Why we soldier on at TeamIndus

Here’s to the crazy ones

It’s been most than seven years since we started on this audacious, crazy journey [The popular definition of crazy that we follow is here) to the Moon. On the way, we have had to fight our very instincts in moments of self doubt, not to mention those who said maybe this was too big a dream to be fulfilled by a group of nobodies sitting in a corner of India.

We have soldiered on, because we are united by our Moonshot. There comes a time in one’s life when all you want to do is follow your dream, without thinking of the consequences of what lies beyond. For TeamIndus the mission to the Moon is about being the change we want to see and in the process potentially driving cultural, scientific and economic change.

The audacity of the idea behind instituting Google Lunar XPRIZE, as well as the journey undertaken by teams like Astrobotic have served as a huge inspiration for us at TeamIndus. Back in 2010, I had stumbled upon a speech from Peter Diamandis, part of which can be seen here (Peter’s speech is part of our Moonstruck video). These words still gives me goosebumps — it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, you land the Rover on the Moon and you win!

I remember being inspired by Dr Red Whittaker of Astrobotic and the work of Dumitru Popescu of ARCASpace. It was truly inspiring to see what these small teams from around the world were aiming for. So much so that the only question left to ask back then was who wants to lead the NewSpace challenge from India. It eventually fell to us, and we took the plunge. We had no experience in space, neither did we boast of connections within the scientific community. All we started with was with the dream of building a spacecraft that can soft-land on the Moon — entirely indigenously. That was 6 years ago.

How far have we come?

The path chronologically

2007 / Genesis: Sep-2007 Google Lunar XPRIZE was announced, with nearly 10 starting registered teams
2008 / Chandrayaan-I: India’s first inter-planetary mission to the Moon by ISRO
2010 / Made it by the whisker: TeamIndus was the last team to register for the competition — total 29 registered teams
2011 / Standing on the shoulder of giants: TeamIndus relied on the knowledge, expertise of retired ISRO scientists to set in motion our engineering plans
2012 / Setting up our team: First batch of full time engineers come on board, we finally start moving onto designs, plans and strategies
2013 / The all important move: TeamIndus made Bangalore its home and it all starts coming together
2014 / Big turning point: No one believed, TeamIndus included, that we would be shortlisted for the Milestone prize, especially in the Landing category
2015 / Winning $1M, raising our first formal equity round
2016 / Touching 100 team strength, moving to our own facility, signing the launch contract with Antrix
2017 / Shortlist: TeamIndus announced as one of only 5 remaining teams in the competition.

The Present

I believe the chances of TeamIndus being the first private company to land on the Moon have never been better. Of course, as with most space missions hurtling towards a difficult deadline, there is much work ahead of us. There are tests to be completed, reviews to be undertaken. We are burning the proverbial midnight oil to do it all and do it within the date marked in bold in front of us.

To organise this flow, we having been following a stage-gate review process to design our mission and systems and for risk and reliability management. Our secret sauce is marrying the experience of experts and the energy of youth, and it is hugely inspiring when the architects of Indian Space program recognise our efforts. Dr. K Kasturirangan has been and continues to be our pillar of strength.

Even without asking ISRO, from the day we registered we assumed when we launch, it will be on board a PSLV-XL. A huge validation came along last year when we signed our launch contract with Antrix. This was a crucial milestone, not just because it helped us remain in the competition, but also because it demonstrated great things happen when the best of India’s public and ambitious private enterprises work together. It also helps us immensely that the PSLV is perhaps the most reliable and proven of any of the launch vehicles that are being used by the teams still left in GLXP.

When it comes to the status of our subsystems for the mission, the thermo-structural, propulsion, communication, flight computer configurations have been frozen for a while now and are in various stages of execution. Evolution on the flight software and control systems is on-going and we should be where we need to be very soon. Our payload configuration was frozen earlier this year, we are awaiting a formal multi-stakeholder review before we publish the flight payload manifest.

I am assigning @AiDeeAi for Spacecraft, @93Vaish for Rover, @GuptaHarshita90 for Mission, @TeamIndusOrg for outreach updates first Friday of each month, going forward to keep everyone abreast of what is happening.

We are gunning for a major review in the week of 2nd October, a review that will green light (or otherwise) and set up the last phase of our journey to the launchpad. To my mind this ultimate review is the outcome of efforts, passion and prayers of every supporter, partner, backer and team member that has believed in our journey. Therefore we are going to make this into a celebration week on lines of a Dreamforce developer’s conference. We are going to throw this open to media and selected (selection criteria yet to be declared) public to join in, once the reviews are completed and completed successfully, we will welcome you on board to a much closer look.

Then there is the need for money. There are multiple components that need to be paid for. We break a bunch of this just to learn more, and although only one model flies, multiple models have to be built. Tests are super expensive: for example the cost of the Spacecraft we tested for the milestone prize (December 2014) was less than the cost of the test itself :) Then there’s the cost of commercial launch contract we have with Antrix.

Is it still possible to launch with the Google Lunar XPrize timeframe?
We have backed ourselves to meet some pretty crazy deadlines before, and are committing to keep trying until we have exhausted all possible options of winning the Grand Prize. Our first viable launch window is 28–30 Dec 2017, then a 3-day window is available every 2 weeks. Until then, we would need to clear multiple tests, certifications and rehearsals before we get onto the launch pad.

We believe an entire generation is a stakeholder in our journey and potentially the biggest beneficiary of the success of our Mission. That’s why we want to keep everyone in informed about the mission and its progress. Our Outreach efforts have also been our primary recruitment tool, and obviously the more we reach out to people, the better our chances of making this Mission happen will be.

The future

No space mission is possible without a whole bunch of really smart engineers. As the Moon mission enters its final phase, we are readying to take up new challenges and help create a sustainable aerospace business that can compete with the best in the world.

We started the engineering of this mission from first principles (that’s correct Newton’s, Kepler’s laws all came in handy) — thanks to the deep learnings from this grounds up program development, we are now reasonably well equipped to take on other engineering challenges. Will it be inter-planetary missions, constellation design, deeper data analytics — at this point all those are creative thinking we continue to explore with a bunch of our partners both Indian and International.

We have a bunch of smart engineers, and most of our future programs will evolve out of tinkering by our engineers in their extra time, as they work on the Moon mission. Some of these projects and directions they embark on would be taken further, some especially crazy ones may even be kept in cold storage for a while until technology catches up with their vision.

When we started this journey we knew that we would be an ecosystem enabler for NewSpace and more in India. At this point I know of at least four startups that has come out of TeamIndus, I personally am happy to encourage the bright, disruptive ones to do more and at some point if their plans do not fit inside our structure to go setup on their own.

There is only one thing I have committed to for life beyond the Moon mission. It will be a challenge to go back on my promise that everyone who made this happen will have earned a 30-day paid vacation. :)

Until next time

We have been asked multiple times whether we bit more than we could chew. You bet we have, because audacious goals requires insane belief and in order to accomplish the impossible, you have to be unreasonable in your expectations. That’s what guided us when we started this journey all those years ago and that is what will continue to light our path.

We have travelled far to be where we are today. Despite questions on the contrary coming our way, we have no intention of shirking away from the challenge and we intend to be the first private entity on the Moon. “To the Moon, on time, on budget — pick two” is a common saying amongst Space scientists — for TeamIndus the first parameter is set in stone. Unambiguously so :)

As they say, those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world for the better are the ones who do.

Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter -> TeamIndusLead