Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Deep Tech Special: Inside India's space race

The space race is heating up in India, with a bunch of entrepreneurs eyeing the final frontier

Brian Carvalho
Published: Jul 2, 2024 10:20:42 AM IST
Updated: Jul 8, 2024 11:42:27 AM IST

Perhaps one feature that fell through the cracks in our recent edition on luxury tourism was space travel. You’d be tempted to ask, ‘But which Indian operator offers this?’ to which the simple answer would be that borders are hardly enough to rein in India’s superrich space enthusiasts. In May, 30-year-old India-born aviator and entrepreneur Gopi Thotakura became part of a global elite set of space tourists on Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin’s rocket called New Shepard.

Orbital and lunar space tourism—missions that orbit the Earth, and the moon and which may eventually even land on it—are still a work in progress. What’s on offer now are suborbital trips to the edge of space from providers like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

In April, the United States’ Space Exploration and Research Agency (Sera), which was founded to build a global community dedicated to space exploration, announced a partnership with Blue Origin for a spaceflight programme for citizens of nations that lack space access. Sera’s website points out that over 80 percent of all astronauts have come from just three nations.

Meanwhile, pushing the envelope to the limit is Elon Musk, whose vision is to make humans an interplanetary species by taking them to Mars. Starship, a reusable rocket ship, is an orbital-class vehicle being built to do longer trips, like to the moon and back and, eventually, to the Red Planet. In early June, on its fourth test flight into space, Starship returned successfully to Earth; Musk has hinted of a fifth sojourn in late July.

Tourism would be the fun part—at least to the layman and potential plush passenger—but there are many more deeptech private sector ventures taking shape in areas like communications, remote sensing and navigation. All this activity translates into a rapidly burgeoning space economy which McKinsey estimated a year ago is resulting in “nearly 7,500 active satellites” orbiting Earth and about “50 on average taking to the skies every week”; many of these operate as part of multi-satellite constellations serving commercial applications.

As spacetech evolves rapidly and costs drop, a rash of startups has joined the race to innovate in a wide range of areas. These go beyond launching spacecraft and satellites to actually creating an ecosystem that includes collision avoidance technologies, satellite refuelling stations and telecom systems for small satellites.

In India, a bunch of entrepreneurs are eyeing the final frontier. On the cover are Srinath Ravichandran and Moin SPM, co-founders of aerospace startup Agnikul Cosmos, which in end-May successfully launched India’s first 3D-printed rocket engine.

In this deeptech special, Forbes India’s Technology & Innovation Editor Harichandan Arakali identifies seven startups in this nascent sector that have the promise to achieve size and scale in a decade or so. Agnikul is one of them, and another is Digantara, which is building data-led infrastructure to make space operations safer.  

Arakali points that these early ventures have already overcome phenomenal odds in developing products that are almost ready for the market. However, the road ahead will present a fresh set of challenges on the execution, commercialisation and fundraising fronts.

Arakali also spoke to Rajan Anandan, MD at Peak XV, who leads the firm’s Surge programme for early and seed investments. Anandan’s investments include innovations in semiconductors, green hydrogen and spacetech. He reckons that deregulation of the space sector was a “real game-changer. This policy shift opened the door for private enterprises…”.

Brian Carvalho
Editor, Forbes India
X ID: @Brianc_Ed