SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?
ISRO’s PSLV C-40 (left) and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (right).
ISRO’s PSLV C-40 (left) and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (right).(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?

India’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built a reputation for launching rockets into space at very convenient prices. The consequent effect?

A lot of customers from around the world have come flocking to avail India’s economical rocket-launching services and this has helped the country make some extra bucks from its space exploration program.

However, it’s a pretty competitive space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a decent run in the past couple of days and the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket has paved the way for launching heavy satellites into space.

SpaceX and ISRO are competitors of sorts in the business of commercial satellite launches. The question is, how big of a threat is SpaceX to India’s space agency?

ISRO Vs SpaceX in numbers
ISRO Vs SpaceX in numbers
(Photo: The Quint)

The Experienced Campaigner

Okay, first some facts. ISRO is an experienced campaigner in the field of space exploration as it’s been launching rockets into space since as early as 1975. From sending India’s first satellite into space (Aryabhata), to successfully launching some of the most historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Mangalyaan (2013), ISRO has done it all.

ISRO has carried out a total of 96 spacecraft missions, which involve 66 launch missions.

Apart from the above, it has various other goals, ranging from maintaining the communication satellite constellation around the Earth to sending manned missions into space. Not easy by any means.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is the new kid on the block and really isn’t a big space exploration agency (at least not as big as ISRO).

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk with an aim to provide economically efficient ways to launch satellites and also colonise Mars!

Overall, since SpaceX’s first mission in June, 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 51 times, out of which 49 have been successful. That’s a 96 percent success rate!

So, in terms of experience, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. But in terms of success rate, it’s tough to beat at 96 percent.

The Money Game!

SpaceX is a privately-owned enterprise and is funded by big companies like Google and Fidelity. According to a Forbes, SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion (Rs 13.035 crore) as of December 2017.

ISRO on the other hand is a state-owned entity and is run and controlled by the Government of India. Each year, the agency is allocated a certain part of the nation’s budget. For the year 2018-19, the Centre has allocated Rs 8,936 crore to the space organisation.

There is also a big difference in terms of cost per mission. For example, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s cost per launch comes up to $62 million, while ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) costs roughly $15 million per launch.

The size of the payloads are different as the Falcon 9 carries much heavier bulk than India’s rockets.

Currently, India makes very less on commercial missions as most of them carry small or nano-satellites. Between 2013 and 2015, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite. That’s peanuts compared to a SpaceX launch, which costs $60 million.

According to a 2016 report, India’s premier space agency earned a revenue of around Rs 230 crore through commercial launch services, which is about 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.

India is still to make big ‘moolah’ from their launches as small satellites don’t pull in a lot of money as compared to bigger ones.

‘Impressive’, Says Mr Musk

Despite the fact that ISRO is considered competition for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the business of commercial satellite launches, he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he is “impressed” by India’s frugal methods of conducting successful launch missions.

Last year in February, India launched 104 satellites into space using a single rocket, which really caught Musk’s attention. This is a world record that India holds till date.

Also Read: ISRO Scripts History, Launches 104 Satellites In One Go

If that’s not impressive enough, India also launched it’s Mars probe (Mangalyaan) in 2014 which cost less than what it cost to make the Hollywood movie “The Martian”. Ironical?

Also Read: Happy 1st Birthday to India’s Mangalyaan Mission: Lookback in Pics

You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals. But again, if Musk is impressed, it means ISRO has hit it out of the park.

And the Winner is...

I am not going to pick a winner because of a lot of reasons. One of them is that I like both of them.

SpaceX is a 15-year-old company, which has made heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle, while ISRO is a 40-year-old organisation making inroads into the medium-lift category; Not to mention it also has a billion other things to take care of (including working on reusable rockets).

Since the objective of both these organisations is to make frugal space missions possible, it’s no doubt that ISRO has the lead in this race.

Yes, there is a lot that SpaceX can learn from what India has achieved till now, but that can work both ways, considering the technology SpaceX is using is much more advanced. But in the end one cannot deny the fact that SpaceX is all about launching rockets and getting them back to Earth in one piece, not making satellites.