Exploring India’s Space Agency: Transformations through Social Media and Private Partnerships

ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 mission made history as more than 8 million people tuned in to watch the moon landing live on YouTube. This achievement not only showcased India’s prowess in low-cost space engineering and science but also marked a significant shift in ISRO’s approachability, according to insiders.

In the past, ISRO was known for its closed-off nature and culture of secrecy. However, this perception has changed in recent years with a newfound transparency that has surprised experts and employees alike. Namrata Goswami, a space policy expert and professor, expressed her surprise and appreciation for the increased transparency, stating that it is a welcome change.

The importance of this shift in approach cannot be understated. The global commercial space market, currently valued at $400 billion, is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2030. However, India’s share in this market is only 2%, equivalent to $8 billion. To address this disparity, the Indian government has set a goal of capturing a $40 billion share of the market by 2040. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged ISRO to transform India into a profitable space superpower, necessitating the involvement of young scientists, startups, investors, and private industry partners. To attract these stakeholders, a closed-off approach would not suffice, as confirmed by senior ISRO scientists.

ISRO has recognized the need to engage the next generation and foster a more friendly image. BHM Darukesha, responsible for managing ISRO’s social media presence, emphasized the importance of being open and approachable. This new focus on approachability has piqued the interest of university students who may have previously overlooked careers in the space industry. One such student, Sruthi Parupudi, studying interaction design in Ahmedabad, expressed her enthusiasm for the industry’s newfound accessibility, realizing that there are various opportunities to contribute, even as a design student.

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The credit for this transformative shift in ISRO’s culture primarily goes to S. Somanath, the chairman since 2022. Somanath’s leadership has rallied everyone within the organization to embrace the necessary changes. Initially, many scientists were concerned about job security and ISRO’s relevance following the introduction of private industry into the sector. However, Somanath implemented various small changes to make ISRO a more enticing place to work and collaborate. Among these changes are encouraging break time, facilitating informal problem-solving discussions, and establishing refreshment kiosks where employees can gather for tea. Somanath recognized the significance of these seemingly small improvements in attracting young talent, which is crucial as ISRO expands its scope.

The newfound openness and transparency have empowered ISRO scientists, leading to more autonomy, faster project progress, and increased collaboration with space startups seeking guidance for private launches. Private industry insiders acknowledge that a more responsive agency, like ISRO, is more attractive for partnerships. D S Govindrajan, president of Aniara Communications, a company providing satellite services, emphasized that predictability is key for private industry, and such predictability is now present within ISRO.

Despite its humble beginnings, such as using a church as a “mission control room” and transporting rocket parts by bicycle, ISRO has achieved remarkable milestones. It became the first nation to land a rover on the moon’s south pole, and its ambitions now extend to sun studies, manned orbital missions, Venus exploration, and partnerships with NASA for planetary defense and deep space exploration. Being present in space is essential for India to establish itself as a superpower alongside the United States and China, according to Ashok Sharma, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is actively pushing for the development of India’s space industry, with a particular emphasis on attracting foreign investment. Modi envisions India’s space industry to follow in the footsteps of its successful IT sector. To facilitate this, the government is expected to open the sector to foreign investment this year. Meanwhile, ISRO will focus on exploration and new scientific endeavors, while three separate bodies – the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), and the Indian Space Association (ISpA) – will engage with the private sector, negotiate launches, and boost business.

While there are many obstacles to overcome, such as the dominance of established companies in the space launch industry and the risk of failures or economic downturns, the increased openness from ISRO has created substantial optimism for long-lasting positive changes. By humanizing scientists and showcasing their achievements, ISRO has the potential to inspire young minds and encourage further scientific pursuits. Somak Raychaudhury, an astrophysicist and vice chancellor, believes that the new approach helps people see scientists as normal human beings and can serve as an inspiration for future generations studying science.

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