Interstellar is in the business of serious news. We are attempting to raise a space sector news and analyses media portal, reasonably technical, at a time when only a few exist in India. We are not here to engage with PR contractors wanting to make celebrities out of entrepreneurs – certainly not the 30 under 30 and 100 under 100 kind. We are more interested in their products and services, their impact on the newly commercialised Indian space ecosystem, and what strategic benefits they bring to India. While working on this daunting task, we often encounter acerbically and stupidly frivolous narratives, especially when Indian spacecraft are Moon- and Mars-bound.
So the acerbic frivolity usually comes from our country’s erstwhile colonisers and their sepoys. Whenever the colonisers see our spacecraft taking off, they demand their government stop the imaginary aid in pennies that keep India afloat. Some knights, who need to be chivalrous, become agony uncles and aunts and call on their government to stop the aid to India. They very well know that their Foreign Office stopped the unneeded assistance in 2015. But, their colonial temperament hardly goes away. Of course, India is a brighter economy than theirs, and who doesn’t like higher returns? That being the case, they have now begun investing in a confident and prospering India. But, let us ask them a few questions – Why did they not send their spacecraft to the Moon and Mars if they were so big aid givers? Why did Pakistan, which receives between 400 to 200 million pounds from them every year, and is a country of their creation, fail even to launch a small satellite or do good for themselves economically? Those in London must answer, who killed their space program during the Cold War? And why did they raise a space agency so late, in 2010?
Now coming to stupid frivolity here in the country where discussing movie budgets and the box office has become a pastime of no consequence. Has anyone until now been able to verify the bloated movie budgets – if the numbers are accurate? Has anyone ever verified how precisely a movie has fared commercially? Numerical fidelity and trust is the last thing one associates with movies. Those operating in the movie business invest in kabaddi and wrestling leagues. They make you eat fast food and get polio doses. They make you buy cars and insurance. At times they have converted their fame into votes, either for themselves or for those with whom they have a quid pro quo. But does the sector they work in has an industry status? The answer is a big no.
Every time Indian space missions go interplanetary, a particular narrative emerges in Indian media that Indian space missions are cheaper than the monetary budgets of certain high-end movies. The narrative suggests that the Indian space agency, ISRO, can execute space missions at fractional costs than the imaginary and unverifiable numbers associated with movie budgets and box office. Those dealing with the commercial arm of ISRO – the Antrix and now New Space India Limited – are justified in selling the cost-effectiveness and low project execution costs as unique selling points. Truthfully, none of the government’s official documents has ever compared movie budgets to mission costs. All serious analysts know it is like comparing chalk with cheese and apples with oranges. But countering this seemingly innocuous narrative is essential.
Finances are and will always be an important driver for India’s steadily commercialising space ecosystem, and sentiment analysis is crucial for financial decision-making. Narratives drive sentiments, and acerbic and stupid narratives must be miles away while Indian investors learn to invest strategically in the newly unleashed space sector.
There is a solid reason for space to be one of India’s three strategic industries – the other being atomic energy and defence. Have we ever compared the cost of our atomic reactors with movie budgets or weapon systems with the box office? Then why space missions? Such wonton comparison, even if done in good jest, may erode the seriousness of our space missions in the long run.
We live in the era of quick reviews and reactions to events. There is a reasonable number of influencers and commentators around us. Many earn from viral and buzz marketing, and political sentinels design and modify their campaigns based on social media virulence and the sentiment it spreads. So, if a narrative that ‘Indian space missions are cheaper than movies’ gets established, there is a high chance that politicians may want to benchmark space mission budgeting lower than the unverified movie budgets. Politicians would do that not out of educated opinion but primarily based on a popular sentiment built on such false narratives. I would have been less worried about politicians had the space sector been entirely a remit of the Prime Minister’s Office as it has been until now. However, with numerous space sector legislations lined up, thanks to space reforms, the correct narratives must be set for accurately informed decision-making when the ayes and noes are heard in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
If India is to achieve a large share of the global space economy, the NITI Aayog aims for 10% of it, and our institutions must make wise and educated investments. A lot of ‘desi capital’ is untapped for innovation financing even after nine years of Startup India. Investor education, especially for an intricate sector like space, is time-consuming. We must educate our country’s potential private and institutional investors about the new-fangled commercial space sector and its importance in ensuring India’s strategic interests.
Let us, Indians, not be under the impression that overseas investors have suddenly warmed up to us for good. If fortune favours them more, they will be happier overtly deriding us with those cartoons and throwing aid pennies at us. If fortune favours them less, they will continue to farm sentiments by feeding us false and misplaced narratives. Serious professionals know that movie budgets and box office never were, are, and will never be a metric of India’s space economy. Let us give due respect to both soft and hard power and not mix up priorities. As for the colonisers and their sepoys are concerned, please don’t forget to snigger at their pettiness.