Earth2Orbit CEO, Dr. Susmita Mohanty, Talks To Asian Scientist Magazine
By Srinivas Laxman | Editorials
July 6, 2011
We talk to Dr. Susmita Mohanty, CEO and co-founder of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up.
AsianScientist (Jul. 6, 2011) – Dr. Susmita Mohanty has a career that science afficionados can only dream of. On her Google Profile, she describes herself as a “Spaceship Designer + Entrepreneur”.
A serial entrepreneur at heart, Dr. Mohanty founded MOONFRONT in San Francisco (2001), LIQUIFER in Vienna (2004), and is currently onto her third, as the co-founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up.
A member of the International Academy of Astronautics and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, none other than the celebrated science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke personally sponsored her education at the International Space University in France. Dr. Mohanty also has a PhD in Aerospace Architecture from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
In 2005, Dr. Mohanty was honored in Washington, DC with the International Achievement Award for promoting international cooperation through entrepreneurial space ventures. She is the Space Policy Fellow for Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank.
Asian Scientist Magazine spoke with Dr. Susmita Mohanty at the American Center in New Delhi, after she gave a presentation on behalf of Earth2Orbit. We asked her for her thoughts on India’s domestic and international space policy, and the commercial viability of the Indian space sector.
Industry collaborations are necessary to grow the space sector
Looking ahead into the future, her vision for ISRO was for it to collaborate effectively with the private sector. India’s space policy, which is largely focused on domestic needs, requires a major overhaul to allow for privatization of satellite and rocket manufacturing, she said.
”The long term goal should be for ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) to focus on R&D, and let the industry take over routine manufacturing activities. Plus go all out to support the industry such that it can compete with its international counterparts,” she said.
Her views are echoed by ISRO officials, who also believe that the role of the private sector will considerably go up in the days ahead. Currently, the private sector does contribute towards India’s space program, but in a small way. Some of the major industries which are partnering with ISRO are Godrej, Larsen and Toubro (L&T), and Walchandnager Industries.
Dr. Mohanty was also concerned about the hurdles for start-ups like hers in India.
Earth2Orbit was created with the vision of leading India into the world of private space enterprise, and the goal of her Mumbai-based organization is to revolutionize the way India’s space industry conducts business and by doing so bring novel concepts, technologies and efficiencies to a legacy industry.
She said that politicians, bureaucrats and policy makers have to be persuaded to reduce regulatory hurdles and red tape, and to generate funding and incubatory support as available in western economies like the US and Europe.
ISRO should bid for international contracts
According to Dr. Mohanty, India has a very accomplished government space program, and it should focus its efforts on international clients and companies.
“We are among a handful of nations that have the capability to build satellites and build rockets. The next logical step is to commercial ISRO’s technological capabilities and compete in the global market,” she said.
For this, she said, “We need to get the Indian industry involved in a big way, not just supply parts to ISRO, but go after international businesses. Most companies that currently cater to ISRO are not focused on space. Space is not their primary line of business.”
However, she added that the industry will venture into the civilian space sector in a big way only when the government is willing to deregulate and create an environment that allows them to bid for international contracts and not limit themselves to serving ISRO’s needs.
“ISRO contract volumes and margins are too low for them to bother,” she said.
India should work towards a significant share of the global commercial space market, which she estimated to be worth more than US$150 billion a year.
“If India is to become a global player, we should try and capture at least a fifth of this market, if not more,” she said.
Another hurdle she mentioned is that investor mindset in India is entirely focused on businesses which can bring a quick return on investment.
“Space businesses, unlike information technology or mobile telephony, take longer to break even and start making decent profits. We, therefore, need proactive support from the government. We need investors with vision and a greater appetite for risk,’’ she explained.
More dedicated commercial launches by India
All eyes are on India’s upcoming launch of the 1,410 kg GSat-12 communication satellite on July 15 by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The satellite will be used for societal applications such as tele-education, tele-medicine, village resource center operations and other communication services. The last time the rocket ferried a similar spacecraft was on September 12, 2002, when it placed in orbit India’s first dedicated meteorological satellite, Metsat, which was renamed as Kalpana-1 in honor of Kalpana Chawla.
ISRO’s PSLV, Dr. Mohanty said, was one of the most reliable rockets in its class and therefore in great demand for piggyback launches by foreign clients.
Over the last decade India has launched more than two dozen foreign payloads on board the PSLV.
“While the list of countries is spectacular, the total mass launched is modest, close to a single PSLV launch,” she said.
Further, the PSLV has had only one dedicated commercial launch, that of an Italian satellite.
“India needs to aim for more dedicated commercial launches if it wants to become a serious global player,” she added.
Old competitors, new markets
In an article published in Gateway House, a journal of the Indian Council on Global Relations, called “A Tale of Two Rockets,” Dr. Mohanty said that the implication of the two Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) failures of ISRO was huge. One failed in April and the other in December 2010.
“Every GSLV that fails slows down India’s ambition to compete in the lucrative global commercial launch market – estimated to reach 12 billion dollars by 2018 – for heavy tonnage telecommunication satellites in the geostationary orbit, the kind launched by the GSLV,” she said.
“While India has a capability, it also has powerful rivals – the French Ariane, the American Delta, the Chinese Long March and the Russian Soyuz – that have seen greater successes,” she added.
Dr. Mohanty said that in addition to more developed launch markets like the US and Europe, India should focus on emerging markets in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
“It should leverage its growing trade ties with those regions and use bilateral relationship as the basis for new satellite and launch contracts. China seems to be doing this very effectively,” she mused.
To read more about Dr. Susmita Mohanty’s work, please visit Earth2Orbit:
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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