TeamIndus is among the five teams currently in the race to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which involves landing a spacecraft on the Moon.
While the focus has remained largely on the competition, TeamIndus’ possibilities beyond its Moon landing mission are vast and exciting.
The private player can not only be India’s ticket to the global space race; it can also usher a science and engineering revolution in India.
The air was still on a gloomy Saturday morning at the TeamIndus facility in Bengaluru. The staff, mostly in their twenties, were making their way in with a quiet purpose and cheerfulness that concealed the enormity of the task that lay ahead of them. For, TeamIndus, a young private aerospace player in India, has set its sights 385,000 km away in space, to the Moon, in a feat that could usher a new age of scientific and engineering revolution in India and push space exploration higher up on the country’s agenda.
TeamIndus aims to fly out a rover to the Moon, have it land on the lunar surface and get it to traverse a distance of 500 m, transmitting, in the process, high-definition video and images back to Earth. These were the requirements put before any private enterprise that enrolled in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, announced over a decade ago. TeamIndus was the only Indian entry in the race.
Ever since, as days have turned to nights, and weeks to years, the team has toiled away in their Bengaluru station, after first operating from Noida and then the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in India’s Silicon Valley, to produce a spacecraft that, they believe, can brave the unforgiving conditions of space and deliver on the stated mission objectives. Their progress was validated in January 2017, when they were shortlisted, one among five, and then in October the same year, to continue their journey to the Moon.
The specifics of the mission operation left me dizzy – it seemed like something out of a science-fiction film. TeamIndus' Mission Operations & Planning Engineer Genoedberg Nadar gave me an overview: the spacecraft, called HHK, for “Hum Honge Kamyab (We Shall Overcome)”, will blast off from Earth with a launch mass of 600 kg and into the geosynchronous orbit. Here, it will spend close to three days. Various operations will kick in at this stage. Perhaps, most important, the spacecraft’s health will be monitored.
Then, the engineering burn, the first one before the “translunar injection manoeuvre”, which will set the spacecraft on course to the Moon. At the right time, the descent towards the Moon’s surface will begin. And five days later, the spacecraft – Indian private, indigenously designed and developed – will land on the Moon, making India only the fourth country to do so after the United States, Russia and China. Finally, the sight of an Indian flag on the Moon will turn into reality.
After touchdown on the surface, TeamIndus’ favourite plaything, the rover, will make its way out on Mare Imbrium, a vast lava plain on the Moon. It will be instructed, through commands, to move 500 m, during which time it will take high-definition videos and images and beam them back to Earth. Seven days is what the team has, to pull off this feat. The rest of the mission’s time will be utilised for extended operations, possibly presenting us with new data that could be analysed back home in search of discoveries.
If successful, TeamIndus’ audacious endeavour will bring laurels to India and possibly pin it on the global space exploration map. While an upgrade in the country’s status was never the goal of the mission, there was a sense of patriotism that drew the team to the competition. TeamIndus co-founder Dhruv Batra, referred to within the organisation as “Jedi Master–programme”, says, “For us, the journey began with this patriotic feeling that if there is a competition of such a large magnitude happening anywhere, India had to have a representation in it. The moving force for us was always patriotism.”
The year was 2010, when a group of perfectly ordinary Indians with no experience in space technology came together to build a team for the mission. Think of it as building an Ocean’s Eleven for India, except that nearly every one of TeamIndus’ employees reached out to the core team of their own accord, in search of a unique and rewarding opportunity. And today, there are 120 employees, not 11 – a much harder recruitment task to achieve. The startup took the road less travelled and, as if in sync, chose not to hold any recruitment drives in search of talent. In this way, a young, inexperienced and dreamy team was built from the ground up.
Like with anything else built from scratch, TeamIndus made mistakes early on and learnt quickly from them. “When we started out, we didn’t really know how far we’d go. We didn’t know whether we’d have a team, or money, or support; this is obviously an industry that is highly regulated globally. So in the beginning we didn’t have too many plans, but over the last couple of years, we have evolved, and there is a great acceptance of what we do and there is a great reflected glory we bask in, thanks to what Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) does at the global stage,” said Rahul Narayan, TeamIndus’ chief executive officer and, as he is identified internally, the fleet commander.
ISRO has had a significant role to play in guiding the inexperienced group at TeamIndus. And why not? India’s space agency has had a phenomenal run in the last three years. On 12 January 2018, they successfully launched their 100th satellite into orbit. Last year, their workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, launched 104 satellites in a single flight – an astounding accomplishment for any space organisation, drew praise from the very best in the industry.
Yeah, awesome achievement by ISRO. Very impressive!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 16, 2017
Perhaps more importantly for TeamIndus, ISRO had demonstrated its ability to successfully execute a lunar probe back in 2008 through its Chandrayaan-1 mission. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, no less, was among the dozen space scientists guiding the team. If anyone in India was equipped to offer advice on planning and implementing a Moon landing mission, it was he – Kasturirangan had conceptualised the Chandrayaan-1 Moon mission after all.
Narayan sees this accessibility to the rich experience of the organisation and its men and women a strength. “For us, as an Indian company, our strength comes from the fact that we are able to leverage every investment made by ISRO over the last 45 years. So I think this will be a great partnership,” says Narayan.
Recently, this partnership appears to have hit a roadblock. The Ken’s reporting revealed that TeamIndus had cancelled its launch contract with ISRO. This is bound to hurt the private player as its satellite was expected to piggyback on ISRO’s PSLV, with Japan’s Team Hakuto hitchhiking, all the way to the Moon. What happens hereafter in this area remains to be seen. However, TeamIndus and ISRO have made no official comment on the matter.
Any discussion about global private space companies inevitably leads one almost immediately to make a reference to SpaceX, billionaire-entrepreneur Elon Musk’s engine for his gargantuan space exploration ambitions. Musk aims to make space accessible – and more importantly, affordable – to regular people, paving the way, ultimately, for life on other planets. The company has made several giant strides on its way towards that goal, such as getting its spacecraft to return from low-Earth orbit (December 2010), delivering cargo to and from the International Space Station (first in May 2012 and then several times after), and then, in 2017, achieving an unprecedented reflight of an orbital class rocket.
Does SpaceX’s vision and progress inspire TeamIndus to think and dream big for the future? “A philosophy that Elon Musk picked up, which is what space agencies have been doing for a long time is, ‘aluminium in, rocket out’. This needs a lot of investment, but I see us having gone down that path to a great degree,” says Narayan.
“It’s been very exciting to see what he [Musk] has been able to do in such a short period of time. Nobody can deny what they have accomplished and how they have shaken up the industry – from having started as outsiders to now becoming a threat to all the traditional players.”
This would not have been possible if SpaceX was just another government agency. As a disruptive force, a private, outsider company can stray from the “norm” and do things differently if it helps get the job done more efficiently, especially in time and cost terms. Unlike in the case of a government organisation like ISRO or the United States’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a private company like TeamIndus can open the floor to its bright and aspirational staff and seek new and refreshing ideas. The many levels of bureaucracy that are a staple of any state body can be done away with in such a setup, allowing progress and efficiency to occupy the front seat and have greater weightage assigned to accountability and performance.
Narayan tells us about the importance of time – and therefore money – for a private entity such as his through an example from SpaceX. “One of our retired ISRO experts told us that when someone from SpaceX spoke at ISRO, they said that from product requisition to purchase order release was 24 hours [at SpaceX] – and if that didn’t happen, somebody would lose their job. And that’s how you save time.”
In addition, Narayan says that as a private player, the pressure on them to perform at every step of the way is that much higher. “This is a highly competitive industry where people are trying to pull you down because they want to raise concerns on your credibility, on your ability to turn things around. The traditional guys will always come from a ‘our system works best’ philosophy. At some point, we forget the basics and start looking at the bigger system.”
It’s been over seven years since TeamIndus got to work on the programme. Has the approach of going back to the basics and adopting a, more or less, flat organisational structure yielded any results? In other words, has the group been able to innovate? Batra recounts a couple of instances of innovation that was forced upon them due to constraints.
“There is something known as the power conditioning and distribution management system for the spacecraft – it is very important because it is responsible for the upkeep of sensors and actuators. We went out looking for it and came across a company in Europe – it [the system] was being pegged at over a million euro. We found it prohibitively expensive for a startup. So we said, ‘we’ll break it ourselves’. We ended up designing the whole thing internally and created it at under Rs 100,000.”
This was not a standalone case. “Similarly, there is a pointing mechanism for the antenna which needs to be on the spacecraft. It has to point towards Earth for the communication link to be established. Again, it was being quoted at around $600,000. We ended up developing it, again, for under Rs 100,000.”
This lays the foundation for the creation of intellectual property, one that is unique and demonstrated to work in space or any other sector in which it may eventually be put to use.
It would not be an understatement to say that India has been starved of this kind of innovation. The country has been riding high on the dominance of its information technology services, now worth over $150 billion annually. Unlike China, India skipped the manufacturing step and took the way of predominantly exporting services, which supplies more to India’s output growth than manufacturing. Through the Make in India initiative, the government is hoping to return to that vital manufacturing step and employ it to fire up the growth engines further. In this context, TeamIndus’ possible offerings beyond the mission can ignite the engineering sector. The possibilities are many, and Narayan recognises this. “What we see is that aerospace engineering – not just software or services – is something that is very likely to get picked up as one of the things where India is going to be a partner and a player.”
India has increased its share of budget allocation towards space exploration too, recognising its potential for returns in the long term. As NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos face stagnant or reduced budgets, India, on the other hand, has upped its spending on space for the 2017-18, from $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion – a 20 per cent growth. This hike in space budget is important. “Space is infrastructure,” says Narayan. “Infrastructure is something you don’t notice until it goes missing.”
Yes, what if one woke up one day and found that they couldn’t use the Global Positioning System or GPS, a space application that is not widely seen as one? Or direct-to-home (DTH) – another widely used space-based tool. And then there is the weather data on our smartphones, telling us at all times what the temperature is at any point in time and place of our choice. And this is only skimming the surface of an ocean of space-based applications that we cannot do without in this day and age.
Beyond the applications, space is a lucrative economic opportunity. A Space Foundation report pegged the size of the global space economy at $329 billion for 2016. Many startups are now eager to introduce new technologies and applications and are in search of affordable rocket options to achieve their goals. ISRO has become a prime contender for such players in this race, but there is still room for several other players to make a mark, especially in the service of solving society’s most pressing problems. “Elon Musk is talking about using space for going across the globe in an hour,” points out Narayan. “It might not be feasible now, or in the next five to 10 years, but that is a tangible, physics-validated path to take to travel from Japan to Europe. And if somebody can build the technology, and if our manufacturing capabilities reach that level, it can happen.” This is where a company like TeamIndus can come in and contribute for the country, in the future.
The importance of science communication in this regard cannot be overstated. So much of our national discourse revolves around politics, caste, and religion, and other popcorn areas like cricket and Bollywood, that critical areas like science and engineering are left starving for attention. A scientifically literate population is, after all, essential to a country’s scientific pursuits. While Narayan agrees with this premise, he says he has already begun to see change. “In India, we are a country obsessed with ABCD – Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, Devotion. Science is far behind! But what I see now – over the last two to three years – because of the penetration of the internet, because of what kids are taught in schools, because of easy access to information, and I must give enough credit to Bollywood and Hollywood for piquing that interest and taking it to the next level and saying, if you did this, then there is stuff you can create on your own. That has started to change.”
Narayan’s reference to the influence of Hollywood is accurate. The American film industry has been able to regularly produce top-quality science-fiction films, from Interstellar to Gravity to Arrival and many more – and this is just counting the recent past, and capture people’s imagination. In the case of the US, though, this has been at least five decades in the making. The country has seen such passionate men of science as Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Unfortunately, India is yet to have its Carl Sagan. The popularisation of science in India, therefore, has lagged greatly as the discord between the woman and man of science and the layperson on the street has remained wide.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is an exhibit for the success of science communication. CERN was able to find support for bold, cutting-edge experiments, such as the successful one involving the search for the Higgs boson, because of the kind of public support it received, thanks to the level at which the science outreach was conducted. It helped also that there were scientists involved in the experiment who were science communicators themselves, such as Brian Cox. “Do you think they would have managed to do it if a big portion of the population didn’t think it was needed? You need popular acceptance. If you do not promote it, how will you get the approval of the Parliament or the government? That [CERN] is an example of how an entire population supported a scientific effort and everybody felt it was important. That is a cultural aspect that needs to come out [in India].”
The fear of failure is another cultural aspect that generally holds people in India back from pursuing frontier work. The country has tended to be risk-averse in the past. There has been no market for endeavours that don’t promise a quick enough return on investment (ROI). That has begun to change, however, with the entry of venture capital, as pointed out here in Mint, but there is still a long way to go. An innovator like TeamIndus, which sits in that boat where the return on investment lies some distance in the future, needs to be allowed to fail for it to find the freedom and confidence to march on ahead.
“There is no paucity of intellectual capital in the country,” says Narayan. “If you do put yourself out there and you do fail, you need to be given an opportunity as long as you did the right thing.” Spoken by a man who seems determined to turn the odds of the mission’s result in his favour despite the challenges ahead of him.
Future of TeamIndus
One hopes that participation in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition is but a step in TeamIndus’ hopefully long journey. The company will likely be able to influence several sectors in the future with the development of new and advanced technologies, efficient problem-solving, and mastery over programme planning and implementation. They already feel confident about the latter, with the successful execution of the Moon landing mission standing as the big test of their capabilities. “We have now reached a stage where we think we can manage a full programme end to end – and the proof would be when we manage to launch and control the spacecraft, get data, and send it back,” says Narayan.
Besides the work being put in towards the competition, TeamIndus is currently building two separate platforms. One is a satellite platform with a carrying capacity of about 150 kg, wherein a customer’s product will be deployed with a quick turnaround. The other is a solar drone platform, where the company sees requirements emerging in the future. “Whether it is in disaster relief or providing connectivity to remote areas or earth observation or monitoring – these are increasingly becoming the requirements, and here we can contribute with our engineering expertise.”
As a private player, it will be hard for a company like TeamIndus to set the agenda – say, for an interplanetary mission or to transport humans to other planets; that will most certainly be the government’s role. However, TeamIndus can come in as an enabler, as a key player in the wider ecosystem. And although they may remain system integrators at their core, they will be able to develop hardware and technology from source components that eventually they can call their own. This is bound to hold the company in good stead.
Narayan says he sees TeamIndus playing the role of a “prime contractor”. “We see ourselves working with multiple agencies and governments where we help them solve their problems. The role we see for ourselves is of prime contractors – like what Lockheed Martin is to NASA and SAAB to ESA.”
Essentially, the company wants to be seen as a global private player capable of handling large, complex programmes – “that is our primary pitch when we go out there and talk about the future,” Narayan tells us. Given the array of possibilities that lie on the horizon, a lot hinges on TeamIndus’ success. It would be exciting to see if the underdog private space company can rise up to the challenge and succeed against the odds. The country may just be counting on it, in the hope for a brighter tomorrow.