Inside India’s First Private Space Craft

Over the ages, human civilization has always looked up at the stars and wondered what’s out there. We have learned a lot about space but have had very little advancements in exploring it for a long time.

As time progressed, the powers and capabilities of technology also increased but space travel was largely left behind. By the end of the 20th century and into 21st-century space travel in India was still expensive and therefore, was completely run by the government. However, the union cabinet recently approved private player participation in space in June 

2020 in hopes of transforming the sector. Several private companies have forayed into manufacturing their own space carrier since then.

Earlier in August, Skyroot Aerospace, an Indian startup, became the first in the country to test-fire a homegrown upper-stage rocket engine. A rocket consists of two or more engines that are vertically stacked. While the company has tested the upper-most stage engine, the initial stage engines are being manufactured. 

Our team at WireX spoke with Pawan Kumar Chandana, CEO, Skyroot Aerospace and asked him to throw some light on the significance of this development and what it means for India’s space ambitions. Excerpts from the exclusive interview:

Q: Skyroot Aerospace is the first private company to test the Upper Stage Rocket Engine? What is the significance of this milestone?

A: It’s a very significant milestone considering it is a very important stage for our launch vehicle which will be finally inserting satellites in space. This is just the upper stage and the actual launch vehicle has many stages which will be tested over the next year. Those stages will be integrated before the final launch.

Another important significance of this milestone is that we proved several new technologies and succeeded in our first attempt which is a rare feat in building complex space systems. It is quite rare for rocket engines to be successfully test-fired in the first attempt, so that is a great achievement.

Q: Please tell us about your formative years. What was your reason behind getting into Aerospace?

A: Since college days I was very fascinated with Rockets as they are the most intriguing and complex machines– very challenging and exciting to work with. Then I joined ISRO which further reinforced the fascination and also the understanding of commercial potential and opportunity in this sector- which led to starting Skyroot. . I had a lot of hands-on experience working on various launch vehicles. It gave me great exposure, which actually [gave us] the confidence to build something ourselves. That was only possible because of the exposure and the fascination I had after working on India’s largest rockets for five to six years.

Q: What makes SkyRoot so advanced than other competitors in small satellite launch vehicles? 

A: We have an intense ‘build fast- test faster’ philosophy with quality incorporated in every step right from early design phases till final manufacturing, integration and testing. Also, we built a world class team – one of the best globally for building rocket systems. The sheer simplicity of the rocket is what makes us different. Skyroot’s Rockets can be manufactured, assembled and launched very fast. Then there is the cost. It is also much cheaper than any other rocket in similar segments in the international market. We have also been trying new technologies such as 3-D printing in fabricating the engines. This has nearly reduced the overall mass by 50%, and reduced total number of components & lead time by 80%. 

Q: What is the payload capacity of the three rockets your team is working on?

A: Vikram I is meant to lift 225 kg to 500 km Sun Synchronous Polar Orbit(SSPO) and 315 kg to 45º inclination 500 km Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Vikram II is designed for 410 kg to 500 km SSPO and 520 kg to 45º inclination 500km LEO. In the case of Vikram III, we are looking at 580 kg to 500 km SSPO and 720 kg to 45º inclination 500 km LEO. 

Q: The Indian government recently opened up the space sector to private players.  How do you see it impacting the larger industry and Skyroot’s future?

A: This is a major reform having the potential to completely transform the Indian space sector. This will give room for more and faster innovation and make us more internationally competitive as a nation. In the next year, most of our sub-systems and rocket stages will be tested. Our hardware is in the final stages of manufacturing. We can now use ISRO facilities, which was not the case earlier. So, this will help our testing. Also, launching requires licencing and regulatory procedures. We feel there will be no delay from the government’s side and that perfectly matches our timeline.

Q: Testing rocket engines, sourcing components and preparing them for launch requires expensive infrastructure. How are you managing?

A: We have some basic facilities of our own and the rest are to be provided by ISRO. In terms of procuring components, there is a reasonably well-developed infrastructure in India, thanks to ISRO. We are able to source the majority of our components from various vendors and MSMEs within India. As manufacturing costs are relatively low in India, our overall development cost comes down. 

Q: How are things looking on the funding side? Does SkyRoot have outside investors? Please explain how Skyroot generates revenue?

A: We have Mukesh Bansal (founder of Myntra & CureFit) & Solar Industries (1.5B$ group) backing us and more investors joining us soon. We have received initial funding of Rs.31.5cr and are expecting to receive Rs.90cr over the next one year. We are in active development of our first rocket slated for launch by the end of next year. Ideally, our revenues will start in 2022. 

Q: What is your ultimate goal with SkyRoot? What are the milestones that you are looking forward to achieving in the upcoming months?

A: We have two rocket stages to be tested in the next six months, then the first launch by the end of next year. Starting full-fledged commercial operations post that through launching small satellites would be our major milestone followed by ramping up the launch frequency and development of our future vehicles. The goal is to create a space-based economy. Today, we have an earth-based economy.

Q: How will the future look if we can commercialise outer space?

A: That’s the goal. Life on earth will be better with enhanced space-based services. With a fully commercialised outer space, Human habitation will expand to outer space creating new ways of living and working. 

The startup is currently developing three rockets—Vikram-1, Vikram-2 and Vikram-3—which will act as small satellite launch vehicles (SSLV) carrying payloads ranging from 225kg to 720kg. The team wants to tap into the global market of small satellites and is also designing its own software and using 3D printing for rocket hardware. The company wants to be the most affordable satellite carrier in the segment, and charge around Rs15 lakh a kilo. It has already raised Rs31.5 crore and is looking to raise Rs90 crore more in a year. A few more rocket stages will be tested before the big launch.

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