India's ISRO national space agency is driving innovation.Information technology (IT) continues to play an increasingly important role in keeping our modern world spinning. Countries embracing IT inevitably experience the benefits of improved living standards for their citizens and a reduction in cost for government services. And when it comes to flexing national IT muscles and seeing a positive return on investment, no one is doing it like India.

Over the past decade, India has quietly made manufacturing inroads into industries that were formerly the exclusive domain of more technologically advanced nations.

In 2016, India produced 4.5 million automobiles, making it the fifth-largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world. Indian firms also manufactured 20 million two-wheeled vehicles, including for several storied U.S. motorcycle brands like Harley-Davidson and Indian.

Internet penetration has also continued to spread throughout the country. India now has 462 million internet users, an online base second only to China’s 731 million, and well in front of the U.S. (which has just 287 million users).

In January of this year India also surpassed the 300 million mark for smartphone users. That number is certain to increase as the domestic market for smartphones grew 18 percent in 2016 — compared to just three percent for the world market.

Even more impressive is that during the fourth-quarter of 2016, three out of four smartphones sold in-country were manufactured domestically, while more than 70 percent of smartphones shipped domestically were LTE (4G)-capable.

Meet the ISRO

While IT has helped propel these industries to new heights, nothing compares to impact it has had on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Formed in 1969, the same year the U.S. landed men on the moon, the ISRO’s reason for being is to bring the benefits of space technology to average Indians.

The results thus far have been impressive, with ISRO notching more than 100 successful missions In 2008, India staged a successful unmanned lunar landing, becoming only the fourth country to plant its flag on the moon, and the only one to accomplish it on their first attempt.

In 2014 ISRO launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) with the spacecraft “Mangalyaah” (Mars Craft in Sanskrit) reaching orbit around the Red Planet just two days after NASA’s MAVEN craft. Amazingly, the total cost for MOM was only $74 million (U.S.).

As PM Modi noted, that’s less than it cost Hollywood ($100 million) to make Interstellar and significantly less than the $671 million spent to launch the high-tech MAVEN mission. Of course, NASA did complete a manned mission to Mars, returned most of the way home to Earth, and then got all the way back to the Red Planet to rescue stranded astronaut Matt Damon for just $108 million,* so partisans of the U.S. space program can at least hang their hat on that massively frugal accomplishment.

ISRO has also developed a lucrative business launching satellites for others. To date they’ve earned $157 million sending up satellites for 21 countries, as well as major corporations like Google and Airbus.

Extraterrestrial exploits gaining steam

In February of this year, ISRO impressed the world by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket. (The previous record was 37 satellites sent into orbit by Russia in 2014.) The majority of the 104 satellites were from the United States, two from India, and one each from Israel, UAE, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Although 84 of the satellites were “Doves,” (nano-sats, weighing less than 20 pounds each) the impressiveness of the feat was that they were released every few seconds in a “rapid fire” sequence from a rocket travelling at 17,000 mph. The sequencing had to be precise: One miscalculation would have resulted in the satellites colliding with one another and failing to set-up in their correct orbits.

On June 15, the ISRO took another giant-leap forward, becoming the sixth member of the “heavy-lift” rocket club with the successful launch of the GSAT-19, a communication satellite taller than a 13-story building and weighing 3,136 kilograms. (Heavy-lift capacity is defined as being able to successfully launch into orbit satellites weighing more than three tons.)

The only other space programs with the ability to launch satellites weighing more than 6,000 lbs. belong to the U.S., Russia, China, and the European Space Agency.

The rocket ISRO used is their largest yet. The Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle Mark-III, known as “Fat Boy,” because of its size, weighs as much as “five fully-loaded Boeing jumbo jets, or as much as 200 fully grown elephants.”

It is expected that the MK-III will eventually be “human-rated” to carry Indian astronauts, likely to be named “gaganauts or vyomanauts,” to space and eventually the moon.

The GSAT-19 is designed to boost India’s communication resources and is the equivalent of seven of their older model satellites. It has a functional life-span of 10 years and is part of India’s long-term plan to bolster internet speeds and connectivity.

Low cost

The global space industry is estimated to be $323 billion (U.S.) and growing larger each year. India’s share of the global launch services is presently only 0.6 percent, but they plan to parley that into a larger slice with speed and lower per-launch costs.

ISRO is putting satellites into orbit and completing other space-based missions for less than any other program primarily due to dramatically lower labor costs. Aerospace engineers in India are paid approximately $1,000 (U.S.) per month, a fraction of what their counterparts would earn in Europe and the United States.  Another cost saver is that the program is a state-led agency that doesn’t have to utilize outside industries that are required to operate with set profit margins.

Compared to other space programs, the ISRO’s 2016 budget is an unbelievably low $1.2 billon. The amounts spent by other nations are significantly higher: Japan $3.6 billion, Russia $5.3, China $6.1 and the United States $39.3 billion.

Practical applications

India's ISRO national space agency is driving innovation.The original Space Race was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for supremacy in spaceflight capabilities. Their entire efforts were based on the idea of military superiority in space. As each country worked to solve incredibly difficult technological challenges they developed more than 1,600 practical advancements in many areas including medicine, communications and clothing.

In contrast, India’s reach for the stars has been of a more practical nature. Their goal was to develop satellite systems to aid in mapping and surveying crops, responding to natural disasters and challenges of erosion as well as increasing medical care and communications with remote areas.

Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO’s founding-father and fan of NASA, argued that, as a developing nation, India had to use the advancements that came from space exploration to solve “real” problems for its citizens. “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or other planets or manned space-flight,” he said.

“But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”

India’s plans for future space missions include a second trip to the moon in 2018 with the goal of retrieving lunar soil and rocks as well as missions to study the sun, orbit Venus, and a follow-up on its first Mars mission. Although ISRO has not announced plans for any manned missions, in 2016 they did successfully test a scale model of a reusable-launch vehicle that looks a great deal like the U.S. space shuttle.

* No, not IRL. This was the plot of the Ridley Scott-directed science-fiction film The Martian.