The dash to the moon
To win the prize, the teams must successfully place a vehicle on the moon, travel 500 metres across its surface and transmit images and videos back to earth.
Rahul Narayan sits perched on the edge of a simulated lunar landscape at the headquarters of TeamIndus on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Next to him is the prototype of the moon rover, a four-wheeled, all-aluminium robot that his team has built and which is in the process of undergoing final tests. If all goes well, the rover will be dropped on the moon's surface by December 2017 and traverse
500 metres while sending back high-definition images and videos of earth's closest celestial companion. If it succeeds, TeamIndus will 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 as well.
TeamIndus has named the rover ECA, an acronym for Ek Chhoti si Asha (a small hope). But the venture symbolises a giant leap forward in the quest for space exploration. Representing India, TeamIndus is one of the five teams across the world that have been shortlisted this January to compete in the greatest private space race ever-the Google Lunar X Prize. The other four teams that have qualified are Moon Express (US), SpaceIL (Israel), Hakuto (Japan) and Synergy Moon (an international consortium). The competition, sponsored by Google and kicked off in 2007, is designed to challenge engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration by privately funded teams.
To win the prize, the teams must successfully place a vehicle on the moon, travel 500 metres across its surface and transmit images and videos back to earth. The teams must also prove that 90 per cent of their mission costs have been funded by private sources. The hotly contested preliminaries saw 32 teams register before they were narrowed down to 16 competitors and finally to five. The first team to successfully complete the mission wins the grand prize of $20 million (Rs 120 crore) while the runner-up team gets $5 million (Rs 30 crore).
The prize money may sound substantial. But in reality it will cover only a fourth of the costs for any of the winning teams. (TeamIndus estimates its moon shot would cost Rs 450 crore.) However, the honour and glory of winning the prize or even making it to the finals is equivalent to winning an Olympic medal. For, till recently, space exploration, given the enormous cost and the technological complexity involved, was confined to government agencies and institutions. While America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had over the years engaged private enterprises to build its launchers and satellites as did the European Space Agency (ESA), it is only now that space technology is truly breaking free from the constraints and domination of government funding and control. The most daring example is that of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk who set up Space X in 2002 and in a short span built durable spacecraft that competed with the best. Space X recently wowed the world by bringing back the giant first stage of its launcher and landing it vertically, making reusable rockets a viable cost-saving proposition. It successfully relaunched one of them last month.
That is why the current race to the moon has gained significance. It is another example of how space technology is being subjected to disruptive forces that are likely to usher in a whole new and exciting era for space exploration and exploitation. As Rahul Narayan of TeamIndus puts it, " We believe that tomorrow's solutions will come when we break away from the dogmas of the past, collaborate by questioning what is, and combine enthusiasm with experience in new, inspiring ways." Narayan likens TeamIndus's effort to that of India trying to win its first cricket world cup in 1983. The Indian team is considered the underdog in the race because it was the last enterprise to register for the Lunar X prize in 2010, three years after it was announced. Besides being a late starter, TeamIndus is now competing with some of the best space technology research teams in the world.
It's been a remarkable odyssey. Prior to setting up TeamIndus, Narayan's exposure to space was his love for Star Trek, the only sci-fi serial he was able to watch on Doordarshan while growing up in Delhi in the 1980s. After graduating from IIT Delhi in 1995, Narayan set up a software company and ran it for years, but says modestly, "it was really nothing to write home about". In 2010, at the age of 35, Narayan became impatient with routine and worried that time was running out for him to take on a challenging venture. It was then that he chanced upon an article on the Lunar X prize and wondered why no Indian team was competing in the race for the moon. He had been inspired by the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO)'s moon shot in 2008. ISRO had successfully launched Chandrayaan, its moon orbiter, and also had a Moon Impact Probe crash-land on the lunar surface-making it a historic first for India. ISRO became only the fifth space agency in the world to achieve such a feat.
Narayan talked with a few friends and they thought they could build the spacecraft in their garages over weekends. They rustled up the $50,000 (Rs 35 lakh) required and sent in their application on the last day. Narayan soon realised what a seemingly impossible mission they had embarked upon-not just in terms of technology but also building a team and fundraising for such a costly venture. Nevertheless, he began scouring Google for information about how to build such spacecraft and talked to experts. By 2012, he had built a core team and worked out the broad contours of the mission to the moon. "It was clear by then that this could no more be a hobby," he says, "it would have to be a full-time job for all of us." They were then advised to make a pitch for their project to Dr K. Kasturirangan, former ISRO chairman and later a member of the Planning Commission. During his ISRO tenure, Kasturirangan was responsible for visualising India's first moon mission in the teeth of opposition and having the Chandrayaan project sanctioned.
The meeting proved to be a turning point. Kasturirangan had initially set aside half an hour to listen to TeamIndus. But the meeting stretched for over three hours, with Kasturirangan ending up agreeing to be the team mentor. He told them there was no way they could do the project out of Delhi. They would have to move to Bengaluru, where ISRO was headquartered, to leverage the vast infrastructure for space technology, including manufacturers and vendors, that has been set up over the years. He advised them to talk to ISRO and immediately book one of its launchers, the extended Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-XL, that had been used to propel Chandrayaan into space. He also told them to reach out to experts in the area and take on board retired ISRO scientists who had worked on Chandrayaan and other related projects. And, most importantly, he told them that six of them alone would not be able to execute the mission and they urgently needed to build a team of at least a hundred people if they wanted to meet the deadline.
Asked why he backed TeamIndus, Kasturirangan says, "We need what we call the spirit of India, which is the spirit of adventure. To my mind, these guys were the symbol of that India-they were willing to give up the best of jobs and careers and plunge into the unknown-it requires real guts and determination. Having gone through a governmental system all my life, I believed the time has come to conduct such experiments in many fields and areas in this country. For instance, in space, so far we have only the government-funded model. But as we grow in investments, in revenue and in applications, we have to have alternative approaches to choose from. There is a need to create new ways of entrepreneurship and initiative and demystify space." He adds, "Vikram Sarabhai (the father of India's space programme) had said we needed to acquire space technology to make the quantum leap from the state of backwardness to that of advancement. I believe that TeamIndus's effort will be the second quantum leap that we would be making from conventional methodology to a totally disruptive way of thinking and approach to solutions."
PSLV takes off with Chandrayaan 1 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on October 22, 2008
A January 2014 TV grab of China's moon rover Yutu
Russia's Mars mission launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on November 9, 2011
The Apollo 17 moon buggy
In 2014, Narayan decided to give up his software company and move to Bengalaru with his small band of faithfuls to pursue TeamIndus's dream. It was the best move they made because everyone was helpful. Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, agreed to sell the team a PSLV-XL launcher on the date they required it and also handed them a list of manufacturers and vendors they could approach to pick up sub-systems. As ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar says, "We believe we need to make use of every opportunity to explore the space frontier and TeamIndus's effort is a very good development." National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) gave them their guest-house for use and offered to conduct some of the more sophisticated tests. Then private sector support started pouring in. Rajiv Modi, chairman of the product engineering company Sasken, generously leased its premises and even invested money in the project. As did Naveen Tewari, founder of global mobile advertising and tech platform InMobi, and Sachin and Binny Bansal, co-founders of e-tailer Flipkart. Venerable industry leaders such as Nandan Nilekani and Ratan Tata decided to financially back TeamIndus's effort.
TeamIndus, says Nilekani, reminds him of the way they set up Infosys: "We were just a bunch of young people, with no money but plenty of ideas and an ability to play the long game." So when TeamIndus met him for financial support he readily agreed to meet part of the costs though he does not want to reveal how much. "I really like it when Indians go for bold, audacious goals," says the Aadhaar man. "To me, the fact that a bunch of youngsters with no financial backing and just their passion and talent were planning to land a rover on the moon-which historically was done by large governments-was a breathtaking idea. It is like creating a burst of innovation and I thought it was a great idea to back." What helped him make up his mind was that one of TeamIndus's founding members, Dr Vivek Raghavan, had worked with Nilekani when he headed Aadhaar and whom he considers as one of the pillars of the programme.
Today, TeamIndus have a roof of their own with a neon sign on the rooftop saying 'Har Indian Ka Moonshot'. The reception hall is emblazoned with their motto: 'Aspire, Believe and Create'. It has hired over a hundred people, mostly engineers and software professionals, with the average age being 26 years. Sheelika Ravishankar, who gave up her lucrative assignment as a management consultant in Mumbai to join TeamIndus, came up with Star Wars kind of designations for each of the employees. So there are Jedis, Ninjas and the Skywalkers. The senior leaders including Ravishankar are designated as Jedi Masters. Narayan is appropriately called the Fleet Commander. To blend enthusiasm with experience, they have on board over a dozen retired ISRO scientists who have worked on similar missions.
Among the ISRO scientists assisting them is N. Srinivas Hegde, a former mission director of Chandrayaan, with over 40 years of experience in building and launching satellites. Hegde had just retired from ISRO when TeamIndus asked him to come on board. Hegde found their enthusiasm infectious and is now an integral part of the team. What struck him was the remarkable amount of hardware as well as software that is now available off-the-shelf-for a price-to launch a moon mission. He remembers that in ISRO they struggled to build everything from scratch for the Chandrayaan because things were not easily available to them for various reasons. Yet while TeamIndus could now buy even critical parts like fuel tanks, engines and sensors apart from the software including for orbit manoeuvres, they still had to design the spacecraft, the rover and then integrate them to the specifications they wanted apart from developing the command-and-control systems for the mission. To describe the role he plays, Hegde quotes a Kannada poet who talks of how new shoots blending with old roots make a tree more fruitful.
Rover and lander models at the TeamIndus workshop
What has helped TeamIndus push through is that they have kept the mission simple and cut out the frills. The PSLV-XL launcher will punch the spacecraft they are building into an elliptical orbit of 880 km x 70,000 km in space. After circling twice around the earth, the spacecraft will fire its engines into what is called a trans-lunar injection that will set its course to the moon some 380,000 km away. Travelling at the speed of 10.2 km per second, or 12 times faster than most passenger aircraft, the spacecraft will take around five days to reach the moon. It is high-precision stuff because getting the spacecraft to orbit the moon is like hitting a one-rupee coin placed 25 km away with a rifle shot.
What's really new is landing the spacecraft on the moon, something ISRO has not done so far. The moon has one of the most hostile climates, with day temperatures crossing the boiling point and the nights colder than Antarctica's. A lunar day is equal to 14 earth days and that is the window that TeamIndus is aiming for. The spacecraft's speed will be cut to almost nil by a ring of tiny engines mounted on it and will land gently on the moon. The team debated whether it should land on three legs or four and decided on four because even though it makes the spacecraft heavier, it is far more stable.
In a bold move, TeamIndus has agreed to carry its Japanese competitors' rover on the spacecraft, thus saving on costs. Once the two rovers are lowered on the surface of the moon, it will be a race to see who crosses 500 metres first and transmit videos and images back to earth. Says P. Shivashankar Nair, a 72-year-old former ISRO scientist who is helping TeamIndus with the structural aspects of the craft, "Our biggest challenge is time-mobilising, coordinating and doing the job in the shortest possible time. We are doing things on a war footing and overcoming the problems as and when they come at us and believe me there are plenty."
Shortage of funds, too, is a major worry. So far, TeamIndus has been able to collect only a third of theRs 450 crore they need. This includes the $1 million they won in January 2015 as part of the Lunar X prize for designing the best moon lander. They are now working out innovative ways to collect funds. They plan to launch a massive crowd-funding effort from April 18 onwards. TeamIndus is putting out an appeal for 1.5 million Indians to contribute Rs 500 each for what they call the Har Indian Ka Moonshot. They hope to garner at least Rs 75 crore with the effort. They are also selling seats in the control room for the launch apart from having names inscribed on the lander. Narayan is confident that once they cross the critical mass for funds, the balance, including government funds, would come in. The launch is now scheduled for December 28, 2017.
Meanwhile, ISRO itself will be launching Chandrayaan 2 early next year, which will not only have an orbiter but also a rover larger than TeamIndus's to carry out several significant scientific experiments on the moon. Says M. Annadurai, director of ISRO's satellite centre, "Chandrayaan 2 is a logical extension of its precursor but a far more complex mission that will include a longer stay on the moon and provide us deeper insights into the lunar surface and composition." To ISRO's credit, it has already farmed out much of the hardware and software components of its satellites and launchers to private players. In a first, a remote-sensing satellite is currently being fully integrated by a consortium of private players. For other types of satellites, Annadurai says ISRO is pushing to raise the involvement of private players from the current 30 per cent to much higher levels.
ISRO's Chandrayaan 1 was, in fact, part of the great revival of interest in the moon that had gathered momentum by the turn of the century. Lunar explorations have been on since the Cold War-inspired space race. In 1959, the Soviet Union became the first country to reach the lunar surface with its Luna 2 impactor. Rattled by the Soviet success, the US decided to do one better and, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The Apollo missions that followed saw Neil Armstrong become the first man to set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969. By 1976, when the US wound up its Apollo programme, six missions had landed on the moon, 12 astronauts had walked on its surface while six had driven lunar roving vehicles. Besides, close to 380 kg of lunar rock and soil had been brought back to earth. The Soviets opted for unmanned missions that deployed both rovers to do experiments on the moon and probes to collect rock samples. It wound up its moon explorations around the same time as the US did.
It would be almost two decades later that spacefaring nations would once again show interest in the moon. In the interim, both the US and the Soviets had sent probes to Mars and other distant planetary objects. While sending out such probes, scientists realised that if they were able to use the moon as a space launch centre, they could send out even more long-distance probes, including a manned mission to Mars. That's because the moon's relative lack of gravity would enable space agencies to launch heavier spacecraft to greater distances that would normally require giant boosters if shot from the earth. In space, every kilogramme of payload carried costs crores of rupees and the effort is to minimise the cost while maximising the utility of the spacecraft. Also, exciting discoveries showed that the moon could be tapped for water (as Chandrayaan's data showed) that could not only be used for drinking and growing crops for astronauts but could also be used to make propellants for space missions. The moon's cold, dark surface harbours Helium-3, an isotope that could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor and become an endless source of clean energy. The renewed interest in the moon saw all major space powers, including the US, Russia, Europe, China and Japan, send up orbiters and impact probes to the moon.
For Narayan, fleet commander of TeamIndus, the moon shot is just the starting line-"when you win a basketball championship, you form a club". TeamIndus plans to be part of the fourth industrial revolution and Narayan believes space would be a crucial part of the changes, whether it's next-generation GPS, earth observation, satellites or weather monitoring. If TeamIndus succeeds in doing what no Indian has done before, it would be a shining example for the New Aspirational India and become a beacon of private innovation and enterprise that will inspire other young Indians to follow.