Budget as NASA?


The Indian Space Research Organisation has masterminded some crucial space missions in recent years. It’s sent headline-making probes to the moon and Mars, and now has plans to go much further. Along the way, however, it has always worked with limited funds… so what if that were to change?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if ISRO had the same budget as NASA?

Ever since its creation in 1969, the Indian Space Research Organisation (or, ISRO) has prided itself on getting results as efficiently as possible. A key figure and driving force in its early years was one Vikram Sarabhai, a leading scientist today remembered as the Father of Indian Space Travel. Sarabhai served as the first Chairman of ISRO, and under his watch India emerged as a new voice in space - at a time when the US and the Soviet Union were at the peak of the space race. We took an in depth look at the rise and rise of ISRO in another recent video, so check that out after this one… but one of the key themes set out by Sarabhai was success without overspending.

From the beginning, ISRO knew it couldn’t economically compete with other space-faring nations, but it believed that it could still have an impact technologically - and so it has proven! Today, in many ways the landscape hasn’t changed all that much. America and Russia still have two of the highest profile space agencies on the planet, and ISRO is still one of the lowest spending of all major space organisations. The ISRO annual budget comes in at around two billion US dollars. For NASA, it’s more than ten times that, with twenty­-two billion dollars (in 2020). And yet for all NASA’s recent achievements, ISRO has had undoubted success, too.

In 2008, Chandrayaan-1 became the first Indian probe to orbit the moon. Then, in 2014, the Mangalyaan probe successfully entered orbit around Mars - a feat that ISRO impressively achieved at the first time of asking. In 2017, ISRO launched 104 satellites into the sky aboard just one single rocket, a then-world record. Meanwhile, in 2015, it launched Astrosat, India’s first space telescope, to get an even better view of the universe. So, what happens if you take all of those missions and throw a NASA-sized budget at them? What if ISRO had ten times as much money?

With real world finances, India’s future plans in space include a long series of Earth observation satellites dedicated to investigating our climate and oceans; another Chandrayaan mission, this time aiming to soft-land on the lunar surface; another Mars orbiter mission; breakthrough probes to Venus, Jupiter and the sun… plus ISRO’s first ever crewed mission, with the Gaganyaan spacecraft scheduled for a delayed launch in 2023. Not bad for one tenth of what NASA gets!

That last one, though, is most likely where we’d see the biggest change if India’s budget for space travel were suddenly to boom. As of early 2021, the number of Indian astronauts is still very low compared to other nations. Rakesh Sharma became the first when, in 1984, he was one of a three-man crew on the Soviets’ Soyuz T-11 mission to the Salyut 7 space station. But India falls well short of the likes of the US, Russia, Japan, China, Germany, France, and more when it comes to this particular measure of space travel. And ISRO has never launched a crew in its own spacecraft before.

That’s set to change with Gaganyaan, however, a soon-to-launch, state of the art vehicle that will carry three ISRO astronauts - or vyomanauts - on a continuous route around Earth, 250 miles above the ground, for around seven days. Of course, safety is paramount, and India has a proven track record when it comes to making as few mistakes as possible… so the mission won’t be rushed. It has already been knocked back from an original launch date of late 2021, to a new target in the year 2023. Had it had a greater budget, though, we might’ve expected to have already seen an ISRO crewed spaceflight by now. Or even many of them. But, to what end?

The Chandrayaan program shows that ISRO does have a long-held interest in getting to the moon. And, in a time when most other modern-day agencies are debating crewed lunar missions once again - including NASA, Roscosmos, ESA and the CNSA - you might reason that an ISRO with ten times the funding would follow suit. But perhaps not. Arguably the biggest and most significant goal that ISRO has set itself for the near future is to build its own space station. So, if anything, it would probably put the extra cash towards that. Throughout history, ISRO has proven time and again that it’s a world leader when it comes to building and launching satellites… so a modular space station is an expected next step.

Little has been revealed about plans for the build so far, except that it will start between five and seven years after Gaganyaan. Naturally, if ISRO had a bigger budget, then that timescale would almost certainly shorten. It’s currently hoped that an Indian Space Station would be able to house a crew for up to twenty days at a time, at first, before stays on board lengthen as the station gets bigger and gains more functionality. Again, though, with a higher budget, all of that would likely happen much faster. And, once more, given ISRO’s reputation for succeeding with its main goals most of the time… we might expect this particular space station to grow and expand quickly.

In normal times, ISRO isn’t the only major agency with plans to build something to rival the now iconic ISS. China, too, has well-publicised ambitions to build its own space station, while Russia has said it also aims to re-enter this particular aspect of the new space race - with plans for an orbital station sometime in the 2030s. It remains to be seen how ISRO’s efforts will rank alongside these, but it’s a fair bet that in the real world they will be striving to compete on just a small percentage of their rivals’ spend. In an alternate world where India had NASA’s budget, however, ISRO could well leave the others for dust.

But, what about its other ambitions? The Aditya-L1 probe is scheduled to be India’s first solar mission. It’s hoped to launch in 2022 and will specifically study coronal mass ejections, the like of which very nearly caused a major geomagnetic storm on Earth in 2012. Meanwhile, the planned Shukrayaan-1 mission is a Venus orbiter, hoping to gauge a better understanding of the hellish Venusian atmosphere - with a launch date tentatively pencilled in for around 2025. But both also constitute joint ventures at the moment. Aditya-L1 is led by ISRO, but in collaboration with a number of private institutions and universities. The full funding for Shukrayaan-1 isn’t confirmed as yet, but there are ongoing talks between ISRO and the National Centre for Space Studies in France for a collaboration there, too.

If ISRO had NASA’s budget, would it still be so interested in partnering up with other companies or government-backed agencies? Perhaps not. As history has actually played out, ISRO has made it a trademark of theirs to be ready and willing not to go it alone. India’s success in space has often come via partnerships… particularly with the Soviet Union in the early years. It’s one reason why ISRO doesn’t yet have a public profile to match NASA’s, or even ESA’s or the CNSA’s. But, if the financial landscape was levelled between Indian and American space travel then, going by track record alone, ISRO could ultimately dwarf NASA in terms of achievements made. But would that make it a better space agency? Maybe yes, maybe no.

During a speech given in 1968, the ISRO founder Vikram Sarabhai said that there should be “no ambiguity of purpose”… that ISRO did not have the “fantasy of competing” with other, wealthier nations. But he also pledged that ISRO would play a “meaningful role… in the application of advanced technologies to man and society”. One fifth of the way through the twenty-first century, and few would argue that Sarabhai’s vision has been realised. ISRO is already at the top table of space travel, and it’s gotten there in its own way.

In general, if its budget were to increase tenfold, then that could only be good news. More ISRO missions equals more success stories at an ever-increasing rate! The entire solar system could suddenly seem a lot more accessible. But here’s hoping that this alternate version of the Indian Space Research Organisation would hold on to its key traits. More often than not, ISRO approaches space travel as though it should truly be a joint venture by the citizens of Earth. It’s why so many people are so excited by what it could achieve in the future. And hopefully that’s what would happen if ISRO had the same budget as NASA.
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