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Not sci-fi: Members of Team Indus with the lunar lander in Bangalore.

Fly me to the Moon

In other words, India’s only Google Lunar XPrize challenger may be the trigger the private aerospace industry in the country needs. Is this the giant step India’s waiting for?
By Nirmal John

Friday morning, Domlur, Bangalore. I am outside a room on the third floor of an office building, along with 30 others. They stand in a loose circle, and each one takes a few minutes to tell the others what he or she has been doing and what’s to be done. One of them takes notes, and later shows me that 290 action points, including finalising suppliers for fuel tanks, had been brought up. This is a daily meeting, and has to happen outside the room because there’s no space inside for all of them to gather.

Those 30 form Team Indus—India’s yet unsung private moon mission. The office belongs to communication technology firm Sasken, which lent space to Team Indus some 18 months ago. Most Sasken employees don’t know what goes on in that room. I am among the few outsiders who know that Team Indus exists. What do they do? They are trying to get a craft on the moon next year. Really? As pedestrian, everyday as that? Well, if you were to ask any of the 30, the answer is “Oh yeah”.

Team Indus, which calls itself a “non-conformist, unconventional alliance of entrepreneurs and explorers”, is a startup with big dreams. It’s one of 32 teams—and the only Indian one—registered for the $40 million (Rs 240 crore) Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP). XPrize, founded by American entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, is based on the idea that “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” can happen by tapping into the competitive spirit inherent in people. The theory: Competition incentivises innovation.

There are many XPrizes in many fields (the Ansari XPrize for building a manned spacecraft, the Archon Genomics XPrize, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize, etc.), and the GLXP is Google’s contribution to space exploration. The GLXP task, spelled out on its website, is this: “To win the grand prize, private teams (with no more than 10% in government funding) must: Land a robot safely on the moon; move 500 m on, above, or below the moon’s surface; and send back HDTV mooncasts for everyone to enjoy.” The first team to do this by the end of 2015 will win the big purse, and possibly million-dollar aerospace projects; there are prizes for the runner-up, as well as a host of bonus prizes including one for the team that sends back images of historic lunar sites, such as the landing area of Apollo 11, the first manned moon mission. Last year, “milestone prizes” were announced for teams that demonstrate key technologies before the launch.
 

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Moon struck: Team Indus outside their mission control in Bangalore 

It’s all incredibly difficult—and hugely expensive. Only three countries have so far managed a soft landing on the moon—the U.S., Russia (back when it was the U.S.S.R), and China. A soft landing is complex, involving hovering above the moon’s surface, and decelerating to negligible speeds before making contact with the surface. Most countries that have sent craft to the moon—including the Moon Impact Probe on Chandrayaan-1, India’s indigenously developed moon mission, launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in late 2008—have made hard landings; shorn of jargon, this means that the craft crashes into the moon. It’s a little less complicated than a soft landing, but still involves extremely fine calculations to figure out exactly where to crash.

The process is roughly this: A craft powered by a rocket engine is put into orbit by a satellite launch vehicle (India has the PSLV and GSLV; Europe has Ariane; China, Long March; the U.S. has Falcon, Pegasus, Delta, and more). The rocket engine takes over once the craft is launched, enters lunar orbit, and lands (or crashes) on the moon. The landing craft then rolls free and begins to send back data to the control station. 

The GLXP teams will have to develop a lander system (to control a soft landing); a mobility system (to control the craft’s movement); and an imaging system (to send HD media content to earth). While they are free to make their own launch vehicles, most teams are looking at hitching a ride on existing launchers. This is where Team Indus has an advantage: The Indian space workhorse, the PSLV, is known to be among the cheapest ‘space taxis’ in the world. Team Indus is discussing the launch details with ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix.

When governments set up moon missions, the money involved is huge, from $80 million in 2008 (which is what ISRO’s unmanned Chandrayaan 1 is estimated to have cost) to $20 billion in the 1960s (the U.S. Apollo mission). Rahul Narayan, Team Indus’s co-founder, estimates that they’ll need around $35 million. This includes the cost of mission and systems design, cost of goods, testing, and launch and mission control. Around two-thirds of this amount is earmarked for the launch on PSLV, which is the most expensive part of a moon mission, although not necessarily the most complex. 

Typically, manpower costs are low; typical, because ISRO scientists are willing to work at bargain basement salaries. Team Indus has a handful of ex-ISRO hands offering direction and leadership—some for no pay.

The show is now run on funds bootstrapped by the founders and on donations by individuals, though the names of these individuals have not been revealed. Pitching to investors isn’t easy. “This almost sounds like a Ponzi scheme, especially when the pitch is ‘I am going to the moon, give me money. I will put your name up there’. Until you feel confident about what you claim, it always will be a challenge for folks like me,” says Narayan. Co-founder Julius Amrit, who was an investment banker, adds that one of the big challenges is that a large percentage of capital available in India isn’t mandated to be used in engineering-led technology startups, like Team Indus, but in sectors like e-commerce. 

What has helped Team Indus is being shortlisted for a couple of GLXP milestone prizes: The XPrize site says these prizes “are for demonstrating (via actual testing and analysis) robust hardware and software to overcome key technical risks in the areas of imaging, mobility, and lander systems—all three being necessary to achieve a successful Google Lunar XPrize mission”. Team Indus has been shortlisted for the Landing and Imaging prizes; competitors Astrobotic and Moon Express, from the U.S., have been chosen for all three categories; Germany-based Part Time Scientists makes it in two categories; and Hakuto from Japan in one.

A handful believe that Team Indus has what it takes; most write them off as amateurs with a big dream. India’s space programme, under ISRO, is strong, and there has been little room for private participation. A couple of years ago, ISRO had stated that it wanted to outsource part of the lucrative rocket launch business and satellite manufacturing to private industry. But after the huge controversy surrounding an ISRO deal with Devas Multimedia, a private satellite provider, where government satellites were apparently given to Devas for its own use, private participation seems under a cloud. 

There are a few private players, including the likes of Earth2Orbit, an aerospace firm that provides satellite and launch services, robotic systems, space consultancy and the like, but this is not even a drop in the ocean when compared to the thriving private space industry in the U.S., for instance. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Excalibur Almaz, as well as defence biggies such as Lockheed Martin, are all closely linked with America’s space programmes. 

But despite the U.S. government actively encouraging private participation in space exploration, and the meteoric rise of firms such as SpaceX, there are critics aplenty. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and commander of the Apollo 11 mission, had spoken before the U.S. Senate against such privatisation, saying NASA would lose its edge in space not to private companies but “other nations [which] will surely step in where we have faltered”, as quoted in a report by American news organisation NPR. 
 

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Team Indus is an odd mix. They are a group of friends who come from software services, marketing, and investment banking who stumbled on to GLXP. Only one in the five-member founding group—Rahul Narayan, team lead; Indranil Chakraborty; Sameer Joshi, special projects lead; Julius Amrit, investment lead; and Dilip Chabria, marketing lead—has anything to do with aerospace. Chakraborty, an aerospace engineer from IIT Kharagpur, is the closest spaceman they have, but even he worked most of his career in industries other than aerospace.  

Like many smart, ambitious people, these friends too had often discussed the possibility of some day quitting their jobs and setting up something pathbreaking together. “In those days, we were talking about everything from wireless induction-charging, connected televisions, distributed wind, to generating power from the flow inside drains,” recalls Chabria. Nothing about landing on the moon.

That story began in 2009, when Narayan was COO of Noida-based software services provider Agnicient Technologies. On one of his projects, he was remotely sharing the desktop of a client in the U.S., and saw a GLXP poster as the background. His interest piqued, he dug a little and found out about the competition. He thought he could offer his services as software partner if there were Indian teams registered, but there were none. He reached out to GLXP and asked to be informed if anyone from India registered.

Late in December 2010, some hours before deadline, GLXP contacted Narayan. There was no Indian participation, it said. Would Narayan want to register? Frantic phone calls ensued to Chakraborty, Joshi, Amrit, and Chabria, grand plans were drawn up on doodling pads, Axiom Research Labs was set up, and $50,000 raised to pay the registration fee. With just hours to spare, Axiom registered with GLXP as Team Indus.

So, here was a team that had absolutely no clue about moon landing—and was already late to the party. Registrations opened in 2007, so competitors had a three-year head start. What gave them the confidence that they could reach the moon? “If it hadn’t been for the Chandrayaan-1 mission, we wouldn’t have gone in,” says Narayan. 

Zenia Tata, director, global development & international expansion at XPrize, says it’s clear that XPrize appeals to entrepreneurs. She could well be talking of Team Indus (though she doesn’t, since the competition is still on), when she says: “These are serious risk-takers we are talking about here.”

That the Xprize and the foundation behind it is highly respected is evident from their board of trustees—Elon Musk, Ratan Tata, Ray Kurzweil, Larry Page, and Diamandis (who is also the chairman and CEO of the organisation). But what motivates most of the teams is the opportunity ahead if they deliver. Winning brings with it the promise of building a business in the rarefied world of commercial aerospace. The intellectual property generated by teams doesn’t need to be shared with the XPrize Foundation. The commercial value of such space-based IP is rising, more so because of a global shift towards increased private participation in commercial aerospace.
 
Global economic woes have accelerated this shift, with NASA opting to use private players like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for many of their launches instead of investing billions of public dollars in expensive programmes. According to the 2013 report of the Space Foundation, a space resource organisation, the global space economy grew 7% to $304 billion in 2012. A study by London Economics, an international policy and economics consultancy, conservatively pegs the value of the commercial opportunities available for the GLXP teams (all competitors, not just winners) between $1.9 billion and $6.4 billion over the next couple of decades.
 

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Simultaneously, companies like Google have started investing heavily in space-based businesses. The search giant bought out satellite company Skybox Imaging for $500 million early this year, to improve Google Maps. Just a few months earlier, Facebook acquired Ascenta, an aerospace company based in the U.K. Space is becoming everybody’s business.

India has been a strategically important but quantitatively insignificant player. The 15 launches of foreign satellites (from 2011 to date) earned the country about €40 million (Rs 321 crore), according to what Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh told Parliament, reported by the Indian daily Business Standard. Overall, Antrix is said to have registered Rs 1,300 crore in revenues in 2012-13. And that’s just a sliver of the massive opportunity that exists in providing such services.

This is the slice of space that Team Indus wants, and is sure it can get. Mylswamy Annadurai, project director for Chandrayaan 1 & 2, who was among the few ISRO brass who talked to Fortune India, doesn’t share that optimism. “They are very enthusiastic. But I don’t know if they understand the real intricacies of such a mission. Returns, which are important for a private company, may not be immediate,” he says. 

Team Indus isn’t going into this with its collective heads in the clouds; not entirely, at any rate. Narayan, who is an alumnus of IIT Delhi and the most vocal advocate of the project, decided to leave his software company and work on the GLXP project full time. The team realised around then that it made sense to move to Bangalore, which has a relatively well-developed aerospace industry. It was also important to tap into ex-ISRO employees, many of whom were based down south. The move also gave Team Indus access to young talent; the number of employees has grown to 30, from the initial dozen. Save a handful of seniors such as Ramnath Babu, Dhruv Batra, and Sheelika Ravishankar, the average age of the team is 23.

Aditya Kothandhapani, a twentysomething aerospace engineering graduate from Britain’s Cranfield University, tells me that he declined other offers where he would have had to work on aircraft structural design because they were too “stable and boring”. Others, like communications specialist Guruditya Sinha and Nakul Kakar, gave up corporate and government jobs, even paying lakhs to be released from employment bonds, to join Team Indus. Kakar had worked at ISRO, but threw that up when he learnt of Team Indus. “There, I would have been working on a small part of a small subsystem. Here I am taking decisions on propulsion systems,” he says.
 

Guiding these youngsters is a group of 12 senior ex-ISRO scientists, including R.V. Perumal, former director, and P.S. Nair, former director of the organisation’s Satellite Centre. Some of these senior pros offer their services to Team Indus gratis. These services include regular review meetings, which can be bruising affairs with the grey-haired ISRO scientists and the young engineers differing on how to go about the mission. I attended one such seven-hour review on structures, where Nair tore into the team for not sticking to certain specifications. It was almost like being back in school, except these people aren’t making paper rockets to chuck in the classroom.

After the meeting, Nair tells me: “I’m not here to give them smiles and pats on the back. They still have a lot of work to do for this to become real. In India we haven’t done much outside ISRO in terms of space. We have to push every opportunity possible.” C.V. Reddy, another ex-ISRO engineer who is helping Team Indus, agrees with Nair’s assessment on the massive amount of work that remains to be done. 

Team Indus also has a solid team of advisors. These include S.K. Jain, managing director at Westbridge Capital; Kiran Karnik, ex-president of Nasscom; Arun Seth, chairman of Alcatel-Lucent India and former chairman of British Telecom India; Rajiv Mody, chairman and managing director of Sasken Communication Technologies; and ex-ISRO chairman K. Kasturirangan. They have been crucial in helping Team Indus open doors at ISRO, the government, and private companies.

Seth, who was attracted to the project’s “audaciousness”, has been working closely with the team on spreading the word. “You have to work on opening the right doors. That’s part of what I do for them. I can’t claim that I understand the technology challenges. What I have seen is that this is a group of people who are passionate about it.”

Then, there’s help from people like Mody who has given office space. “It is obviously not a run of the mill idea. We have also connected them with our team in Finland for antenna design. As and when they need us, we are there,” says Mody. Jain says he’s spending “personal time and energy on this because I know what this could mean as an inspiration”.
 

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Made of star-stuff: Like all space-obsessed people, the youngsters at Team Indus idolise Carl Sagan. Enough to put him on their T-shirts.

Companies such as Tata Communications and L&T are ready to work with Team Indus for free; for them, this is potentially a great marketing platform and an R&D initiative. L&T has been associated with Team Indus for many months now and signed a memorandum to undertake all the heavy engineering work, including constructing the spacecraft. Tata Communications, which has one of the largest undersea cable networks in the world, is working with Team Indus to connect mission control with ground stations. A memorandum is in the works. These firms are willing to ignore short-term returns: They have seen Virgin Galactic work its way up based on a spaceship model that won the Ansari XPrize in 2004. They see such ventures as a future source of business.

The bigger question, however, is what if this entire exercise comes to nought? If Team Indus doesn’t win? Narayan says that while the actual landing will give them huge amounts of credibility, the process of setting up the moon mission itself will attract business. He says he’s confident that there’s enough opportunity in space even for an untried company. “We are trying to create an enterprise that is going to be a billion dollars by 2020. We are developing end-to-end aerospace project management capabilities, and that is something we could offer as a service.” He goes on to say that even space agencies in developed countries would be interested because of the lower costs.

To show what they’ve achieved, and to allow us to shoot their moon lander in a suitably lunar landscape, Team Indus takes us a few kilometres south of the Kempegowda International Airport and a 10-minute drive off the expressway to the city, to a hillock littered with boulders. The area on top of the hill, which was once part of a quarry, has an eerie quality—it could be a strange planet in any sci-fi franchise. Except, there’s Team Indus’s lunar launch vehicle on the surface.

Narayan and his team show us the finer points of the vehicle, and pose beside it bashfully. Then, as we pack up to leave, a Bangalore cop rides by on his motorcycle. He sees us and stops to find out what’s going on. One of the team members shows him the lander and explains that, with any luck, this will be on the moon in a few months. The cop looks befuddled, and looks around at the group trying to place members. Then, inspired, he asks: “Scientist-aa?” (Are you scientists?) In a city that hosts several R&D labs, and is home to the Indian Institute of Science, any strange behaviour can be attributed to scientists, a group the cops are familiar with. The team doesn’t bother explaining the finer points of Team Indus; they just nod and the cop thunders away on his bike. All’s well on his beat.

Team Indus isn’t entirely as sanguine. After all, it is a small, untried company that’s taking on far larger challengers. Narayan says the competitors to watch out for are both from the U.S.—Astrobotic and Moon Express. Astrobotic is incubated at Carnegie Mellon and has partners like engineering simulation company ANSYS. Moon Express, run by NRI billionaire Naveen Jain, is headed by Andy Aldrin, son of Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. Other contenders include Team Space IL from Israel, which has got $16 million in funding. Then there’s Spain’s Barcelona Moon Team, which thus far has been the only team to have secured a launch, on the Chinese Long March 2C rocket.

This is why Team Indus needs the PSLV; it will give them a launch vehicle at a fraction of the cost other teams will have to pay. ISRO is unwilling to comment. Its director, Deviprasad Karnik, says officials are wary of talking to the media after the Devas controversy. Team Indus not only needs to launch before the GLXP deadline (end 2015), it has to time its moon entry with the lunar day, which lasts for two weeks or so. The lander is unlikely to survive the extreme cold of the lunar night, which also lasts two weeks.

Those in Team Indus’s corner are optimistic. “They are a part of an India that people globally haven’t seen much of,” says V. Sunil, executive creative director at advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, which is working on a new brand identity for Team Indus. “The idea is to do something that will make a larger point. Something that will say that beautiful science can come out of India.”