On January 24, when Bengaluru’s space startup TeamIndus and its launch contractor, Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of the Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organisation, jointly announced that they had called off their year-old agreement, not many were surprised. The agreement was for hurling a TeamIndus spacecraft to the moon on an ISRO rocket.
What was the project?
A small consolation for TeamIndus was that at the same time, the agency that conceived the moon-landing contest, the Google Lunar XPrize, back in 2007, declared that none of the five international finalists would be able to meet its $30 million challenge. Which was to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon, move a robotic rover for 500 metres on the lunar terrain and make it send videos and pictures from there — all this before March 31, 2018. It was mandated that each team must be at least 90% private-funded.
A galaxy of corporate icons such as Ratan Tata, Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Nandan Nilekani and Rakesh Jhunjhunwala were among the 70-odd individuals who blessed TeamIndus and put their money in it. Some of ISRO’s retired brains, who had led its 2008 Chandrayaan-1 and Mars orbiter missions, were roped in, and the former ISRO Chairman, K. Kasturirangan, mentored the team. TeamIndus also won an encouraging milestone prize of $1 million. In December 2016, it found timely space transport: ISRO’s PSLV rocket.
What went wrong?
Yet, in the end, with all the positives, why could not it reach for the moon and the bounty that its 100-plus young engineers were slogging for over seven years?
Pioneering state-funded lunar landing missions of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union did not succeed at first shot. As the Google Lunar XPrize itself conceded, a private-funded “moonshot” is not easy. It noted that the teams could not raise the funds they needed; they also ran into technical and regulatory difficulties.
Antrix and TeamIndus, which are contract-bound not to disclose details of the deal, have not clarified the whispers around the cancelled launch. However, in November, even while the project was on, the then DoS Secretary, A.S. Kiran Kumar, said in a television programme that TeamIndus had many challenges before it: money, technology and readiness.
While TeamIndus CEO Rahul Narayan later said, it needed another six months to raise the money for hardware imports for the spacecraft and the rover, those in the space industry doubt whether it still would have made it.
TeamIndus raised about half of the $60-65 million (around ₹400 crore) it needed to complete the mission: new investors did not appear enthused.
Were costs too high?
Space travel costs are high even it is a ride on an internationally economical PSLV. It may have cost TeamIndus ₹150-200 crore plus insurance to launch its 600 kg spacecraft. In the 2008 Chandrayaan-1, for example, the launch alone might have cost the ISRO more than half the ₹380 crore total mission cost.
TeamIndus was to pay Antrix in instalments and clear the entire sum before the launch. There were murmurs that it made only the first payment. It is also not known how Antrix dealt with the issue when TeamIndus, on its own, sold part of the ride cost to another contestant, Japan’s Hakuto.
The landing spacecraft and the rover should have been sent to the ISRO for flight qualification clearance about six months before the launch date. TeamIndus was nowhere near it.
Mr. Narayan has said he and his friends initially created the company mainly for the contest. Its other business goals such as making small satellites and drones might have been woven around the mission later. TeamIndus may have had nothing to sell and earn in order to finance the trip.
It still looks at the moon but in the end, the celestial neighbour proved to be too big a bite to be ECA ( Ek choti si asha ) or a tiny hope. TeamIndus had named its rover ECA, now grounded.