On November 5, 2013, India made history when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched its first interplanetary mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan). With a shoestring budget of just $74 million—less than the cost of producing the Hollywood movie “Gravity”—India astounded the world by becoming the first country to reach Mars on its maiden attempt. This remarkable achievement not only showcased India’s growing space capabilities but also highlighted the nation’s potential to become a major player in the global space arena.
Surprisingly, India managed to reach this stage without a comprehensive space policy. Over the years, the nation’s space programme had primarily been driven by ad-hoc decisions and the visionary leadership of its space scientists. However, as the space landscape evolved and new commercial opportunities emerged, the need for a cohesive and strategic policy framework became increasingly evident.
To address this gap and capitalise on the growing commercial space industry, the Indian government has released its first-ever comprehensive space policy, the Indian Space Policy 2023. This ground-breaking document outlines the future direction of India’s space programme, touching upon key aspects such as public-private partnerships, global market expansion, and strategic cooperation. The policy also delineates specific roles for major stakeholders, including ISRO, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), New Space India Limited (NSIL), and the Department of Space (DoS).
In this article, I critically analyse the Indian Space Policy 2023, examining its strengths, areas of improvement, and potential implications for India’s space sector and the global space landscape. Through this analysis, I seek to understand how the policy can help India build on its achievements, address emerging challenges, and seize new opportunities in the rapidly evolving space domain.
Empowering Stakeholders: The Redefinition of Roles
In the past, India’s space sector operated primarily under the umbrella of ISRO, with the organisation being responsible for a wide range of activities, from research and development to satellite launches and commercialisation. While this centralised approach allowed for a degree of control and coordination, it also led to inefficiencies, bureaucracy, and missed opportunities in a rapidly changing global space environment.
One of the significant drawbacks of the earlier approach was the limited involvement of private players and Non-Governmental Entities (NGEs) in the space sector. This restricted access to capital, technological innovations, and market opportunities that could have accelerated India’s growth in the space domain. Moreover, with ISRO being the sole gatekeeper for space activities, the organisation often faced the challenge of balancing its research and development goals with commercialisation efforts, leading to an overburdened and resource-constrained system.
The Indian Space Policy 2023 aims to address these issues by redefining the roles of key stakeholders, streamlining task delegation, and empowering organisations to focus on their respective areas of expertise. By allowing ISRO to concentrate on research, development, and innovation, the policy ensures that India’s space program remains at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies and exploration. Simultaneously, IN-SPACe’s role as an autonomous regulatory body encourages the participation of NGEs in the sector, paving the way for increased collaboration, competition, and innovation.
Furthermore, NSIL’s focus on commercialising space technologies and platforms will ensure that the results of public expenditure are effectively utilised, leading to greater economic benefits and market opportunities for the nation. This approach will also help attract private investments and foster a competitive ecosystem crucial for the long-term growth and sustainability of India’s space sector.
In essence, the delineation of responsibilities under the Indian Space Policy 2023 represents a major shift in the nation’s space strategy. By empowering stakeholders and encouraging greater collaboration between the public and private sectors, the policy aims to unlock the full potential of India’s space capabilities, boost economic growth, and position the country as a leader in the global space arena.
Innovation: A Shift Towards Collaboration
The 2023 Policy marks a significant shift in India’s approach to its space sector, with a strong emphasis on fostering innovation through public-private partnerships. By encouraging NGEs to participate in a wide range of space activities, the policy seeks to create a thriving ecosystem where private enterprises can work alongside public institutions, driving technological advancements and opening new avenues for India’s space industry.
This focus on public-private partnerships is crucial for several reasons. First, it enables the sharing of resources, knowledge, and expertise between the public and private sectors, resulting in more efficient and innovative solutions to complex space-related challenges. Second, it helps stimulate the growth of India’s domestic space industry by promoting the development of indigenous technologies and infrastructure and reducing reliance on foreign technology and services.
The 2023 Policy also emphasises the importance of technology transfer, with ISRO playing a crucial role in transitioning mature technologies and systems to the commercial sector. This approach allows ISRO to concentrate on cutting-edge research and development while simultaneously enabling private entities to capitalise on proven technologies, creating a symbiotic relationship that benefits both the public and private sectors.
By facilitating technology transfers, the policy aims to create a vibrant space economy where private enterprises can leverage existing technologies to develop new products, services, and applications, driving innovation and strengthening India’s overall space capabilities. This, in turn, will help attract investments, create high-skilled jobs, and establish India as a global leader in the space domain.
Moreover, the focus on innovation and collaboration under the Indian Space Policy 2023 has significant geopolitical implications. As India continues to emerge as a key player in the global space arena, its commitment to fostering innovation and collaboration sends a strong signal to other nations, highlighting the country’s willingness to work together to address common challenges and promote sustainable space activities.
India’s Role in the Global Space Arena: Expanding International Cooperation
The 2023 Policy sets the stage for India’s expanded participation in the global space arena by emphasising the importance of international cooperation and coordination. This approach recognises the increasing interdependence of nations in outer space and acknowledges the shared responsibility to address common challenges and opportunities.
India’s commitment to international cooperation in its space policy underscores its readiness to collaborate with other states in addressing global challenges such as climate change, disaster management, and sustainable development. By sharing its satellite data and remote sensing capabilities, India can contribute to global efforts to monitor and mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, track environmental changes, and support sustainable development goals formulated by the United Nations.
Furthermore, India’s policy highlights the role of the Department of Space (DoS) in coordinating international cooperation and global space governance programs in consultation with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). This coordination can help streamline and augment India’s participation in international space law-making, allowing it to take a more active role in shaping global policies and norms.
The Indian government’s initiative to create effective consultation mechanisms between the DoS and the MEA has the potential to strengthen India’s representation in various international fora, such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPOUS) in Vienna and the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. Through these platforms, India can ensure that its voice is heard, its interests are protected, and it can assume a leadership role in representing the concerns of the Global South.
The Indian Space Policy 2023 encourages NGEs to participate in the commercial recovery of asteroids and space resources. It grants them the right to possess, own, transport, use, and sell any such resources, in accordance with applicable laws and India’s international obligations. For the first time, India unambiguously states its interpretation of the non-appropriation principle (Article II) in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. India’s stance aligns with the US state practice— that commercial extraction and use of space resources do not amount to national appropriation prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty. The US has been consistently announcing this position since the early 1990s, most recently through former President Trump’s Executive Order and the Artemis Accords. Other countries like Luxembourg, UAE, and Japan have also incorporated similar interpretations in their domestic legislation.
This clarification on its stance on space resource exploitation brings India closer to joining the Artemis Accords— NASA-sponsored inter-agency bilateral agreements to facilitate future explorations and settlements on the Moon. There have been hints and speculations, especially in the context of its Quad engagements. If India decides to join, the race for lunar ascendency will heat up even more. With China and Russia’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) project potentially becoming an Artemis-like alliance (Venezuela has been invited to join ILRS), the future holds thrilling developments for space law and policy enthusiasts.
Addressing Emerging Challenges: Space Debris and Sustainability
As space activities increase globally, one of the pressing concerns is the proliferation of space debris, posing risks to operational satellites and crewed space missions. The 2023 Policy acknowledges this challenge and outlines measures to ensure safe and sustainable space operations. The policy entrusts the Department of Space with establishing a framework that adheres to international space debris mitigation guidelines, demonstrating India’s commitment to maintaining a sustainable space environment.
The significance of addressing space debris cannot be overstated. With an ever-growing number of satellites being launched, the risk of collisions and the generation of more debris increases exponentially. Such collisions can lead to catastrophic consequences, potentially damaging vital communication, navigation, and Earth observation satellites, and endangering human spaceflight.
In response to these challenges, international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) have developed guidelines aimed at mitigating the creation of space debris and promoting the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. The UN space debris mitigation guidelines were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, and they provide a comprehensive framework for minimising the creation of space debris during all phases of a satellite’s life cycle, from design to disposal.
The IADC, in contrast, is an international governmental forum comprising space agencies from around the world. It seeks to coordinate global efforts in addressing space debris issues by exchanging information, fostering research, and developing mitigation guidelines. The IADC guidelines, first published in 2002 and updated in 2007, serve as a reference for spacefaring nations to develop their national space debris mitigation policies.
By committing to adhere to UN and IADC space debris guidelines, India showcases its responsible approach to space activities and aligns itself with international best practices. Moreover, the Indian Space Policy 2023 emphasises the importance of enhancing national space situational awareness capabilities, which involves monitoring and tracking objects in orbit, predicting potential collisions, and sharing observation data with relevant stakeholders. This focus on space debris management and mitigation reflects India’s dedication to maintaining a sustainable space environment and contributes to global efforts to ensure the long-term viability of outer space for all nations.
Balancing Civilian and Military Space Efforts
While the Indian Space Policy 2023 primarily focuses on the civilian and commercial aspects of the space sector, it does not directly address the integration of civilian and military space efforts. Considering the increasing role of space in national security and defence, the absence of a clear strategy on this front is a notable omission. In an era where space capabilities are increasingly intertwined with military power and technological advancements, it is essential for India to address the military dimensions of its space program in a comprehensive manner.
However, the policy’s emphasis on comprehensive development may signal the eventual release of a separate space strategy document outlining the integration of commercial space initiatives with military objectives. Such a document would be crucial in providing a clear roadmap for the development of India’s military space capabilities and ensuring that the nation’s space program remains robust and balanced.
In contrast, the United States has a more comprehensive approach to integrating civilian and military space efforts. They leverage public-private partnerships to develop cutting-edge technology for military applications. For instance, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are engaged in developing advanced space launch capabilities that could be used for both civilian and military purposes. This approach not only fosters innovation but also reduces the costs of military space capabilities by capitalising on commercial investments.
In light of these differences, India may benefit from adopting a more direct approach to integrating its civilian and military space efforts. This could include establishing a dedicated military space organisation responsible for coordinating and overseeing the development of military space capabilities and fostering greater cooperation between the commercial space sector and defence agencies.
Furthermore, India should also consider leveraging public-private partnerships to develop dual-use technologies that could serve both civilian and military objectives. This approach would not only promote innovation and cost savings but also ensure that India’s space program remains balanced and capable of addressing the full spectrum of space challenges.
The Road Ahead: Adapting to an Evolving Space Landscape
The Indian Space Policy 2023 sets the stage for a bold and ambitious future for India’s space sector, opening the door to innovation, collaboration, and international cooperation. However, as we chart the course for India’s journey to the stars, it is essential to recognise that the global space landscape is not static but constantly evolving. India must embrace adaptability and strategic foresight to keep pace with these rapid changes.
The policy, while comprehensive, is only the beginning of India’s renewed space endeavour. Policymakers must remain vigilant and responsive to emerging trends, technological advancements, and the shifting dynamics of the international space arena. They should also be prepared to make periodic updates and revisions to the policy, ensuring it remains relevant and effective in the face of new challenges and opportunities.
Furthermore, as India positions itself as a global leader in space, it must strive to balance its national interests with its responsibilities to the international community. This will require a commitment to the sustainable use of outer space, fostering an environment of trust and cooperation, and championing equitable access to space resources and technologies, particularly for developing nations.
The 2023 Policy marks a turning point in India’s space journey, setting the stage for a new era of innovation, collaboration, and global leadership. Yet, the true measure of India’s success in the space domain will lie in its ability to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, harness the power of emerging technologies, and contribute to the shared goals and aspirations of the global space community. By embracing this challenge, India can boldly embark on a journey that will shape not only its destiny in space but also the future of humanity’s exploration and utilisation of the cosmos.
Kiran Mohan Vazhapully is Senior Legal Officer at Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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