Going Private: The Crew Dragon launch and lessons for India

Activities in space never sleep. Satellites continue to orbit the Earth; telescopes gaze at distant heavenly bodies and astronauts carry on with their experiments in the International Space Station. In the backdrop of the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, the world is set to witness the beginning of a new era in space history.

After waiting for nearly a decade, the United States is set to send its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on an American spacecraft. The astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurle, will be carried to the ISS on the Crew Dragon capsule (also known as Dragon 2) launched from a Falcon-9 rocket, both of which are built by Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX. This launch is historic for the space industry for two main reasons.

First, after the retirement of the space shuttle in July 2011, the US has relied almost entirely on the Russian Soyuz rocket and spacecraft to send astronauts to the ISS. This exercise, however, became increasingly expensive over the years and NASA desperately needed an American replacement. Thus, SpaceX’s upcoming launch marks a new beginning for NASA’s human space transportation program. 

Second, the launch of the Crew Dragon will make SpaceX the first private entity to be fully responsible for both launching and operating a spacecraft carrying humans to space. SpaceX has already gained a fan following thanks to the reusability of their rockets and the launch of the Starlink constellation, which aims to provide internet access from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 

On the other hand, it is not new for NASA to work with private companies for building various components. Private companies have been involved in everything from the Apollo rockets to the Space Shuttle. So what makes the Crew Dragon launch so different?

Space Partners, Not Contractors

The Columbia STS-1 made its first orbital first in April 1981, and marked the beginning of NASA’s Space Shuttle era. For 20 years, the Space Shuttle was the working horse of NASA, transporting crew, material and equipment to space. Once thought to be a reliable and reusable space transportation system, it soon became clear that the Space Shuttle was indeed very expensive to operate and required considerable maintenance before every launch. 

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA began to search for a more traditional replacement, and kicked-off the Commercial Crew Development (later named Commercial Crew Program). The program was competitive from the very beginning, with NASA funding various companies to develop the technologies required to support future US space crew operations. In 2014, NASA awarded the final contract to two companies SpaceX and Boeing, each having come up with completely different designs.

NASA could have taken an alternative route. Engineers at NASA could have drawn up specifications for the spacecraft and selected one or a group of companies to build the capsule. But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed the companies to compete for contracts by giving them the full freedom in terms of design and development. This model yielded two unique benefits, both for NASA and the companies. First, it allowed the companies to innovate independently and take a more dynamic approach to the development of technologies. Second, by taking a competitive process to award contracts, NASA was able to spread its risks between two different designs rather than put all its eggs in one basket, therefore allowing for more flexibility in operations.

All of these developments are undoubtedly all well and good for America and NASA. But what can India learn from this model of partnership?

Collaboration through Competition

With more and more private entities entering the space industry, the trend seems clear: space innovation will be driven by private players in the new space age, and space agencies across the world will have to adapt. 

While it would certainly be unfair to downplay ISRO’s achievements, one must also look at ISRO’s role more critically when assessing the future of India’s place in the space industry. Currently, ISRO’s structure is such that it not only plays the role of a premier scientific research institution, but also that of a space operator and even a space regulator, leaving little room for private entities to operate independently. Indeed, ISRO’s engagement with the private industry over time has become more flexible. However, such a model bears strong resemblance to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) program, which is riddled with cost overruns and delays. Adopting such a model leaves very little room for private players to innovate.

For the Indian space industry to thrive, ISRO must forego of its duties as a service provider as well as a regulator. The Takshashila Institution’s proposed space policy bill calls for separating the duties of ISRO and creating an independent regulator for the space industry.

This will allow the launch services component of ISRO to compete with other players in the field, while it enables the Department of Space to award contracts to those entities who provide the most innovative services which are cost-effective. An independent regulator ensures that a level playing field is created for all entities in the Indian space industry, and upholds the highest standards for safety and security in space. 

Indian policymakers must realise the changing dynamics of the space industry, and must orient policy towards these changes. Recently announced reforms to the space industry hold some promise, though full details of these reforms are unclear.