Small steps to Mars are a big leap for Indian companies

Dec 09 2013, 11:03 IST
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An employee works on the production line inside the heavy electrical manufacturing unit of Larsen & Tubro in Mumbai. (Reuters) An employee works on the production line inside the heavy electrical manufacturing unit of Larsen & Tubro in Mumbai. (Reuters)
SummaryTwo-thirds of the parts for Mangalyaan were made by L&T, Godrej & Boyce, and HAL.

Indian companies that built most of the parts for the country's recently launched Mars mission are using their low-cost, high-tech expertise in frugal space engineering to compete for global aerospace, defence and nuclear contracts worth billions.

India's Mangalyaan spacecraft was launched last month and then catapulted from Earth orbit on December 1, clearing an important hurdle on its 420 million mile journey to Mars and putting it on course to be the first Asian mission to reach the red planet.

The venture has a price tag of just 4.5 billion rupees ($72 million), roughly one-tenth the cost of Maven, NASA's latest Mars mission. Two-thirds of the parts for the Indian probe and rocket were made by domestic firms like Larsen & Toubro, the country's largest engineering firm, Godrej & Boyce, and state plane-maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

While such companies have a long way to go before they can attract big business in the commercial space sector, years of work on home-grown space projects are helping them carve out a niche as suppliers of precision parts for related sectors like defence, aeronautics and nuclear energy.

Those firms with proven space know-how will find themselves with the advantage as India, the world's biggest arms importer, shells out $100 billion over a decade to modernise its military with the country favouring local sources.

India in June strengthened a defence policy stipulating that local firms must be considered first for contracts and foreign companies winning contracts worth more than 3 billion rupees must "offset" at least 30 percent of the deal's value in India.

"We think over the next two to three years we will be able to convert this into a profit centre," said S. M. Vaidya, the business head of Godrej's aerospace division, which made the rocket's engine and fuel-powered thrusters for the Indian Mars probe.

Thanks to the space work, the company's engineers now know how to handle the specific metal alloys and the high-precision welding needed for aircraft and missiles as well as rockets, Vaidya added.

Godrej has worked with India's space agency for almost three decades and in recent years started making engine parts for aircraft makers Boeing Co, the Airbus unit of EADS and Israel's state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd. It is in talks with Boeing to make parts for aircraft frames.

HOME-GROWN, GO IT ALONE

India launched its domestic space program 50 years ago and had to develop its own rocket technology after Western powers

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