I hope the next ISRO chief is a woman: Susmita Mohanty

The founder-CEO of India’s first private space start-up company says privatisation can create thousands of jobs in the space sector

December 13, 2019 04:34 pm | Updated 04:34 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Susmita Mohanty, founder-CEO of India’s first private space start-up, Earth2Orbit, responds to everything that is space — be it engineering, enterprise, research, design, architecture, international advocacy, adventure or imagination. She carved out her many extraordinary roles at a young age and across three continents. She has been named among BBC’s 100 Women of 2019. A self-confessed “daughter of ISRO” and protégée of Arthur C. Clarke, the “anti-status-quo-ist” Mohanty, based in Bengaluru, articulates some bold ideas on the world of space and its women and space-related enterprise. Edited excerpts:

The BBC 100 Women 2019 recognises your role in the space arena. What do you think of the representation of women in space in India and across the world?

I grew up in the early 70s among the pioneers of the Indian space programme. To me, women in space were not a novelty. My father and his colleague, Dr. Dipti Rastogi, were deputy directors of ISRO’s Space Applications Centre. ISRO has one of the best gender ratios among space agencies, as we saw during the Mars Orbiter Mission. NASA has always had a fair number of women scientists and engineers. Since the late 90s, when I began my space career, the European Space Agency (ESA) too has improved its numbers. JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) still has some way to go.

And what about women in leadership positions in space agencies?

Abroad, we are starting to see more women leaders in space organisations. Pascale Ehrenfreund is the [head] of the German space agency, DLR, and Simonetta Di Pippo is Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). The three of us are members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies. Last month, Ehrenfreund became the first woman president of the International Astronautical Federation. MIT’s Dava Newman was Deputy Administrator of NASA under Obama. Mazlan Othman used to head the Malaysian space agency. I hope ISRO gets a woman chairperson in the near future.

Do you think ISRO’s women scientists are being groomed for leadership roles? This year’s Chandrayaan-2 was led by two women.

ISRO has a formidable set of experienced and capable women scientists. To name a few — Anuradha T.K. heads the satellite communication programme, D.R. Suma used to head the Launch Vehicle Programme Office, and V.R. Lalithambika is Gaganyaan programme director. But it is disappointing that ISRO has not yet had a woman heading a major centre in its 50-year history. When we lost contact with the Chandrayaan-2 lander, the ISRO Chairman was seen in a huddle, but I was surprised to find that the two key women, mission director Ritu Karidhal and project director M. Vanitha, were not a part of the deliberations.

What led you to found Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up.

Earth2Orbit (E2O) is my third venture; and my first in India, co-founded in 2009. I chose to go the entrepreneurial route not for chasing IPOs but to be able to speak my mind as well as to challenge and change the status quo and probably make a difference in our space scene. In 2001, I co-founded a U.S. space consulting firm called Moonfront, when I was 29 and the word ‘start-up’ didn’t exist. My Vienna venture Liquifer designs planetary habitats, simulators, rovers, greenhouses and other exploration systems.

What does E2O do?

The first seven years, we focussed on launching international payloads on the PSLV. We helped launch a Japanese satellite called PROITERES-1 in 2012. E2O also played a pivotal role in opening up the U.S. launch market for the PSLV. In the past three years, we have combined remote-sensing satellite data and data analytics and generated intelligence to make cities and agriculture climate-smart. Starting 2020, E2O plans to curate and broadcast inspiring space-related content for youngsters, on Gaganyaan and other narratives from India and exciting non-Western missions like Hayabusa and Rosetta.

What was E2O’s role in bringing small satellites from the U.S. market to be launched on the PSLV?

The U.S. has the biggest market for small satellite launches, but the PSLV’s access to it was closed due to the U.S. embargo of 1998, which still exists. When Skybox Imaging, a Stanford start-up, approached E2O in 2009, we decided to take up what seemed like an impossible mission. The major hurdles were the stringent International Traffic in Arms Regulations, and the lobbying by U.S. space companies against letting the launch business leave their country.

Over nearly three years of soft diplomacy, alongside sustained efforts by the Skybox team, I met about a dozen diplomats and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and New Delhi. The U.S. State Department granted permission to launch the first ever U.S. small commercial satellite on the PSLV. It was like bringing down a mini Berlin wall.

In April 2014, E2O made history when Skybox Imaging became the first U.S. company to sign a launch service agreement (LSA) with ISRO’s Antrix Corporation. [Skybox was briefly owned by Google as Terra Bella back then.] After that, the U.S. State Department started to allow small satellite launches on the PSLV. Although Spire Global signed the next LSA with Antrix, its nanosatellites flew first in September 2015. They were very small and easier to accommodate on the launcher than our client’s 110-kg SkySat-C1 — which went up in June 2016.

Do you think the PSLV will continue to enjoy its leading position in the international launch market?

The PSLV cannot take its current sweet spot for granted. There’s Europe’s Vega, Electron from New Zealand and Russia’s Soyuz. SpaceX has a far more customer-friendly interface than ISRO’s marketing arm. China is supporting over two dozen rocket start-ups such as iSpace, for instance.

Space entrepreneurs in India are struggling despite our decade-old collective effort and advocacy to push for change. The funding ecosystem is abysmal, compared to the U.S. and Europe. To survive, they have to look for foreign clients. ISRO can easily invest a hundred million dollars or more in the start-up ecosystem each year. Why can we not emulate the NASA model, which spends millions each year supporting innovation and disruption by small businesses and start-ups? ESA too funds and provides incubation support for research and innovation.

How do you view the pace of and the environment for privatisation of space activities in India?

Excruciatingly slow! Since 2008, we have been hearing about the outsourcing of PSLV’s assembly to a consortium but nothing has happened yet. The 2016 spacecraft assembly contract with a consortium is conservative and will not allow companies to grow beyond ISRO’s needs or its shadow. If we were to pursue privatisation and commercialisation as in the U.S., Europe and now China, we would create thousands of employment opportunities in the space sector, much like in the IT sector.

Do you foresee an innovative venture like SpaceX coming out of India one day?

Nearly impossible for a SpaceX to happen in India for the next 10-20 years. We don’t have the policy framework for it or the open-mindedness to embrace young risk-takers.


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