| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a pitch for India to be the world's low-cost space technology supplier after witnessing the launch of a rocket carrying five satellites from France, Singapore, Germany and Canada on Monday.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle's mission bolstered India's goal of capturing a large slice of the global satellite launch industry, estimated to be worth around $55 billion over the next decade.
Deviprasad Karnik, spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, said all five satellites had been placed in orbit.
Modi said India's space program put it in an "elite global group of five-six countries today. This is one domain in which we are at the international cutting edge, a domain in which we have pushed beyond mediocrity to achieve excellence."
So far, India has launched 40 satellites for 19 countries, many of them advanced nations. Although that is a source of pride for Modi, the nationalist leader underscored that India still needed to improve its space capability.
India, he said, had to construct new launch infrastructure and extend launch capabilities to heavier satellites.
"India has the potential to be the launch service provider of the world. We must work towards this goal," he said.
India sent its first spacecraft to Mars last November, which set it on course to be the first Asian mission to reach the red planet. If successful, it will join a small club of space agencies to have explored Mars.
That mission's cheap price tag of 4.5 billion rupees ($75 million) prompted Modi on Monday to remark that it cost less than the budget of the Hollywood science fiction film Gravity.
"Even today our program stands out as the most cost effective in the world," said Modi. "Our scientists have shown the world a new paradigm of frugal engineering and the power of imagination."
Modi has championed a more assertive foreign policy since taking office in May. He invited members of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his inauguration in an unprecedented step and chose Himalayan neighbor Bhutan as his first foreign trip.
That regional focus now extends to more space cooperation. On Monday, Modi pledged to develop a SAARC satellite dedicated "to our neighborhood as a gift from India".
Although Modi made no mention of China, Beijing's program is far ahead of India's, with bigger rockets, more launches and equally cost-effective missions.
India launched its space program five decades ago and developed its own rocket technology after Western powers levied sanctions for a 1974 nuclear weapons test. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.
However thrifty, India's space program has drawn criticism in a country dogged by poverty and power shortages and in the grip of its longest economic slowdown since the country embarked on free market reforms in 1991.
Modi, however, said he believed that space technology offered many applications. "Space may seem distant but is an integral part of our daily life today," he said. ($1 = 60.0650 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Ron Popeski)