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Can you tell us about your background? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
SHE WAS BORN AFTER HAL 9000, the sentient computer and the central character of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, became a cult. But one day, in the summer of 1996, when she was 24, she was woken up from an afternoon nap by a phone call from Clarke. The science fiction writer, inventor, undersea explorer, and futurist had called to offer to pay her fees so she could enrol for a master’s degree in space studies at the International Space University (ISU) in France.
The legendary Clarke must have seen the future—again—because the young woman he called on that hot afternoon 21 years ago today designs spacecraft and has set up companies dealing with space equipment design and international space collaboration. She’s now planning to launch her next venture to enable the use of geo-intelligence data to solve everyday problems across sectors such as agriculture, environment, and energy.
Meet Susmita Mohanty, someone we have to call an interstellar Indian. Back to that summer of ’96, Mohanty tells me how the call from Clarke came about. “I grew up with a healthy dose of space,” she says. Her father, Nilamani Mohanty, a space telecommunications expert, was a member of Vikram Sarabhai’s team at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and retired as the deputy director of ISRO’s Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad. Apart from her father, Mohanty was inspired by the great architects of the time—B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa, Gautam Sarabhai, Le Corbusier, and Louis Kahn.
What did you study?
“Juxtapose space and architecture and you’ll see where the inspiration came from,” she says, talking of her ambition to become a space architect once she had got her master’s degree in industrial design from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. “I had eight months to raise $35,000 [Rs 22 lakh at current rates] for the course,” she says. She sent letters to 70 foundations, the United Nations, and a handful of individuals including Clarke (then chancellor of ISU), Carl Sagan (she was a Cosmos fan), and Bill Gates. With each letter, she enclosed a project report on a new design and layout for the International Space Station. “It was the ultimate Kickstarter project, long before Kickstarter was even conceived,” says Mohanty, referring to the global funding platform. “It’s the most impossible mission I’ve undertaken.” It was mission accomplished when Clarke called.
Mohanty also did her Master’s in Space Studies from International Space University (ISU, France) and PHd from Chalmers Institute of Technology.
Can you tell us what you do?
I spent the first 15 years designing future systems for humans to live and work in Earth orbit, on Moon and Mars (eg space habitats, rovers, spacesuits, simulators); the last 7, I facilitated American and Japanese satellite launches on the PSLV rocket, and the next 10 will be spent looking back at the Earth and creating actionable social, environmental and business intelligence using satellite imagery and machine learning algorithms (big data and analytics).
What was your career path?
SHE MAY STILL CALL THAT mission impossible, but there seem to be a number of contenders for that description. She was one of the few foreign nationals to have worked on sensitive U.S. space projects. As a visiting scholar at NASA, she worked on Shuttle-Mir, the U.S.-Russia collaborative space programme.
Her first job was at Boeing, where she joined as a design engineer. However, as a foreign national, she wasn’t allowed access to confidential material, or even the Intranet. “Eventually they gave me separate phone and fax lines,” she recalls, and moved her to the business development side. Here, she worked in collaboration with the European, Japanese, Russian, and American partners of the space station programme. This move away from pure tech proved to be the inflexion point for Mohanty, whose career since then has straddled both technology and business development.
But by far her most difficult task is what she does now: advocating the benefits of satellite launches on ISRO rockets to U.S. companies, and encouraging them to apply to the government for permission to launch from India.
Can you tell us about your venture?
This is not just complex, it’s extremely sensitive, given that there’s been an embargo on U.S. commercial launches from Indian launch vehicles. That embargo has been in place in some shape or form since the 1970s. “The technology denial regime has been in place from when India did the first nuclear test,” says Ajay Lele, fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and head of its Centre on Strategic Technologies. But, adds Lele, this “technology apartheid” worked in India’s favour because it pushed ISRO into indigenous development.
Mohanty’s self-imposed task—and the reason she set up Earth2Orbit in India after setting up two other space-related ventures in the U.S.—is to make Indian launches open to U.S. commercial satellites. The U.S. contributes 13% to the $300 billion global space industry. Lele says he isn’t sure if companies like Earth2Orbit really affect the operations of ISRO; representatives of governments interact directly with the space agency, he says, so there’s no need for any firm to act as intermediary. But that’s really not what Mohanty is doing.
Apart from providing launch management services to clients (including legal and technical services), her company actively advocates that companies, especially in the U.S., use Indian vehicles to launch satellites. An ISRO launch is way cheaper than most others, and the Indian organisation’s technology has been proven over the years. The recent record launch of 104 satellites is an example of its capabilities. It’s not so much about a successful launch, says Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head of nuclear and space policy initiatives at Delhi-based think tank, Observer Research Foundation, “it’s making sure each kid gets out of the bus at the right stop”.
What problem does your venture solve?
SO, WHAT EXACTLY DOES Earth2Orbit do? The answer to that goes back to 2008, when, after a dozen years (and almost as many projects) abroad, Mohanty decided to return to India. “I wanted to do something for India, and didn’t want to do it from far away,” she says. She moved to Mumbai without any clear plan, but with several ideas on how India could move beyond a government space programme and compete internationally. She shared these with her friends, and her father’s ISRO contacts, including former ISRO chiefs K. Kasturirangan and G. Madhavan Nair.
Her initial ideas had to do with human space exploration, but even as she met the teams working on this, discussions always included ISRO’s workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or the PSLV. Almost on a whim, she asked an intern to calculate the total mass of foreign payloads on the PSLV till date. The answer: Till end April 2008, there were 12 PSLV launches with a total foreign payload of 1,500 kg. To put that in context, according to ISRO, the PSLV “can take up to 1,750 kg of payload to sunsynchronous polar orbits of 600 km altitude”. That’s in a single launch.
Mohanty had found her niche. “I wanted to make the PSLV the most sought-after rocket in its class. That could happen only if India had access to the U.S. market which was closed due to the embargoes imposed on India,” she says. Essentially, the biggest players in the space industry weren’t allowed to use the PSLV. She asked for a meeting with Nair, then chairman of ISRO. Nair explained that while ISRO was building up its resources to increase the number of launches, growth of the Indian space industry depended on strong global participation.