“Bringing U.S.-India Space Cooperation to the Edge of the Universe” Special Address by U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma at the ORF Kalpana Chawl

(As prepared for delivery)

I want to extend a thank you to the U.S.-India Business Council and the Observer Research Foundation for the invitation to speak this evening. I am thoroughly impressed by the people in this room – people whose visions for space technology and actions in space policy push forward what space can do for us here on Earth. U.S.-India space cooperation is a personal passion of mine, and I would like to take this opportunity to speak about what our countries have done together in this arena and where I hope we can go in the future.

From our earliest days, mankind has been racing to unlock the mysteries of the universe – through science, astronomy, physics and, yes, also through space flight.  This quest has been about far more than satisfying human curiosity or a need to explore new domains.  The journey has also been about the limitless laboratory that space provides – a gravity-free classroom that can help us improve the human condition.  Better predicting monsoons, enhancing global communications and connectedness, and conducting advanced research on the pressing problems of the day are just a few of the benefits on Earth from our continued work in space.

Historical Highlights of U.S.-India Space Cooperation 

I’m proud that the United States and India have a long and successful history of space cooperation, beginning in 1963 when India first launched a U.S.-manufactured sounding rocket – sometimes called a “research rocket” – from Thumba to study the atmosphere above Earth’s magnetic equator.  Over the next 12 years, the United States and other nations helped India build and launch more than 350 sounding rockets from Thumba.  That same launch site in southern India has become a major site for meteorology and atmospheric research, which provides valuable information about how the systems of our Earth interact – information that is increasingly important in the face of climate change.

I’m also proud of the role that Americans of Indian and South Asian descent have played in our great space program.  I had the honor of traveling to Houston last fall and meeting with a number of Indian Americans who had immigrated to the U.S. to support the important work of the Johnson Space Center and the related scientific research there.  I’m delighted that Sunita Williams could join us this evening – an American and Indian hero.  We welcome all our friends from NASA and ISRO.  And we remember and honor the courage of Kalpana Chawla and all those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in this quest.

In the 1970s, ISRO and NASA conducted the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE).  SITE used NASA’s first direct broadcasting satellite to beam television programs to more than 2,400 villages across India.  SITE set up TVs for community viewing to show programs on health, agriculture, development, and children’s programs.  The program impacted the lives of millions of rural people and provides just one example of how U.S.-India space cooperation brings tangible benefits to our people.

The SITE program led Indian space scientists to design and develop their own state-of-the-art multipurpose communications satellite in the 1980s – the Indian National Satellite, or INSAT.  The first four INSAT satellites were built by U.S. industry, and three of them were put into orbit by U.S. launch vehicles.  INSAT ushered in a revolution in India’s television and radio broadcasting and connected people – many for the first time – with telecommunications.  The system is also used for search and rescue missions in the Indian Ocean, another example of how space technology helps protect our people.  INSAT is now the largest domestic communication system in the Asia Pacific Region with nine operational satellites in orbit.

Current Space Cooperation

This early relationship has developed in to a robust partnership exemplified by scientific exchanges and joint projects.

Chandrayaan-1, India’s first mission to the moon, was launched successfully in October 2008.  The spacecraft carried several scientific instruments built by international partners, including two by NASA.  The satellite orbited the moon to map the celestial body for chemical and mineralogical characteristics.  One of the NASA instruments mapped about 90 percent of the surface of the moon in nine months of operation. The Chandrayaan-1 mission produced data that led scientists to detect water on the moon for the first time.

In September 2014, both our nations had spacecraft arrive in Martian orbit.  NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft – popularly known as MAVEN – arrived at Mars on September 21 and is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars.  ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission – or MOM – arrived only two days later and made India the first Asian nation to “go to Mars.”  The MOM is still orbiting today and helping scientists study the Martian surface and atmosphere. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provided navigation and communication support to the MOM, showcasing yet again how our nations can work together effectively on complex challenges.

Following the near-simultaneous arrival of our spacecraft to Mars, our countries established a Mars Working Group to investigate further cooperation for Mars exploration. The third face-to-face meeting of this working group concluded today in Bangalore. The Mars Working Group seeks to identify and implement goals that NASA and ISRO share for Mars exploration, particularly coordinated observations and science analysis between MAVEN and MOM and NASA’s other Mars craft. The working group also looks to potential future joint missions to Mars.

Another ongoing project, which is particularly exciting because it can provide important information about climate change, is the NASA-ISRO synthetic aperture radar project, or NISAR.  Our space agencies are developing this joint satellite and plan to launch it from India’s impressive Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle in 2021. The satellite will use advanced radar imaging to provide an unprecedented, detailed view of Earth. The joint mission will improve scientists’ understanding of climate change and natural hazards by measuring changes on the Earth’s surface, such as changes in ice sheets, land vegetation, and land motion.  Both President Obama and Prime Minister Modi recognize that global climate change is a profound threat to humanity. I believe it’s critically important to utilize all of our strengths to fight this threat, and I am proud that we are using space technology and the NISAR project to do so.

In September 2015, for the first time India launched a U.S. satellite … well actually four at once. The satellites belong to a U.S. company, and India launched them from its trusted workhorse – the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which has launched satellites for twenty different countries. Other U.S. companies have sought launches on India’s PSLV, including a Google satellite scheduled for launch in April.  Likewise, many U.S. companies continue to provide ISRO with satellite technology and components, and Raytheon is playing an important role in India’s GAGAN navigation system.

Satellite navigation is an indispensable technology that we rely on each day – the cell phones in our pockets use the technology to help us navigate, make phone calls, and send international fund transfers.  I am excited that our countries are working together to make GPS and the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System more compatible through the adoption of the same signal for civilian use. This creates the potential for us to harness satellite navigation data for more benefits to our society. The data could be used to help trains avoid collisions, assist fishermen to stay in appropriate areas, or provide valuable data to initiatives such as Digital India and Smart Cities.

The U.S. and India also have a deep, cooperative relationship in weather systems and applications, which rely heavily on space technologies.  Our weather agencies maintain a long-standing data sharing agreement, and India continues to enhance a weather forecasting model developed by the United States government.  India also provides data, technical assistance, and financial support to the monsoon desk at the U.S. National Weather Service.  Last June NASA released international climate model data for the Indian subcontinent to facilitate climate resilience cooperation between U.S. and Indian technical agencies.  This data will fuel a partnership between the U.S. and India to help each country assess and prepare for changing climate risks at the sub-national level.  What is more, this relationship goes well beyond government to government activity. U.S. and Indian universities and professional societies also collaborate on a wide range of science, research, and capacity building efforts.

Potential Future Collaboration 

Our past and ongoing collaborations are a bright spot in the already strong U.S.-India bilateral relationship, and yet I believe we can continue to push forward and do even more together.  Some of our most valued technologies have origins in the space industry – technologies like the cameras in our cell phones, water filtration, and medical scans – so we must push forward for more collaboration in space to bring even more benefits in the future.

I envision a future where the United States and India work with scientists from around the world to explore the far reaches of outer space.  Imagine our astronauts working together in space on a joint mission. Imagine our scientists coming together to explore this galaxy and galaxies beyond, jointly discovering the very origins of the universe.  I believe these grand dreams may not be so far away.  After all, just days ago Prime Minister Modi announced that India will build a LIGO facility [Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory], and together we will explore gravitational waves, the most exciting discovery in fundamental physics in this new millennium.

The International Space Station also provides a potential opportunity for more depth in our space collaboration. India could become a partner in the ISS, opening the door for even closer collaboration in space.  Scientists and students could send experiments to the ISS just as the other partner nations in the ISS currently do to study topics that range from space and physics to biology and biotechnology.  In 2014, then-ISRO Chairman Radhakrishnan said that India was in discussions about conducting climate-related Earth observation experiments on the space station if it became a partner of the ISS.  Earth observation from space can provide valuable information about global weather patterns, extreme weather events, and environmental changes, helping to keep our cities, our people, and our countries safer.

In addition to sending experiments to space, in the coming years Indian astronauts and American astronauts could work side by side in space to better understand the intricacies of our planet, our universe, and human interactions with them.

Beyond the outer atmosphere of this planet, we can continue exploring Mars together.  Our engineers could jointly develop a spacecraft to explore the atmosphere or even the surface of Mars. Our bright scientists could work together to analyze the data and learn even more about the Red Planet.  Our NASA Administrator likes to remind us that the first person to walk on Mars is alive today…somewhere on Earth.  What was once a dream and part of a Hollywood movie script is becoming a reality.  I’m confident that our work together could help secure and accelerate this reality.

And let’s go beyond Mars, let’s go further in our solar system.  Our nations could together build spacecraft to reach other planets or bodies in our solar system.  At the U.S.-India Civil Space Joint Working Group last September, both our nations expressed interest in working together in heliophysics, or the study of the sun.  Joint projects on these celestial bodies would lead to joint discoveries about our home in space.

While the current generation of U.S.-India space collaboration is largely government led, the next wave must include leadership by private industry, academia, entrepreneurs, and the users of space-based data and services. I know of more than a few Indian space entrepreneurs seeking capital to build small satellites, provide real-time agricultural data, develop weather apps, and provide rural connectivity.  There would be tremendous benefits to India if it harnesses this technology and the $300 billion space economy.

Commercial space technology reinforces technology development, innovation, and entrepreneurship more broadly.  U.S. satellite operators offer broadband internet everywhere in the United States at affordable costs, and the social and economic benefits of GPS are profound.  Joining our expertise and needs in these applications – and in others, including supply-chain management, machine-to-machine communications, precision farming, and optimized transportation – could provide a huge boost to the Digital India vision.


Greater U.S.-India space cooperation – across multiple segments of society – could inspire the next phase of Indo-American potential.  It could vividly demonstrate how India and the United States, working together, can be of service to the world.  Space research and exploration drive innovation and technology development for the benefit of all people – from satellite navigation and smart cities, to water purification technology and medical imaging.  Space also inspires young minds and sparks passions, encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering, and math – skillsets that launch high-tech careers and stimulate entrepreneurship.  Space, as part of the global commons, is a precious frontier that will allow for the continued advancement of mankind.  It is an area in which international cooperation is not only important, it has become a necessity.  As President Obama said “what was once a global competition has long since become a global collaboration.”

In closing, I want to thank you for having me here this evening to speak with this impressive group of thinkers and world changers. I am passionate about the potential of what we can do together in space,  am inspired by the work that you are doing to help us realize our potential, and am grateful to our two visionary leaders – President Obama and Prime Minister Modi – who have challenged us to reach for this final frontier.  Thank you.