The barrage of stories continues unabated, and unedited in the media. When the truth, according to a TeamIndus insider, is: “No approval from the Government of India [regarding various space clearances under the Outer Space Treaty] has come. In fact, the whole story of tech progress for the last six months has been a farce.”
A lot of critical hardware hadn’t arrived at the facility for testing until late last year. Some of them haven’t yet. For instance, the Inertial Measurement Unit, a key component in the navigation system to track the spacecraft’s position, and the propulsion system haven’t been tested at the site. “We have written the algorithms but unless the hardware comes, complete testing cannot happen,” says an insider.
The house in disorder
To make matters worse, there have been steady exits from TeamIndus. Salaries and ‘dues’ payments have been erratic for a while but it’s the morale this time that is rankling with many. It’s been a few months since other co-founders, Dilip Chabria, Julius Amrit and Sameer Joshi, actively participated in the company affairs. “The leadership team disintegrated on the issues of PR [public relations], funding and lack of technological progress,” says an employee.
Understandably, Vivek Raghavan, investor director, and a major shareholder, is said to have taken charge of the company. The former chief of product at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Raghavan took over as the chief technology officer a few months ago. Since then, says an insider, “tech progress has become even slower with him stalling a lot of progress with delays and indecisions. Yes, funding may be also a reason for the same, but Vivek is certainly not the rocket scientist variety.”
It’s understood that the small satellite and drone programs, the two long-term potential business streams, were actively discouraged by Raghavan. The entire drone team quit in December. Most of them have joined hands to start a drone company, including TeamIndus co-founder Joshi. (The Ken could not independently verify the news.) However, former and current employees believe that Raghavan’s measures could be a result of the inefficiencies “which have crept into the company in the last two years”.
Perhaps due to the said inefficiencies, TeamIndus seems to have mismanaged its relationship with Isro whose major gripe has been the former’s “obsessive PR” and awry payment cycles. For instance, the qualification testing of the spacecraft was scheduled to be done at the Isro Satellite Centre in Bengaluru but it was eventually conducted at Research Centre Imarat, a defense facility in Hyderabad. The reasons cited for that by the management at TeamIndus was that Isro was charging “100X the actual cost”. True or false, it points to one thing: soured relations between the mentor and the mentee.
With GLXP behind, what lies ahead?
It’s not immediately known how another GLXP finalist, Japan’s Team Hakuto which was hitching a ride on TeamIndus’ rocket, will now fly its rover to the moon. The Bengaluru developments are a setback to GLXP as well, which in all likelihood, is left with one teamless. Or, maybe two. In December, Space.com reported that the Israeli finalist, SpaceIL was hoping for a holiday miracle to close $7.5 million in funding by 20 December, failing which it’d drop out of GLXP. Without confirming the funding or an independent moon mission plan, a spokesperson for SpaceIL said: “I should be able to get back to you with a clear answer in the coming days.”
Technically, a missed GLXP opportunity shouldn’t be the end of the road for TeamIndus.
The company has always had commercial space plans beyond the Google project, which, in any case, was unlikely to be a financial success. The plan, therefore, was to position the GLXP challenge as a showcase—a tech demonstration mission of sorts—that would eventually lead to follow-on commercial space projects.
As Narayan had earlier said, “In the aerospace industry, it’s impossible to find customers for any product or service that lacks ‘flight heritage’.” Flight heritage or flight pedigree is the term used to qualify a company that has actually successfully deployed a satellite or rover in space.