On 15th February 2017, ISRO’s PSLV-C37 successfully launched 104 Satellites in a single rocket making a new world record. A month later, SpaceX reused it’s reusable rocket and landed it back successfully. Both companies are marching towards success and the question is “Who is going to be the winner in the low cost Space Race ?”
It’s not easy to compare SpaceX and ISRO because, SpaceX is a private organisation and ISRO a government body. They have their own goals. Space X has enormous funding to burn in R&D. ISRO is innovative in cheap payloads but is not market driven. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-service provider. It has to fulfil the needs of the government first and then the private entities.
ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is a low-medium lift launch vehicle with 39 launches (as of 15 February 2017) with a success rate of 95%. It can carry a maximum payload of 1,400 kg to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). ISRO is charging only 60 percent of the rates compared to other space programs.
SpaceX Falcon 9 is a much more powerful rocket than PSLV. It can carry payloads upto 8,300 kg to GTO. The rocket has a reusable booster that can be landed back to predetermined sites and then retrieved and transported back so that it can be used again. Costs could then be reduced since new boosters don’t have to be made for each launch. According to Elon Musk, the reusable Falcon 9 rockets can drastically cut spaceflight costs “by a factor of 100”, making the company a low-cost game-changer in the satellite market. ISRO PSLV cost $15 million to launch whereas SpaceX Falcon 9 costs around $62 million as cited by various sources.
One advantage for ISRO is that SpaceX is still yet to master the technology. ISRO has a higher success rate and a more reliable rocket. ISRO may have more success with the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) which is currently being developed. It is essentially India’s space shuttle. The RLV might be a low cost alternative, if reusable boosters could be incorporated with it. ISRO is also developing GSLV Mk III with a payload capacity of 4,000 kg to GTO. If the booster can be reused, the GLSV might be turn out be a major competitor of Falcon 9.
SpaceX is hiring some of the best talents with high salary from the US whereas ISRO is struggling in this area. They are planning to land men on Mars and make preparations for their living while ISRO has no plans for these missions in the near future.
Both ISRO and SpaceX must also look into new companies waiting to enter into the industry. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has announced plans to develop first full-scale BE-4 rocket engine — the main engine the company plans to use to propel its future orbital rocket. In future, more companies like Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and Lockheed Martin could enter the industry with cost effective rockets.
The Pandas think that bottomline of the space race programs is cost reduction. Both SpaceX and ISRO have a lot to learn from each other. Most companies are looking for the most cost effective way of launching their satellites into space – and the one that offers the most efficient launch vehicle would be the clear winner.