This is India’s rocket science

August 27, 2012 09:30 pm | Updated 09:30 pm IST



In November next year, the Indian space programme will look back 50 years to an iconic event in its history – the launch of a small U.S.-built rocket from the southern state of Kerala. That rocket did no more than shoot up to a height of about 200 km and release a cloud of sodium vapour which, set aglow by the light of a setting sun, could be seen from afar in the gathering dusk.

It nevertheless marked the beginning of a long journey. These days, India is able to build rockets that dwarf the one launched in 1963. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has proved to be remarkably rugged and versatile, transporting a variety of operational satellites, such as those for communications and remote sensing, as well as spacecraft like the country’s first Moon probe, Chandrayaan-1, into orbit around the Earth.

This book charts the technological course of that journey, from initially making smaller and simpler types of rockets, known as ‘sounding rockets’, and then progressing to developing launch vehicles that became increasingly more powerful and capable. The authors of the book, P.V. Manoranjan Rao and P. Radhakrishnan, have both worked for many years and occupied senior positions at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the lead agency for the rocket programme.

The tale they tell is not new. Even so, the richness of detail and the anecdotes that have been incorporated make their book interesting. Such information is particularly useful in respect of events in the early years of the programme that are often poorly documented.


It is a measure of how little capability in modern rocketry existed within the country at the time that a small group of young men, among them A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (who later became President of India), had to be sent to America for training before the first imported sounding rocket could be launched. But Vikram Sarabhai, scientist, industrialist and, above all, a man with a vision, was undaunted. The founder of India’s space programme looked ahead to a time when the country would be able to build satellites as well as the rockets to launch them.

In April 1968, Sarabhai set up a group to study the feasibility of developing a launch vehicle to carry a satellite weighing about 30 kg. Following its favourable report, design options for such a vehicle were studied in detail. “The configuration of the launch vehicle was chosen after a thorough comparative study of three-stage and four-stage combinations,” according to this book. A four-stage configuration, which was closely modelled on America’s Scout rocket, was selected and came to be known as SLV-3.

But, interestingly, the book also notes that Homi Bhabha, who established and headed the atomic energy programme, had, as early as February 1965, approached the U.S. space agency, NASA, seeking technology transfer of the Scout vehicle. (The Indian space programme was under the Department of Atomic Energy in its early years, and a separate Department of Space was created only in 1972.) The Americans politely refused to oblige.

The SLV-3 was a small and relatively simple launch vehicle. Even so, much of the 1970s went into its development, a reflection of the many different technological elements that had to be mastered and integrated into a single system.

The first launch of the rocket in August 1979 ended in failure. A year later, when the rocket was brought to the launch pad for a second attempt, a problem cropped up. The book narrates how the umbilical cable from the launch tower, which was used to service the satellite, failed to detach and retract shortly before lift-off. Ordinarily, no one is allowed to approach a launch vehicle that is ready to be fired. In this case, however, a technician by the name of Bapaiah volunteered to climb the launch tower. With a kick from him, the recalcitrant umbilical cable came loose and a short while later “India became a space-faring nation.”

Two more flights of the SLV-3 followed. Then came the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), the PSLV and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

Back to Indigenous method

In writing about the GSLV, the authors have gone along with the Indian Space Research Organisation’s view that it was preferable to import, rather than indigenously develop, the cryogenic engine technology required for the rocket. But after the Russians backed off from supplying the technology in the face of a U.S. embargo, the space agency had necessarily to return to indigenous development. The end result has been that much time, effort and money was needlessly spent on pursuing the import option and the country still does not have a reliable GSLV to show for it.

All said and done, this book is a useful contribution to understanding the path that the Indian rocket programme has followed over the past five decades.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROCKETRY IN ISRO: P.V. Manoranjan Rao, P. Radhakrishnan; Universities Press (India) Pvt. Ltd., 3-6-741/A & 3-6-754/1, Himayat Nagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 450.

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