India's Space Program - An Honest Analysis

GSLV MK3 (from ISRO)

Under the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat reform package, one important step of the Narendra Modi government was the opening up of the Indian space sector to private participants beyond the half open door that was available till then. Several people were very happy, and rightly so – private sector participation has importance in propelling space research in several countries which have significantly developed space programs. However, what it indirectly did was also put a spotlight on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in particular and the Indian space program in general, of which an honest, sobering analysis has been long overdue.

The Indian space program has been an evolution into itself, and has seen several important successes. However, it is also important to have a realistic assessment of where the program today stands compared to other nations in the game. The outlook of the space race is not just about the civilian aspect, but also includes military considerations today. However, this discussion will restrict itself to where the program stands vis-à-vis other nations. While some of this discussion may seem slightly jaded, it sheds light on several aspects where India truly lags behind adversaries, not to even name newly emerged players in the space.


Manned Missions – India Lags Behind China

India is planning to send its first manned mission, Gaganyaan in 2022. To that end, ISRO has also launched successfully the GSLV MK3 in 2014, a crew capsule that will be key to India’s manned mission. Vyommitra, the humanoid for this purpose, is also ready.

However, looking to our north, we see China far ahead on this, in fact having a major lead on even some other space powers like Japan. In 2003, China became the third nation after the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States to independently launch an astronaut into Earth's orbit. In 2008, China made its first spacewalk, and in 2012 it achieved its first manned space docking, an important step in the country's quest to launch a space station by around 2020[1].

Dependence on Foreign Technology for a Long Time

The Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV) launched successfully in 2001 was the first step toward independent capacity in the heavy launch sector. However, what is often ignored is that the GSLV used a Russian-built upper stage engine since ISRO had yet to develop its own cryogenic capability. It has taken a long time to reach to the point of independence, which happened by 2014[2].

The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), a follow-up to the GPS-assisted GAGAN system for civil aviation still does provide full global coverage, which is critical as it is also shared by the military and commercial sectors. The IRNSS is supposed to provide independent navigational support for India’s armed forces, especially in the context of expanding its maritime presence across the IOR. However, there is still distance to be tread.


Commercial Success – Devil is in the detail

Antrix is up against China’s Great Wall Industry Corporation (GWIC) in a battle for market share in the global space economy and outreach among developing nations.

Antrix has a comparative advantage over its rival in the lightweight launch services industry, but GWIC remains ahead in the heavier segment. Even as India’s low-cost launcher gives cost advantages, one should see the fine print. GWIC’s Long March 3B/E is more efficient in delivering satellites to LEO, and the launcher is primarily utilized for heavy geosynchronous orbit (GEO) launches. Until Antrix can field a more competitive heavy launcher, India’s commercial space launch industry will remain limited to catering to a less profitable segment of the market[3].


Technologically Behind China, America, Japan

Only in 2014 did India manage fully indigenous capacity on cryogenic booster technology. China, on the other hand, has utilized the Long March 3B/E, its heavy GEO launch vehicle, since the mid-1990s. Also, the GSLV MkIII is more efficient than China’s light GEO launcher, the Long March 3A, but it still can’t outcompete the Long March 3B/E. Furthermore, the upcoming Long March V could very well be cheaper than the GSLV MkIII once it becomes operational, posing a longer-term commercial threat to India’s heavy launch prospects[4].

Interestingly, India’s Mangalyaan was cheaper because its payload was minimal at 15 kg compared to the 65 kg of complex instrumentation that NASA’s Mars exploration program MAVEN carried[5]Speaking of rocket technology itself, five decades ago, Apollo 11 reached lunar orbit in just 51 hours and 49 minutes time, using a very powerful Saturn V rocket. In contrast, the Indian mission Chandrayaan took 48 days, clearly highlighting the lack of a suitable rocket.

Chandrayaan system was further found fault with, as experts have noted that it was not trained adequately to identify the fault and take corrective measures. This raised questions on the nature and quality of artificial intelligence (AI) involved in entire process of landing of the lander Vikram[6]Interestingly, Japan’s space program has seen as significant leap in recent times, with Japan’s Hayabusa becoming the first to return to Earth in 2010 after a seven-year, 6-billion kilometer journey with samples from an asteroid, and its asteroid missions are continuing with Hayabusa2[7].


Long Development Time Compared to Vietnam?

India and Vietnam both had a lot of official development assistance and foreign collaborations working with their space agencies. India’s space program had started off with U.S. and then moved to USSR/Russia for support. Similarly, Vietnam saw assistance from Japan and French agencies for its programs. Interestingly though, the Vietnamese program is now being put at par with India’s program. This considering the fact that Vietnam’s program started only in the 1980s. Till 2000, Vietnam had no space assets of its own! Rocket technology notwithstanding, that too may not remain a barrier for long, with committed programs to develop assets on this front as well[8].


Research Capabilities Leave Much to Desire

ISRO lags behind other space agencies in the patents it holds, a sign that it needs to ramp up technological prowess[9]Interestingly, of the 23 centres that come under its ambit, it was the Satellite Centres of Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram that have contributed most of the patents, which probably also reflects on the satellite building obsession of ISRO. This also begs the question in a slightly tangential direction - what are the various satellites contributing to Indian research, technology development, or even day to day navigation and communication capabilities? 

Table : Number of patents held by different agencies


DLR (Germany)

JAXA (Japan)

ISRO (India)




178 (270 as per ISRO site claims)


Was Mangalyaan a Vanity Project?

While criticism of the Mangalyaan in 2013 was shouted down on grounds of discrimination, professional jealousy and privilege issues, genuine questions on the objectives behind the program remain[10].

Mangalyaan’s orbiter was meant to beam back data that is already available. Or at best, data with a sub-standard value. Critics have argued that the Mangalyaan project was hastily put together, and instead of the rush, efforts to increase the value associated with the project should have been pursued. More payload, better instruments, collaboration with other agencies could have been pursued, instead of taking up a ‘vanity project’.


With a picture that actually looks quite underwhelming, it is important to qualify that rather than calling it a criticism, this is an analysis only because there are very high expectations from ISRO having set a certain benchmark of performance and quality. With the private sector now entering into a collaborative partnership with ISRO, the synergies otherwise absent due to excessive bureaucracy and red tapism par for the course for any government organization can be overcome. Moreover, the space which already attracts several high tech engineering minds from within India can find opportunities to pursue their aspirations and can stem to an extent the brain drain from India.

[1] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Asian Space Race Accelerates November 06, 2013 By Charles Recknagel

[2] Benjamin T Smart, Asian State Responses to China’s Space Power Strategy, Naval Postgraduate School Master’s Thesis June 2019


[3] Benjamin T Smart, Asian State Responses to China’s Space Power Strategy, Naval Postgraduate School Master’s Thesis June 2019

[4] Benjamin T Smart, Asian State Responses to China’s Space Power Strategy, Naval Postgraduate School Master’s Thesis June 2019

[5] Latha Jishnu, Indian patents make no dent in space, Down to Earth 30 October 2016


[6] Ajay Lele, Chandrayaan 2’s Moon illusion Monday, The Space Review, September 16, 2019


[8] Nandini Sarma, “Southeast Asian Space Programmes: Capabilities, Challenges and Collaborations”, ORF Special Report No. 82, March 2019, Observer Research Foundation.

[9] Latha Jishnu, Indian patents make no dent in space, Down to Earth 30 October 2016


[10] Chandru The Real Problem with India’s Mission to Mars Is Not Poverty, You Idiots. Medium 10 November 2013


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