India's space ambition is temporarily thrown off schedule by Covid-19

Brazil's Amazonia-1 being launched from India's Satish Dhawan Space Centre in February. PHOTO: INDIAN SPACE RESEARCH ORGANISATOIN/FACEBOOK

NEW DELHI - As China powers ahead with its space programme, India's space ambition has been temporarily thrown off schedule by the coronavirus pandemic, with its third unmanned moon mission delayed from this year to next.

In February, even before a devastating second wave of infections swamped the country, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chair K. Sivan refused to set a timeline for India's manned mission to the moon, earlier slated for a deadline of next year.

Even satellite launches from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, a rocket launch centre, have dipped, with one taking place so far this year and two last year, compared with six in 2019.

The last satellite launch, according to the ISRO website, was Brazil's Amazonia, with 18 co-passenger satellites, in February.

Space employees have, as with most other workers, been affected by Covid-19 measures.

India implemented a 21-day national lockdown last year during the first wave of the pandemic and now different states have announced lockdowns to control the far more serious second wave.

"Only employees manning critical functional areas have been asked to attend office. The ISRO centres have been asked to follow the local government's norms," Mr Sivan told Indo Asian News Service.

With plans that include a launch of a Venus orbiter in 2024 and a space station in 2030, India's space programme has been a focus of national pride, achieving many successes at a fraction of the cost spent by other countries.

In May 2014, India became the first Asian country to reach Mars with an orbiter costing around US$70 million (S$93.2 million) compared with the US$671 million spent by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Maven, which was launched the year before.

Cheaper satellite launches have seen India launching 342 satellites for 34 countries in over two decades.

India's Mars orbiter marked an important milestone in the space programme, progressing from satellite launches geared towards improving communication or weather forecasting to space exploration.

Amid many successes, there have also been setbacks, such as an effort to land a rover on the moon in 2019. The orbiter reached the moon but the space agency lost contact with the rover.

Last year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in an effort to build capacity and help propel the space programme, gave the private sector a bigger role, allowing it the use of ISRO facilities as well as more collaborations.

But even that has been hit by Covid-19.

"There has been much talk about the involvement of (the) private sector; however, no major proposals like ISRO sharing the PSLV (ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) technology with private players in order to privatise the PSLV launch are found happening in (the) near future," Professor Ajey Lele, a senior fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told The Straits Times.

"NewSpace India would have done better if the challenges from Covid were not there."

NewSpace India is ISRO's commercial arm.

Private space start-ups, too, have been impacted by the pandemic.

Mr Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder and chief executive of Skyroot Aerospace, which is developing a rocket for smaller satellites that can be assembled in one day, said that the pandemic had definitely forced a change of plans.

"We're put back by a couple of quarters while navigating the two pandemic waves as this has disrupted the supply chain significantly," said Mr Chandana.

This has not been all bad as the company has used the opportunity to establish trusted supply chains, he said.

"Also we had more time for design, which helped us in optimising our vehicle and resulted in significant cost and time savings. I would say we have come out stronger from the crisis," he added.

ISRO has also been doing its part in the Covid-19 crisis, sharing oxygen and the technology for an oxygen concentrator that it developed.

But experts said that once the second wave settles, the space agency might have to revise its timelines once again.

"India has a long tall goal that they have set out for themselves. We need a serious reality check to see where we are in terms of technological development and capability," said Dr Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank.

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