US and India in space (and space solar power?)

President Obama is currently in India, where he is expected to formally announce on Monday the removal of the Indian space agency ISRO from a US list that restricts exports of some sensitive technologies. The Entity List, as it is formally known, specifies additional requirements for items beyond what’s already required under export control regulations. Currently ISRO and four organizations within it are on the list, requiring a “case-by-case review” for any item on the Commerce Control List for export to those organizations. That restriction dates back to sanctions placed on India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests in the late 1990s.

That move isn’t unexpected: it had been anticipated for weeks in both the US and India. In a _Wall Street Journal_ op-ed on Thursday, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, writing with another former State Department official, R. Nicholas Burns, called on both the White House and Congress to “liberalize U.S. export controls that have an impact on India, including by removing the Indian Space Research Organization (the Indian equivalent to NASA) from the U.S. ‘Entity List.'” However, that appears to be the limit of space-related progress in the president’s visit: Indian media reported last week that it’s unlikely a commercial satellite launch agreement will be completed in time. Such an agreement would make it easier for US-built commercial satellites, or satellites with US-built components, to be launched on Indian vehicles.

A few people, though, are seeking much grander visions of US-Indian cooperation in space. At a press conference in Washington on Thursday, American and Indian officials announced the creation of Kalam-NSS Energy Initiative to promote the development of space-based solar power (SBSP) in the two nations. The near-term goal of the initiative is to arrange a bilateral meeting of Indian and American experts on the topic in May in Huntsville, Alabama, in conjunction with the International Space Development Conference (ISDC), the annual conference of the National Space Society (NSS).

The effort might be dismissed as a minor effort of a few people to promote what’s widely considered a fringe topic, but it does have the backing of a prominent individual on the Indian side: former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who participated in Thursday’s press conference by phone from India. Kalam spoke of the need to increase energy production to meet the needs of a modernizing India, without going into details about how the two countries might cooperation in SBSP beyond holding a joint meeting. Asked if the topic might come up in the meeting between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Singh in New Delhi, Kalam suggested that it should instead be presented at a future meeting of G8 or G20 nations.

Also unclear is what India would bring to the table in terms of its role in developing a SBSP system. Asked what unique capabilities India could offer, Kalam discussed the development of what he called a “hyperplane”, a reusable spaceplane concept, something he said India could cooperate with the US and other nations on. (Given the difficulties any nation has had in developing RLVs, and the challenges India has faced in even building a cryogenic upper stage for its GSLV expendable rocket, jumping ahead to a “hyperplane” may seem a bit of a stretch.) T.K. Alex, director of the ISRO Satellite Centre and the Indian lead of the Kalam-NSS Energy Initiative, said later at the press conference that India could also contribute in the development of high-efficiency and lightweight solar cells. NSS CEO Mark Hopkins suggested a different role for India, saying that “a combination of American technology and the ability of India to do a lot of low-cost manufacturing” could be essential to any future success of SBSP.


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