19th of April is a historic day for India’s space mission. On this day, 42 years ago, ISRO launched the first Indian satellite Aryabhata. Indigenously designed and fabricated in India, Aryabhata was, to paraphrase the legendary Neil Armstrong, “one small step for ISRO, one giant leap for India’s satellite technology.”

That India’s maiden satellite was named after the legendary astronomer and mathematician, Aryabhata, is only befitting. In the 5th Century B.C., Aryabhata successfully calculated the diameter of the earth and the moon, proposed that the earth rotated on its axis and determined the value of Pi up to the fourth decimal place, among other things. It is this deep knowledge of advanced maths and science that made India the global knowledge hub of the ancient world, drawing scholars from distant lands to its universities at Nalanda and Taksashila.

Centuries later, in 1947, while delivering his historic “tryst with destiny” speech our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru referred to the need of leveraging India’s historic connect with science and technology for the task of nation building.

Two decades later in 1969, when Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of India’s space program, took charge of ISRO, he made an inspiring statement which was prophetic… “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation… 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.”

As a developing economy, India’s budget for space science was modest, which evoked a lot of scepticism about our country’s capability. Even today, ISRO has a budget which is a tenth of NASA, yet it has propelled India into a leadership position in space research.

ISRO’s soaring achievements may have taken the world by surprise and what’s more, they have demonstrated India’s potential to drive ‘affordable innovation’ that can deliver high value with frugal resources.

Thanks to ISRO, what India has achieved in space technology is not only world class, it is world beating! India has been able to scale the heights of success driven by a scientific team on a “mission mode” led by inspirational leaders like Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Prof. Satish Dhawan, Prof. U.R. Rao, Dr. K. Kasturirangan, Shri G. Madhavan Nair, Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Shri A.S. Kiran Kumar and Dr M Annadurai!

The legendary Dr APJ Abdul Kalam had also contributed to the scientific excellence of this great institution. He drove India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle program (SLV-III) and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) project during his two-decade association with ISRO.

Today ISRO is proof of what inspirational leadership can achieve with frugal resources!

Just two months ago, ISRO helped India script history by successfully launching a record 104 satellites into orbit using a single rocket, beating the previous record of 37 satellites deployed by Russia in 2014.

ISRO: Championing Affordable Innovation

Forty-two years ago when ISRO launched Aryabhata it had to start from scratch as India lacked the kind of sophisticated infrastructure that Western nations had. Aryabhata was built in a period of 30 months by a young team of scientists and engineers at a project cost of a little more than Rs 3 crore.

In the succeeding four decades, ISRO has stuck to its philosophy of ‘affordable innovation’.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was without doubt the cheapest inter-planetary mission ever to be undertaken since Martian exploration began. ISRO designed, built and launched the Mangalyaan space probe for US$74 million, which is nearly a tenth of NASA’s Mars probe Maven! It was even cheaper than the US$100-million spent in producing the Hollywood space drama Gravity! As our Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi had pointed out, the 650 million km journey to Mars cost India a mere Rs 7 per kilometre, less that a Rs 10 per km auto ride in Ahmedabad! The frugality of its Mars orbiter notwithstanding, India stunned the world when it became the first nation ever to have succeeded in reaching the Red Planet in its maiden attempt!  This was indeed a phenomenal milestone which saw every Indian bursting with pride.

Navigation with Indian Constellation, or NAVIC, the program that put India among the elite group of nations to have their own satellite navigation systems, was also a feat of cost-effective space engineering! At US$350 million, India spent less money on their entire satellite navigation network than the cost overrun of Galileo, the European satellite navigation network project!

Even ISRO’s 2008 Moon Mission, Chandrayaan I, at a cost of ~US$100 million, was a feat in itself considering no other country had succeeded in executing a lunar mission for less than US$500 million. More importantly, ISRO’s affordable innovation succeeded in collecting data that confirmed the presence of water on the moon!

ISRO: Breaking the Colonial Mindset

By championing the ‘Innovate in India’ mantra, ISRO has boosted our self-belief as a nation. For too long, we have been prisoners of a colonial mindset with low levels of confidence in our own capabilities which has led us to look at the West for scientific validation.

Through its pursuit of excellence, ISRO has created a powerful and formidable brand for India, which is about leadership in science & technology and innovation excellence!

ISRO’s emergence as a frontrunner in the growing private space market has led countries like US, UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and several others to seek India’s help for satellite launch services. It’s interesting to note that of the 180 foreign satellites launched by ISRO since 1999, more than half belonged to the US!

ISRO is today a byword for world-beating scientific excellence! It has helped India stake a claim as an exclusive member of the global space club. We are now ranked among the world’s top 6 space faring nations in terms of technological capabilities!

I remember that In the 1960s and 1970s every single scientist who wanted to pursue space research aspired to go to NASA. Only a few remained in India and not by choice I may add. This exodus of Indian scientists is reflected in the large representation of people of Indian origin at NASA!

However, it is an entirely different picture today. The first choice for many of the current generation of Indian space researchers is ISRO! And I wouldn’t be surprised if we witness the return of a large number of the Indian diaspora at NASA so that they can be part of this great space mission that our nation has embarked on!

ISRO: Looking at Greater Private Sector Participation

As India’s space program gains momentum and stature, ISRO plans to increasingly outsource space science services to the private sector and ensure that its own scientists and engineers focus on space exploration and research.

While ISRO has a nearly 30-year-old partnership with the Indian industry, the private sector’s contribution has largely been restricted to fabrication, testing and assembling. Under the banner of ‘Make in India’, ISRO is now entrusting Indian companies with the task of building rockets and satellites!

The push for greater private sector participation is also in sync with the larger efforts of ISRO to augment capabilities and tap the growing commercial market for space-based surveillance, remote sensing and telecommunication.

By collaborating with India Inc., ISRO can create a robust space industry which can carve out a bigger slice of the estimated US$300 billion-plus global civilian space market, leveraging India’s innovative, vibrant and tech savvy entrepreneurial ecosystem.  If Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space-X are dreaming big in terms of space tourism, so can Indian entrepreneurs.

Satellites Can Help India Leapfrog into a Digital Future

Today ISRO is helping India address several socio-economic and developmental needs of the country using space technology.  ISRO has already taken the benefits of the space technology to the remotest of Indian villages to address the basic needs in education, health, nutrition, and drinking and irrigation water.

Going forward, ISRO’s satellites can play a big role in realizing India’s aspiration of transforming itself into a country empowered by digital technologies.

It took 20 years for India to have the first 100 million Internet users, but the next 100 million users will come in less than three years. To cater to rising demand, it is imperative to look beyond the traditional modes of internet delivery to space-based solutions. Satellite internet can provide an economical solution to most of the challenges faced by ground infrastructure like optical fibres.

In fact, satellite-based Internet systems can prove more effective at distributing Internet broadband capacity over a large area as well as reduce congestion in already overloaded networks, thus improving the quality of service provided by mobile networks.

Space-based technologies can be integrated into 5G systems to help take advanced Internet of Things (IoT) applications to regions that are beyond the reach of terrestrial networks.

Going forward, ISRO plans planetary exploration missions, a reusable launch vehicle, and a program to send astronauts into space in the coming years.

Space science is going to be a new industrial sector for India. This can be a differentiated ‘Make in India’ story with high scientific skills and technological capabilities. This will open up huge demand for scientific and engineering skills, creating new jobs.

India’s pursuit of cutting-edge space technologies, which had started off as a national mission is now becoming a large national enterprise, with the potential to spur sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

 Biocon’s Journey of Affordable Innovation for Global Impact

When I reflect on my own entrepreneurial journey, I find lot of parallels between ISRO’s march to the forefront of global space exploration and Biocon’s ambition to become one of the most recognized Indian names in the global biotechnology sector.

I am very proud that our company is today considered to be among the world-beating innovators in biopharmaceuticals.

As a pioneering biopharma enterprise, Biocon has been among the first in India to invest in developing recombinant DNA and bio-processing technologies that can deliver innovative and affordable biologics. We have focused relentlessly on chronic disease spaces like diabetes, cancer and autoimmune conditions, marked by unmet needs. Our mission is to develop drugs that can be labelled “blockbusters” not because they can earn a billion dollars but because they are affordable enough to benefit a billion patients!

Like ISRO, we have leveraged India’s value advantage of unmatched scientific talent and cost-competitive manufacturing to deliver scale, speed and quality. We have indigenously developed innovative technologies, which offer us a global competitive edge. We have adopted a business mantra of ‘highest quality at the lowest cost.’

Just as ISRO has made transformational impact through space technology, my company, Biocon, has harnessed the potential of Biotechnology to make a huge difference through affordable insulins, and cancer drugs for the benefit of patients the world over.

ISRO & Team Indus: Working to Put India on the Moon

ISRO’s triumphs in space science have fired up the best and the brightest minds in India to contribute to this emerging narrative of technical and scientific excellence. This is evident from an innovative start-up venture, Team Indus which is attempting to create space history by becoming the first private enterprise in the world to not only build and land a spacecraft on the moon but have a rover ride the surface.

What is equally interesting is how India is approaching the unfolding ‘Moon Race’ by following a dual strategy of a state-funded program in the form of Chandrayaan 2 and a privately-funded moonshot via Team Indus. It is an exciting model of private-public partnership that augurs well for ushering in a whole new and exciting era for space exploration.

Team Indus is scheduled to launch its lunar probe this December on board ISRO’s extended Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle to the moon. It has benefited immensely from its collaboration with ISRO’s scientists who had worked on Chandrayaan 1.

Interestingly, ISRO is also planning to launch Chandrayaan 2 early next year, which includes a large rover to carry out several significant scientific experiments on the moon.

Team Indus is the only Indian team competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which is a global competition to challenge and inspire engineers and entrepreneurs to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration.

I firmly believe that a win for Team Indus will be a win for India as this pioneering entrepreneurial effort in space research can inspire scores of others and be the cornerstone of success for India on the world stage.

Women Scientists to the Fore

When India was celebrating the success of its first Mars mission, I was very excited to see the smiling faces of the women scientists of ISRO being splashed all over the media. It was a watershed moment as far as the Indian Space Program is concerned. But, more importantly, it shattered stereotypes about space research and Indian women.

I, myself, had to break many a gender barrier when I started Biocon in 1978 as a young, 25-year-old woman entrepreneur, with no business background and limited financial resources.

This kind of gender bias was not specific to India. Even in Western society, women scientists were pushed to the background despite playing a crucial role in science.

In is noteworthy that in the late 19th century, a group of women, known as ‘Harvard Computers’, helped process astronomical data for Harvard Observatory Director Edward Charles Pickering. In the 1960s, a team of African-American women mathematicians in NASA played a vital role in the US space program. Their stories would have remained untold had it not been for the book and the subsequent Hollywood film ‘Hidden Figures’ that are based on their extraordinary contributions.

Thankfully, that landscape is changing now as more and more women prove their mettle as engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers. Scientific organizations are realizing the diversity of thought, creativity and innovation that women bring to the table and this is opening up more opportunities for women scientists.

That is why today we are seeing a large representation of women in the innovation ecosystem of India. One-third of the 3,000 entrepreneurial start-ups in the life sciences sector have been founded by women! Over 20% of ISRO’s over 16,000 employees are women. In my company, Biocon, over 30% of the 4,000 scientists are women.

I believe, women are an integral part of the scientific community and at ISRO they have played key roles in the numerous successful missions of the agency. It gives me immense pleasure to see many women ISRO scientists to have become household names, today.

While Indian-origin space pioneers like Kalpana Chawla and Suneeta Williams have been an inspiration, many girls today are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of an Anuradha TK, a Nandini Harinath, a  Valarmathi or a Tessy Thomas!


Now that ISRO has built credibility through world-beating scientific excellence the path ahead towards global leadership is going to be extremely exciting.

ISRO has proven beyond doubt that it is not about the amount of money you invest but it is about the scientific conviction and passion that you display which can help you reach for the stars!

ISRO, is truly a shining example of ‘mind over matter’ that reflects that if you have the mental acumen of our scientists and engineers, then money doesn’t matter.

ISRO today invokes a sense of national pride for every Indian citizen. It’s an inspirational story of how self-belief and conviction can lead a nation to set new benchmarks in scientific excellence.

By championing cutting-edge space exploration and partnering with innovation-led start-ups in the private sector ISRO can create a starburst of advanced innovation for our country and our future!

– Kiran Mazumdar – Shaw


This ‘Aryabhata Lecture’ was delivered by Kiran Mazumdar – Shaw at ISRO Satellite Centre, Bengaluru on April 19th on the occasion of Satellite Technology Day.

Leave a Reply