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India reaches Red Planet, but red tape stymies space firms at home

By Reuters in New Delhi | China Daily | Updated: 2014-09-29 07:36

As India celebrated becoming the first Asian nation to reach Mars, S.M. Vaidya, head of business at conglomerate Godrej's aerospace division - which made the spacecraft's engine and thruster components - sounded surprisingly downbeat.

The mission was, indeed, a major achievement, he said, and one of which the state-run Indian Space Research Organization should be proud.

But a single trip to Mars was not enough to sustain a promising yet relatively small industry, he added, and ISRO should be doing more to foster it.

"Unless they fly more, they will not buy more from us," Vaidya said, shortly after news broke last Wednesday that Mangalyaan, Hindi for "Mars craft", had entered into orbit around the red planet, about 10 months after launching.

"How many Mars missions are you going to have?" he said.

India's successful mission, completed on a shoestring budget of $74 million, has boosted its prestige in the global space race and, back on Earth, raised the profile of Indian companies involved in the project.

But Godrej and some other firms are frustrated at what they say is the slow execution of projects and lack of government support, which are hampering India's efforts to compete as a cheaper option for launching satellites.

The Mangalyaan was built in 15 months with two-thirds of its parts manufactured by domestic firms such as Godrej & Boyce and India's largest engineering company, Larsen & Toubro.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he wants to expand India's 50-year-old space program.

The government has increased funding for space research by 50 percent to almost $1 billion this financial year.

India reaches Red Planet, but red tape stymies space firms at home

But the program is still small, and the small number of launches limits the growth potential of private companies that supply them.

Between 2007 and 2012, ISRO accomplished about half of its planned 60 missions, government data showed. The government cited "development complexity" as the reason for the delay in some missions.

Between 2012 and 2017 the target is 58 missions. The agency has completed 17 missions so far, and ISRO did not say why the number remained low.

Some company executives and experts do not see that changing anytime soon, with the absence of heavy rocket launchers, too few launch facilities and bureaucratic delays hampering growth.

Larsen & Toubro, which manufactured motor casings and the antenna for India's Mars probe, is more positive about working with the ISRO, saying it has opened doors to other commercial opportunities.

Space projects have helped enhance its expertise in other sectors such as defense and aerospace, including missile technology and welding, said M.V. Kotwal, president of L&T's heavy engineering division.

"Volumes of business (from ISRO) have been relatively small, of the order of $40 million over the last five years, but the technological fallout in terms of high-precision manufacture has been considerable," Kotwal said.

L&T has been working with ISRO for more than four decades, and 1 to 5 percent of its heavy engineering division's revenues come from ISRO.

Godrej wanted to explore opportunities with US and European space programs, but Vaidya said government-to-government clearances posed a hurdle.

"We don't want to be only dependent on ISRO," he said.

India's space program developed mainly after Western powers imposed sanctions after India's first nuclear weapons test in 1974.

Mayank Vahia, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, recommended that ISRO allow private companies more freedom to develop space technologies, saying the organization is excessively conservative.

"ISRO needs to put more faith in the industry to deliver the kind of technology they want," he said.

(China Daily 09/29/2014 page11)

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