Blast off for space-related courses at Indian universities

Sector predicted to grow significantly in next decade, spurring a flurry of research and start-up activities

November 29, 2023
Taj Mahal silhouetted against the moon and reflected in water
Source: iStock

As India’s government emphasises its space sector, university curricula are increasingly focusing on courses relevant to the area, according to faculty and sector insiders.

This October, two months after India’s first – and highly celebrated – moon landing, its prime minister Narendra Modi announced new targets: setting up an Indian space station by 2035 and taking the first Indian to the moon by 2040.

These goals follow a recent flurry of activity in the area, those with knowledge of the industry said.

Divyanshu Poddar, co-founder of the Indian company Rocketeers, which specialises in model rockets for students, said the situation was “really dynamic”, with the Indian space sector growing by 35 to 40 per cent in the last decade to 20,000 people. Still, he predicted this growth would look “minuscule” in comparison with the next 10 years, over which he expected it to expand tenfold.

“I never saw a lot of colleges willing to invest in propulsion labs we can build out further – but in the last year or two, I’m seeing that. They want to give students hands-on training. They see this industry as a viable [source of] jobs that are good quality and high paying,” he said, adding that this was “not the case” even five years ago.

Now universities were “really reshaping” how they invested funds in the sciences, said Dr Poddar, with a heightened focus on courses such as power electronics, propulsion and chemical engineering – skills demanded by the space industry.

Further down the line, he said, he expected a shake-up of the way the sector acquires talent.

He added that, while nearly all of India’s top universities had relevant courses, such as computer science and astronomy, from undergraduate to PhD level, very few students from these institutions made it into the space industry, and those who did were in “very niche” roles – for a simple reason.

“Tier-one talent tends to be that much more expensive,” said Dr Poddar.

Mukhtar Ahmad, a former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University, agreed the area of space appeared to be garnering interest, including at AMU, where students were trying to launch their own satellite.

To date, he said, space research had “mostly been carried out” at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) but he added that he believed, after the launch of ISRO’s programme for numerous space missions, a number of universities might start their own space-focused programmes.

“The government may provide funding, but no such scheme is available now,” he said.

Still, there were signs things might be headed in this direction, other scholars indicated. In 2020, the Indian government created the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center – known as In Space – designed to link up ISRO and private sector companies.

“I think that there has been an increase in the project outlays over the past few years,” said one academic working in a related area, who asked not to be named because of his criticism of some policies.

He noted that space had been much more successful in garnering government funding in recent years than other research areas, including defence and atomic energy. Still, the scholar expressed scepticism about the innovation in the area, calling it “much hyped up”.

“At the level of operations everything that is done is quite routine and well established,” he said. “Perhaps there is a little bit of developmental work involved. But all this talk of great geniuses and brains involved is all bunkum.”

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