Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan at Mission Control in Bangalore. Photo: Press Information Bureau / Handout / AFP

In June, Jitendra Singh, a minister in India’s federal cabinet, announced that space exploration and certain space activities would be open to the private sector. Previously, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was the only public organization that launched satellites and planned missions for space exploration.

After the success of private companies like SpaceX in the US, it is important for India to create favorable conditions for private companies to operate in the sector with appropriate regulations and clear laws.

On July 6, ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan announced that India would be coming up with a new space policy and Space Activities Bill. He added that the new bill would be more inclusive of the private sector.

The Space Activities Bill is much anticipated by Indian enthusiasts of space exploration because it will clarify the rules and regulations associated with operating in the space sector. Being a high-risk and a high-investment sector, policies and frameworks for operating in it need to be clarified by the government to boost private investment. 

Currently, India follows various peaceful international treaties signed worldwide. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (“COPUOS”) largely determines space policy in the international arena and ensures that no country exploits the usage of space for personal interests.

The Outer Space Treaty ensures that countries can explore space only for peaceful purposes and they cannot put any weapons of mass destruction in space. That policy, however, does not mention anything about the usage of conventional weapons in space. 

According to the Liability Convention, in case any country launches into space and damages property in another country, it will be liable to pay reparations to the country that suffered the damages. With private players entering the market, it is not certain whether private companies or the government will bear the cost of any liability issues arising from damage of international property.

As such costs could be significant, there is a need to reassess risk distribution for private players in India. 

The law firm Taylor Wessing explains that “these rules are largely insufficient to cover all legal issues arising out of private activities in space,” commenting on the international policy framework in reference to space exploration.

It’s important to note that when most of the international treaties on space were signed, most countries did not allow private-sector activity in space. Hence the private sector was not taken into consideration. With private-sector activity in space, the Indian government may need to give further clarifications about the impact that international treaties will have on domestic companies.

Collaboration between international private companies will also need to be regulated. International collaboration could create defense, commercial and scientific benefits for the world. 

The Space Activities Bill needs to address clearly the role the private sector will play in international space treaties and the associated liabilities. The space sector has limited accessibility because of the high costs involved. As we create policies to increase equality worldwide, we also need to create policies that increase accessibility and inclusivity.

In 2001, the first space tourist, American millionaire Dennis Tito, was charged US$20 million to fly to the International Space Station. Hence space travel may not be affordable to everyone because private companies will try to maximize their profits.

Moreover, exploring space has mostly been under the domain of scientists, engineers, researchers and other people from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) domains. Policies need to be created worldwide to answer the question, “Who gets to explore space first?”

Space for Humanity, a non-profit organization based out of the US, is working toward increasing equality and inclusion in the area of space exploration. Space for Humanity’s mission is based on the concept of The Overview Effect, that is, the humbling effect exploring space can have on people.

Looking at Earth’s surface from far above can make people realize their insignificance and interconnectedness. It prompts anyone who has this experience to see everyone on Earth as one, and create policies that are inclusive when they come back to Earth. Space for Humanity sponsors citizen flights to space for people all across the world without any discrimination based on race, nationality, gender, religion or any other factor. 

Since space should be open to everyone to explore, non-profit organizations like Space for Humanity play an important role, including in the Indian context. Indian private companies could partner with such organizations to create more inclusivity. 

India is at the brink of a new era in the space sector. India’s Space Activities Bill can be a precedent for various future bills in the sector created in Asia. As Indians look forward to the bill, we may see India’s own Elon Musk standing by to revolutionize space travel in the world in the near future. 

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance writer based in Mumbai who covers politics, defense, economy and international relations.