NYT’s profile of India’s space startup scene

The New York Times published a ‘profile’ of the Indian spaceflight startup scene on July 4. The article is typical in that: a) by virtue of being published by one of the world’s most-read news outlets, it can only be a big boost to the actors in its narrative, in this case a few Indian startups; and b) it takes a superficial outside-in view that flattens complex issues and misses finer points that, to local observers, would change the meanings of some sentences in important ways.

By and large, the article seems like a swing in the opposite direction from that distasteful cartoon in 2014 – even if there is still that note of surprise, and that fixation on ISRO doing things at a lower cost, overlooking that it has not infrequently come at the expense of lower efficiency on many fronts. Then again, the article’s protagonists are the space startups, and I’m sincerely excited about their work.

In this post, I want to point out one issue that I think The New York Times could have fixed before publishing: the word “heavy” has been used in a confusing way in the article even if it’s been used only twice. First (emphasis added):

As ISRO … makes room for new private players, it shares with them a profitable legacy. Its spaceport, on the coastal island of Sriharikota, is near the Equator and suitable for launches into different orbital levels. The government agency’s “workhorse” rocket is one of the world’s most reliable for heavy loads. With a success rate of almost 95 percent, it has halved the cost of insurance for a satellite — making India one of the most competitive launch sites in the world.

In the launch-vehicle sector, the word ‘heavy’ has a specific meaning and can’t be used directly in its colloquial sense. The “workhorse” referred to here is obviously the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which, like the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), is classified as a medium-lift launch vehicle. ‘Medium-lift’ means being able to lift 2-20 tonnes to the low-earth orbit (LEO). This in turn implies that the article’s (first) use of “heavy” means just colloquially heavy. The second use creates the confusion (emphasis added):

It was Elon Musk who stole India’s — and the world’s — thunder on the space business. His company, SpaceX, and its relaunchable rockets brought down the cost of sending heavy objects into orbit so much that India could not compete. Even today, from American spaceports at $6,500 per kilogram, SpaceX’s launches are the cheapest anywhere.

One could think that since both the PSLV and SpaceX’s reusable launch vehicle, Falcon 9, lift “heavy” payloads, they have the same capacity, affirmed by the line that SpaceX stole India’s thunder. This is not true: Falcon 9 (in the Block 5 configuration currently in use) can lift 22.8 tonnes to the LEO and 8.3 tonnes to the higher geostationary transfer orbit; the PSLV can manage only 1.4 tonnes to the latter.

A clarifying quote follows:

“We are more like a cab,” Mr. Chandana [of Skyroot] said. His company charges higher rates for smaller-payload launches, whereas SpaceX “is more like a bus or a train, where they take all their passengers and put them in one destination,” he said.

Given the masses involved, the PSLV was always a “cab” compared to the Falcon 9. In fact, ISRO is currently working on its own reusable launch vehicle with a payload capacity of around 20 tonnes to the LEO and an expected mass-to-orbit cost of $4,000/kg, down from around $20,000 today. This thing, whenever it is ready, will create an actual opportunity for thunder-stealing on either side (it has already been considerably delayed).

There are many other niggles that, as I said, I won’t get into, but I must say that I’m very curious why “pharmaceuticals” has been singled out here, together with “information technology”:

An image of India’s first satellite graced the two-rupee note until 1995. Then for a while India paid less attention to its space ambitions, with young researchers focused on more tangible developments in information technology and pharmaceuticals. Now India is not only the world’s most populous country but also its fastest-growing large economy and a thriving center of innovation.

What is this secret revolution that I’ve missed, a revolution that, by implication, contributed to the country’s economic position today? Perhaps it’s generic drugs – but it pales in comparison to the growth of the IT sector and there has been no indication that it was led by “young researchers”. So, curious…