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Updated: January 14, 2014 04:08 IST

The Indian space saga

Vasudevan Mukunth
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India's Rise as a Space Power by U.R. Rao.
Special Arrangement India's Rise as a Space Power by U.R. Rao.

The first successful test of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) indigenous cryogenic engine happened on January 7. It powered the GSLV-D5 that placed the GSAT-14 satellite into low-Earth orbit. This is a remarkable feat by ISRO, whose scientists and engineers have persevered for over two decades to get this engine working. The next big launch for ISRO after the D5 could be the GSLV Mark III, whose first developmental flight is scheduled for April 2014.

The Mark III will fly a larger variant of the cryogenic engine and, if successful, will portend such an era for the Indian space programme that its visionaries will be unfettered by restrictions on the payload’s weight. The Mark III is projected to have a payload capacity more than thrice as heavy as the PSLV can currently manage. Imagine the commensurate increase in sophistication that could have been installed on-board, say, the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The cryogenic engine shot to prominence in the annals of India’s space-faring history in 1991, when Prof. Udupi Ramachandra Rao was the chairman of ISRO, Bangalore. In his book, India’s Rise as a Space Power, Prof. Rao speaks from the experience of serving as one of India’s premier rocket scientists about the carefully crafted steps that the country’s space programme has taken to emerge as a veritable space power.

There is a common theme in his book and work: that of recognising the importance of a good space programme for the Indian telecom, IT and agrarian industries to be where they are today — an observation very relevant in acknowledging that our space programme does not operate isolated from India’s efforts to reduce poverty, ensure energy and food security, etc.

For example, even though ISRO has been progressing at a steady click, its biggest achievement for quite some time to come will be its INSAT programme. The name stands for the Indian National Satellite System, and today comprises a network of multipurpose geostationary satellites to sate the needs of telecommunication, broadcasting, meteorology and search-and-rescue operations. As a result, we have had cheaper mobile phones, state-of-the-art flood- and storm-forecasting, and a spectacular expansion of television networks.

As described in India’s Rise…, the distinct chance of India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, being successful encouraged ISRO to conceive an experimental remote-sensing satellite, Bhaskara, and the INSAT programme as early as March 1975 itself. This was when Prof. Rao was the director of the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC), Bangalore.

However, after the launch of Bhaskara II in 1981, rather the more advanced Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellite IRS-1A in 1988, the Cold War was starting to snow in on many of ISRO’s aspirations — just as well India’s aspirations, too, as we were entering the operational era poised to reap many economic benefits for the country.

The IRS-1A marked ISRO’s first engagement with the Soviet private company Glavkosmos, which would, in January 1991, agree to transfer cryogenic engine technology to India. Prof. Rao speculates that the impending American embargo in 1992 was fuelled by the commercial threat ISRO was beginning to pose to NASA. With its successful launch of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) in May that year, and the commencement of the PSLV programme within the next two, Prof. Rao estimates Indian launch costs to have been a whopping 50 per cent lesser than prevalent rates in the West.

The Americans insisted that the embargo was in response to violating the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a pretentious recourse: even 22 years later, it isn’t practical to use cryogenic engines to power missiles. Fortunately, the IRS programme was able to go ahead, albeit with concessions such as ISRO going with western launchers instead of the Russian fare so the Americans could have an eye on the equipment trail.

Then, INSAT dominated the space programme until 1994. At the same time, even as development of the PSLV programme was underway, a multitude of reasons were coming together to press for developing the next generation of launch vehicles. The baseline requirement that fixed the capacity of the GSLV was the government’s approval for ISRO to build the INSAT-2 series of satellites, each weighing over two tonnes — well beyond the PSLV’s capacity of 1.4.

At this juncture, Prof. Rao brings to light an interesting detail. While ISRO was working on the GSLV in 1988, the General Dynamics Company, USA, approached it with an offer to sell two RL-10 cryogenic engines at $800 million. The deal didn’t go through, including technology transfer, as the cost was prohibitive. A similar thing happened between ISRO and Arianespace in 1989, which had in fact quoted $1,200 million. It was then that ISRO took the “bold decision” to build a 12-tonne cryogenic engine of its own, according to Prof. Rao, demonstrating the extent of our self-reliance 24 years ago.

It was Glavkosmos’s cheaper offer at this stage — two 12-tonne cryogenic engines plus technology transfer at Rs. 230 crore — that enticed ISRO and attracted unfavourable attention from the USA. While Prof. Rao talks about this controversial phase in some detail, he doesn’t go so far as to involve the CIA as many theories have been inclined to. In fact, he has done well to keep the narrative crisp, speaking constantly in favour of empowering scientists over administrators at ISRO. His only political opinion emerges when he implies that there was no dignity when the contract for the engines was forcefully terminated in 1993 under pressure from the Yeltsin and Clinton governments.

Prof. Rao is ruthless with his recollections. This is not a historian’s perspective, nor a policy-maker’s, but — lest it be mistaken for naivete — a rocket-scientist’s. On the downside, many concepts in the book are left too technical. While most of the time they do not stand in the way of general comprehension, they diminish the reader’s ability to access the attention to detail the book proudly, and refreshingly, presents.

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