July evokes moon memories like no other time of the year. Forty-eight Julys ago, man landed on the moon, setting off a long race to decipher our planetary neighbour. And earlier this month, Moon Express, the private American company that is competing for the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP), unveiled its lander and additional missions to the moon.

July is big for us too. Because away from the bright arclights of PR, this is a good time to ask how is India’s TeamIndus, a proud winner of the $1 million GLXP milestone prize, doing? The rocket lift-off date, 28 December 2017 is far, and yet so near. Particularly because it involves many firsts in a deep space voyage, not just for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), which has given a chartered rocket flight to TeamIndus, but for the latter, which is perhaps redefining what is possible in a private endeavour.

In keeping with the zeitgeist, the countdown, say, T-6 (months), should have begun in July. A step-by-step guide to the launch from Sriharikota was in order given that it has been branded as Har Indian Ka Moonshot (Every Indian’s Moonshot), accompanied with a new plan to raise $10 million from direct public contribution.

Therefore, the question arises, how ready is TeamIndus to participate in the XPRIZE competition? What are the tech milestones that the company should have achieved by now? If it has, then why isn’t it talking about it? And if it hasn’t, then is it also the reason why some breakaway groups from TeamIndus, which admit the ‘significant’ delay, are starting their own space ventures?

First things first. While the company signed a launch contract with Antrix Corporation (Isro’s commercial arm) late last year, some of the necessary approvals to launch its spacecraft on the moon have not yet concluded. The Indian Express first reported it, quoting the Antrix chairman and managing director Rakesh Sasibhushan. Under the Outer Space Treaty, to which India is a signatory, every government is responsible for space activities undertaken by private parties under its geographical territory. While this may require some paperwork and cutting the bureaucratic slack, it is not a challenge that should give sleepless nights to anyone. Little surprise then that TeamIndus co-founder Rahul Narayan told the newspaper: “We have not heard of any questions being raised by the government. We have a launch contract that was signed last year.”

Sources in Isro say the approval per se wouldn’t be an issue because they don’t want “to discriminate against Indian companies launching satellites”. Should that happen, it could lead to a bad precedent where Indian companies would set up subsidiaries in neighbouring countries and approach Antrix as a foreign entity.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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