Tag Archives | ISRO

Why can’t India attract research talent?

A few Takshashila alumni and friends Kunal Singh, Varun Goel & Aravind Ilamaran have started a new opinion-analysis portal called Policy Wonks.

I write about how there’s an oversupply of PhDs and research talent in the US and elsewhere, but not enough of them have come knocking on India’s doors just yet:

American academia has been in trouble for the better part of the past decade. Till the advent of MOOCs, productivity has not changed much in higher education for about a century. As a result, university education has seen a high amount of inflation. To keep costs low, universities started supplying ever higher number of PhD students – who can be cheap research and teaching labour as RAs and TAs respectively. Thanks to this oversupply, you have hundreds of talented people applying for each tenure-track position in the sciences, for example. As Ajit Balakrishnan points out in Business Standard, this has led to the creation of a lot of “adjunct” temporary faculty positions in a space considered to be dominated by tenure.

Unfortunately, India has been poorly positioned to take advantage in this acute oversupply of talented PhDs and post doctoral researchers. This is especially surprising given that a significant number of them are Indian or of Indian origin. With the salient exception of a few people and a few Indian institutions, most researchers prefer to eke out a modest living on uncertain terms rather than come back and work in Indian academia.

We witnessed a smaller version of something similar happening when NASA started getting budget cuts in the last two decades, thereby being forced to lay off good aerospace talent – again with a lot of them being of Indian origin. India’s space agency ISRO benefited little by maintaining an insular hiring policy. Quite unfortunate for an organisation whose second director – Dr UR Rao – was wooed back to India by a visionary Vikram Sarabhai well before India had a dedicated space agency.

[Read the full piece over at Policy Wonks]

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In Times of India: No Room for Jugaad on Mars

I write in the Sunday Times of India on how India must pursue high excellence like reaching Mars and get rid of the culture of jugaad.

Think of numbers about Mars. One jumps out at you. Rs 450 crore (approx $75 million). India crossed a technological milestone this week by successfully injecting a spacecraft into Martian orbit. While celebrating the fact that India has been able to achieve an elusive goal, we also want to celebrate the idea that ours is the cheapest mission to make it to Mars. A successful series of ads from Maruti Suzuki in 2010 showcases our love for the “low-cost” like no other. In one ad that was spooky in its foresight, a NASA tour guide is showing off a top-notch new spaceship meant for Jupiter. The first question that an Indian visitor asks is, “Kitna deti hai?”

ISRO did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

[Full Article: No Room for Jugaad on Mars, September 28, 2014]

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In Business Standard: Setting our sights beyond Mars

On the day after India’s successful Mars orbiter insertion, I write in Business Standard that India and ISRO must now focus on achieving human spaceflight, and that we have to do things differently in order to achieve it:

The target of human spaceflight is necessary because successful space programmes need visible goals to orient themselves and not get lost along the way. They also need public confidence and steady government support since the development cycles are long.

Space exploration is primarily a pursuit of excellence: of exploring the unexplored, doing the impossible and pushing the frontiers of knowledge and human ability. As India has seen in the last decade, having ambitious plans to get to Mars and the moon inspired ISRO to step up its game.

Clear targets like human spaceflight breed innovation and spark creativity. For the Mars mission to succeed, various ISRO wings had to align their objectives and work at their best, as a complex mission requires flawless execution. ISRO needed to figure out deep space communication, precision orbital planning for such a long and complex journey, as well as mechanics and electronics that leave little room for error – and they had to do all of this within a tight deadline.

Similarly, human spaceflight will require ISRO to develop technologies for more powerful launch vehicles capable of transporting larger capsules to space. It will need the ability to re-enter the atmosphere and reach back to earth safely. It will also need all the trappings necessary for humans to survive and thrive while in space, and more. These skills and technologies are transferable, and will eventually aid ISRO’s other efforts and the economy at large.
[Full Article: Setting our Sights Beyond Mars, September 24, 2014]

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Myths from Mars

Debates on space exploration in India have to move from costs to value.

The incredible inexpensiveness of the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a myth that keeps on growing. Saritha Rai writes the latest article on the subject for the New York Times, comparing India’s MOM to the USA’s MAVEN:

“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, in an interview at the space agency’s heavily guarded Bangalore headquarters. “Yet it is a technically well-conceived and designed mission,” he said. Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country. So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters. [Full article: NYTimes, February 17, 2014]

Unfortunately, the Rupees 450 crore / $75 million price tag for the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is very misleading. As I had previously written in Business Standard, reading ISRO’s outcome budget tells us that the accounting cost to ISRO alone is likely double the figure, if not more.

For instance, salaries of ISRO engineers, scientists and top officials are not covered under the Rs 450 crore number – nor is the use of ISRO’s advanced infrastructure facilities such as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram or the autonomous Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad.

A reading of Isro’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. Isro’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one. Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by Isro’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (Isro’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission. [Business Standard]

Indians have long believed that ISRO’s space programme is more cost-effective and inexpensive compared to foreign competitors. This line is fostered by ISRO, as evident by K Radhakrishnan’s and Roddham Narasimha’s remarks in the NYTimes article. Impressive efforts might have indeed been undertaken to reign in costs, but their arguments need to be substantiated with better evidence that is shared with the public.Before the Mars mission came along, many believed that the PSLV rocket was also far cheaper than foreign competitors. On past scrutiny, even this claim did not stand up.

It is easy to draw comparisons between NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM, but most are spurious. To begin with, MAVEN was almost double the size and is set to enter a trajectory less elliptical than MOM’s, which are both in its favour. Mars Orbiter Mission’s launch mass is only 1340 kilograms because the launch vehicle could not accommodate more and not because of any cost considerations.

India’s MOM was also not any more fuel-efficient than MAVEN. As Emily Lakdawalla explains, MOM had a more complex trajectory because it had much smaller rockets and thus had to employ many smaller bursts of thrust rather than a large one like MAVEN.

It is high time that we moved the space conversations in India from costs to value. India’s Mars mission should be judged on the scientific knowledge it contributes, the technological ability the mission fosters at ISRO, and the technologies it can spinoff for public benefit. For example, a private company called Decagon innovated to build a soil sensory probe for NASA’s Phoenix Lander mission. With early innovation funded through a space programme, Decagon is now deploying the same technology for use in agriculture back on earth. With a more open culture of innovation at ISRO, there is no reason that the Indian economy cannot benefit from better spinoffs.

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Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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In Business Standard: Running the space marathon

I write in Business Standard this week on how we must not put too much stock into the 450 crore rupee price tag on the Mars mission and spend what it takes to have a successful space programme:

A reading of ISRO’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. ISRO’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one.

Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by ISRO’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission.
[Full article: Running the space marathon, December 15, 2013]

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India from space

A small step for ISRO, a giant leap for building consensus around space exploration in India.

India MoM Image of Earth

Humans have looked up at the stars even before language was invented, and the lights above us have always been a part of human imagination and curiosity, be it in religion, philosophy, science or the arts. What changed in the last century is that not only could we look up, but humanity got the ability to go up high and look down. The photograph Earthrise by astronaut William Anders is easily among the most iconic images to date, where a blue earth rises above the scarred lunar surface.

Exploration in general and space exploration in particular have always excited and inspired people in a manner that few other ideas could. Organisations like NASA figured out early on that beyond any scientific or utilitarian purposes, beautiful images from space have immense value in and of themselves. With human spaceflight, astronauts could take photographs manually. But with improvements in photography, image processing and visualisation technologies, even satellite images can now have great aesthetic and communicative value.

Anyone who has glanced at Google Earth or seen any of NASA Earth Observatory’s exquisite pictures already knows the value of visually observing the earth from space.

ISRO and the Indian space programme have been quite slow in realising the same and acting on it. Though India has been sending satellites to space for over three decades now, there are hardly any memorable images one can think of. Rakesh Sharma in his cosmonaut suit comes to mind, and the other is of space launches. Little from the satellites themselves. While several Indian satellites have imaging capabilities of various kinds, they have been put mainly to technical and scientific uses and almost never for public consumption.

India’s Mission to Mars providing the above simple and elegant image of the Indian subcontinent is the latest step in establishing a culture of communicating with the public on the national space programme. Compared to NASA’s high quality, you can see that the image is far from perfect – the clouds are overexposed, the image has been rotated and cropped, and resolution is sub-optimal. But instead of descending into snobbery, we really need to appreciate the increasing effort ISRO is putting in doing this. Earlier in the year ISRO provided some stunning images of the Kumbh mela and the disaster at Kedarnath. Nothing illustrates the changing mindsets at ISRO better than the contrast of these examples to the rather lacklustre photograph of the earth from Chandrayaan – shared below.

chandrayaan-pic-of-earth

Space exploration is a very public affair – for better and for worse. It is exceedingly difficult to hide success or failure from the public eye, and one has to constantly address questions of poverty while spending public monies on space. Visually engaging the public is essential if ISRO wants to think bolder, aim higher and go farther.  One picture from above can help people understand floods or urban growth or complex natural phenomena like no amount of explaining can.

The good news is that NASA has already paved the way for ISRO, and they could also possibly help the latter in setting up a team in-house which can work on a visual exploration of India from space. Below are a curated set of images of India from space, taken by various NASA spacecraft and satellites. Here’s to hoping that their tribe grows larger.

Follow Pavan Srinath India from NASA’s eyes on Pinterest

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In Pragati: Not quite over the moon

I write in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review this week about the Indian space programme and the challenges it is facing today.

Space exploration is a public venture in more than one sense. It has traditionally been taken up by nations and it rarely escapes public regard and reason, be it for better or for worse. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its one hundredth mission last September, by launching two French satellites into a low earth orbit. While space exploration is a public venture, discussions around it in India remain limited and fall into two categories. There is an endless refrain about how a poverty-stricken country like India can spend public money on space, and there is often significant discussion around the popular scientific and technical aspects of space missions. Beyond this, there is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.

Third, ISRO needs to accelerate its transformation to an outward-facing organisation. ISRO developed its culture of innovation in isolation, but today foreign states, international and Indian corporations are all capable and willing to partner with India. As a credible player in space, ISRO is in a position to do so on equal footing. Space and defence are two high technology sectors where having a diverse set of innovators allows for greater spinoffs that benefit the larger economy. While the United States and other countries are reducing the size of their much larger space programmes and laying off talented people in the process, India has the opportunity to absorb as many of them as possible. FDI in space is an equally attractive option that has unfortunately garnered little discussion to date. Indian commercial needs, especially of transponders for broadcasting TV channels, has been growing at a faster rate than what ISRO can provide for. This begs the question of whether commercial space technology needs to be provided by a monopoly public institution, or if some competition can be incrementally introduced.

Thanks to human ingenuity and the establishment of strong institutions, Indian space exploration has come a long way since the launch of a sounding rocket in 1963. Going forward, the Indian Space Research Organisation has to aim high and pursue lofty goals like human spaceflight, take the public into confidence and embrace a more open culture of innovation.
[Full article – Pragati, July 2013]

We cannot stop today at just cheering successful satellite launches, but need to expect a lot more from ISRO. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, going into low earth orbit is to boldly go where many have gone before. The Indian space programme needs loftier goals to truly benefit Indian society at large.

PS. You may also be interested in reading the very first post on this blog, on why we should stop using poverty as an excuse to reduce public spending on space.

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