Efficiency in Space: ISRO’s budgetary triumph

January 17, 2024

Efficiency in Space: ISRO’s budgetary triumph

Abstract: This study aims to look at the comparative analysis of the expenditures of 5 space agencies in the past one decade. Further it aims to throw light at how ISRO has stayed notably cost effective since its inception.


The success of the recent Chandrayan-3 mission has brought back into focus how India has managed to aim the enormous feat at very low costs. Numerous comparisons have been made not only with respect to developed countries’ space programmes but even with the budgets of hollywood space movies like Gravity and Interstellar. The primary aim of this study is to attempt an analysis of the major space agencies’ budgets with a specific focus on exploring the cost-effective approach adopted by ISRO. ISRO, a relative newcomer to the field embarked on its cosmic journey with resource constraints but an unwavering commitment to delivering the benefits of space technology to its citizens. For this particular study we will look at the space economics keeping NASA, ISRO, ROSCOSMOS (Russia’s space agency) and CNSA (China’s space agency) as the main players. We will also include Space X (Elon Musk’s space company) in this study to bring an extra dimension to this analysis. The study will highlight the contributions and achievements of these agencies in the field of space exploration, science and technology.

Beyond fiscal prudence, this study explores the broader implications of ISRO’s approach, offering insights that transcend borders and budgets.


The study relies on secondary data sourced from reputable website articles and studies. The choice of these sources was made to access a wide range of information and perspectives on the budgets and cost-effective practices of space agencies with a special focus on ISRO.


The history of space exploration begins from the 1950s, this is when Russia and the USA started a space race in order to become the superior player.  It can be said that the launch of Sputnik-1 by Russia in the year 1957 led to the establishment of NASA by the United States as a response. Along with Sputnik, the Apollo 11 mission from America became a big landmark during the first two decades of space exploration history. This was followed by the manned missions from both of the countries which made them the 2 biggest history makers in this area. Following them, countries like India, France, Germany and China have established their respective space programs to become the leading players in space exploration. To begin with, let’s look at the history and achievements of 5 of the biggest space programs in the world-

  1. NASA

The National Aeronautics Space Administration is an independent agency of the US government established in the year 1958. It is responsible for the country’s space program, aeronautics research and space research. Right from the time of its inception, it has been a leading player in the world when it comes to technological innovations and scientific advancements. It has set ambitious goals for itself which have been successfully achieved in the course of its history. When it comes to listing out its achievements, the one at the top is of course being the first and the only space agency to have landed a person on the moon. The day when Neil Armstrong became the first person to have set foot on the moon’s surface remains one of the most important events in the course of human history. Apart from this the Mars Pathfinder which became the first spacecraft to land on another planet in the year 1997. Another important milestone in the history of NASA was manufacturing a reusable spacecraft called Columbia, a space shuttle that was launched in the year 1981. This was followed by 4 other space shuttles called Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. Space missions like Apollo 13, the Juno spacecraft (sent out to study the planet Jupiter), Explorer 1 (the first US satellite) are some of the other important achievements in the history of American space exploration.


Roscosmos is the space agency of Russia that finds its roots in the Soviet Space program founded in the 1950s. Roscosmos was established as the Russian space agency following the dissolution of the Russian union in 1991. The legacy of the Russian space program includes the world’s first satellite (Sputnik 1), first human spaceflight and having the first space station (Salyut). It also sent the first woman in space in 1963. Post 1991, as ROSCOSMOS, the country has continued on its path in maintaining its status as a key player in space exploration. While the 1990s saw a lull period owing to low funds, the collaboration with the USA, Japan, Europe and Canada with the construction of ISS, reinstated its status in conducting few of the biggest space missions. Along with running missions which transfer cargo to and from the ISS, Russia is also the main country from where the US launches its astronauts using the Russian spacecrafts. Roscosmos is also involved in sending out satellites of other countries in space as well.

  • ISRO

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is the national space agency of India . It was established as INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research) in 1962 under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru who recognised the importance of space research and this led to the institutionalisation of space research activities in India. ISRO itself formally came into being in the year 1969. Historically there are 5 big achievements which have led to ISRO’s recognition as one of the biggest space research organisations in the world. The first big step that India took in kicking off its space journey was the launch of the Aryabhatta satellite in the year 1975. It was sent into space through a Russian rocket and was made with an innovative technology to conduct scientific experiments in space. India successfully launched its first moon mission called Chandrayaan-1 in the year 2008. It orbited the moon successfully and made important discoveries about the lunar surface. It launched a space exploration mission to Mars in the year 2013 named Mangalyaan to understand the terrain and morphology in detail of the planet. In 2017, ISRO achieved an immensely big feat by launching 104 satellites in one go. And finally with the launch of Chandrayaan-3 it became the first nation in the world to land on the south pole region of the moon.

  • CNSA

The China National Space Administration is the space agency of the People’s Republic of China. Formed in the year 1993, even with being a young establishment, it has witnessed tremendous achievements. It is the first space agency to have landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, in the year 2019. Then in 2020, China became the 3rd country to launch a lunar sample-return mission. In the same year, it became the second agency in the world to send a robotic spacecraft to Mars. The agency plans to send manned missions to the moon by 2030.

  • SpaceX

Space X is a privately owned space manufacturing company owned by Elon Musk. It was founded in the year 2002 with the idea of reducing the space transportation costs and colonising  the planet Mars. It is the first privately owned company to launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. Also, it is the first private player which has sent a spacecraft to the International Space Station. At the same time it has also sent astronauts to the space station. It is the pioneering company in creating a reusable rocket technology which has led to the reduction in costs of launching. Space X’s ambitious Starship project aims to establish human presence on Mars, while collaborations with NASA and commercial partners continue to drive innovation and shape the face of space exploration.

Comparative Expenditure Analysis

Excluding Space X, all the other 4 agencies receive their funding from the respective governments. The United States Congress allocates a part of its federal budget to NASA every year. On an average (between 2010-2020) the share alloted has been between 2.2-2.5 billion dollars which is approximately 0.50% of the federal budget. It is important to note that this share has deceased over the previous decades. In the 1960s while the US was racing to get ahead of Russia in the space race, the share was around 4.5% of the budget. This was the time when it launched the space missions to the moon and the government was heavily backing it. Over time though the share has fallen because of a lesser ambitious political support and of course because it seemingly had won the space war. Inspite of this NASA continues to remain the leading player when it comes to space exploration. According to data from 2021, the USA spent more than what China, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, India, Italy, South Korea and the EU combined had spent on space research.

The Soviet Space Program (which later turned into ROSCOSMOS post the soviet union dissolving in 1991) had a budget of roughly between 0.2-4 billion dollars during its space race with the USA in the 60s. It led to historic achievements such as launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and achieving the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin. In later years, budget constraints in the post-Soviet era posed challenges, but collaborations with international partners and the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) helped ROSCOSMOS maintain its prominence in space exploration.

Since its inception, ISRO has managed to achieve an important place in the history of space research even after keeping its costs very low. While the government expenditure has steadily increased since the 70s, it has remained less than 1% of the total GDP of the country. How the organisation has been able to reach a state where it has been tremendously successful while keeping the costs low will be explored further in the subsequent sections. It is important to note here that the spending in the past one decade has brought in big profits. It earned around 3300 crores by launching 389 foreign satellites in the last 9 years. In fact out of the 104 satellites it had launched in one go in 2017, 104 were foreign satellites.

The CNSA formed by China is one of the more recently developed space agencies. The available data suggests that China has spent on an average 2.90 billion dollars between 1992-2005 and 2.17 billion dollars between 2005-2011. This is for specifically manned missions in space flights. When one looks at the overall govt funding, it is important to note that China outspent every other country in the world except for the USA. The support for China’s space program has increased over the past several decades. It recognises it as having a great significance for elevating China’s prestige in the world when it comes to economic, defence and scientific capabilities.

The idea behind the development of Space X, a privately owned space agency of Elon Musk was to reduce the cost of space travel. Being a privately held entity the full details of the budget and expenditure of the organisation aren’t available in the open. However it has been reported that Space X is expected to spend around 2 billion dollars on its starship development this year. Space X has raised funding from more than 100 private players located in different countries and it also earns money by offering a variety of services to other space agencies including NASA. It builds spacecraft, rockets and offers cargo and human supply services to space. It also has contracts with the US government for defence missions. It also wants to get into deploying satellites into space.  

How has ISRO managed to be a pioneer in space while being dramatically cost effective

In the year 2014, Prime Minister Modi had drawn a dramatic comparison between the cost of India’s Mars mission Mangalyaan and the hollywood movie Gravity. While Mangalyaan cost around 74 million dollars to the Indian government, Gravity was made in the total amount of 100 million dollars. At the same time, NASA’s mission to Mars had cost nearly 10 times more. ISRO has gained international recognition for its remarkable cost-effectiveness in space exploration and satellite deployment and there are several interesting factors behind it.

Just after gaining independence in 1947, the country was struggling. Keeping in mind the limited resources we had, the father of the Indian space program, Mr Vikram Sarabhai had started the organisation with the culture of frugality. The idea was to use space technology for the benefit of the poor. Sending out Moon and Mars missions were not on the agenda. The country sent out its first satellite called Aryabhatta in 1975 and since then hasn’t looked back in its progress towards reaching greater heights in the area of space. So how has a country managed to do so while spending less than 1% of its budget on space exploration. First, like it was mentioned earlier, ISRO has a history of having frugal practices, it has stayed economical when it comes to multiple things. A lot of critical components in the equipment that has been used in Indian space programs has been manufactured indigenously with the help of industries like BHEL, Mishra Dhatu Nigam, Godrej Aerospace, TCEL and L&T.

The missions sent out by ISRO are usually with lighter and smaller payloads but heavier, slower and less powerful rockets. Such launches are usually less risky and have helped ISRO do more frequent launches. Further, the organisation has found its ground in the global commercial satellite launch market by offering competitive pricing for launching small satellites. This approach has generated a big revenue stream and has helped ISRO gain international recognition.

In addition to its engineering prowess and frugal approach, ISRO has remained cost-effective also rooted in the economic advantage it leverages. The salaries of scientists at ISRO are approximately one-fifth of what their counterparts receive in the developed countries, and a similar cost advantage applies to the engineers in India compared to the United States. Moreover ISRO’s practice of hiring permanent employees ahead of missions, as opposed to the often heft contracts associated with foreign organisations, significantly contributes to cost savings. These economic factors collectively underscore the organisation’s ability to execute cost-efficient space missions while maintaining a high level of expertise.

Furthermore ISRO’s commitment to cost-efficiency extends beyond its borders through strategic collaborations with space agencies like NASA and JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) . These partnerships have not only allowed for knowledge-sharing and technological advancements and has also helped ISRO to leverage resources, reduce costs and expand its capabilities on a global scale.

The organisation has carved a remarkable legacy of cost-effective space exploration, reflecting its commitment to frugality, sustainability, and societal benefits. Notably, ISRO’s cost-efficient approach extends beyond budgetary considerations; it aligns with environmental sustainability through innovations like reusable rocket technology, reducing space debris and pollution. The organisation’s mission to harness space technology for the betterment of society is evident in applications ranging from communication to disaster management. ISRO also champions educational outreach, nurturing a future generation of scientists and engineers. Its international recognition and space diplomacy efforts underscore its global significance. As ISRO continues to embark on ambitious missions, including lunar endeavours and interplanetary explorations, its cost-effective ethos remains central to its enduring success and global impact on space exploration.

What lies ahead for ISRO?

As the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) continues to make significant strides in the realm of space exploration, its vision for the future is nothing short of ambitious. With a proven track record of cost-effective missions and groundbreaking achievements, ISRO is poised to expand its horizons and contribute even more substantially to space science and technology.

Within 2 months of the successful completion of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, ISRO launched the Aditya-L1 mission, India’s first mission dedicated to study the sun, specifically its photosphere, chromosphere and corona. It has now laid eyes on the exploration of the planet Venus. The mission has been named Shukrayaan from Sanskrit words Shukraa (Venus) and Yana (craft, vehicle) is expected to launch in the coming years. After the Venus mission, ISRO plans to launch the Mars Orbiter Mission-2, India’s second interplanetary mission planned for launch to Mars by 2024. It is also aiming to send a crewed mission to the moon by 2025, the mission has been named Gaganyaan. And finally it is also working on further exploring of the southern pole of the moon, this will be a collaboration between ISRO and JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency).


In the exploration of space agencies’ budgets and the cost-effective approach of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), we have uncovered a fascinating tapestry of history, economics, and innovation. The global race to conquer the cosmos, often driven by political and ideological motivations, propelled the United States, the Soviet Union (later ROSCOSMOS), and other emerging space players to invest significantly in their space programs during the mid-20th century.

ISRO, as a relative newcomer to this arena, faced unique challenges as it embarked on its journey into space. With limited resources and a commitment to using space technology for the benefit of the nation’s citizens, ISRO adopted a culture of frugality and efficiency that has become synonymous with its name. This approach allowed ISRO to achieve remarkable milestones at a fraction of the cost of its global counterparts.

Today, ISRO stands as a testament to the power of innovation, collaboration, and fiscal responsibility in the realm of space exploration. It has demonstrated that a developing nation can successfully participate in and contribute to the global space community without excessive financial burden. The organisation’s achievements, including the Chandrayaan missions to the Moon and Mangalyaan’s successful mission to Mars, underscore the significance of ISRO’s cost-effective model.

As we reflect on the budgetary fluctuations, historical achievements, and economic advantages that have shaped space agencies’ trajectories, it becomes evident that the pursuit of knowledge and exploration knows no boundaries. Whether propelled by political rivalry or the curiosity of the human spirit, space exploration remains a testament to our shared humanity.

In a world where fiscal responsibility and sustainability are ever more critical, ISRO’s cost-effective approach serves as an inspiring example. It reminds us that the stars need not be out of reach, and the cosmos can be explored with prudence and purpose.