ISRO's spectacular leap in 25 years

CHENNAI, AUG. 14. On August 10, 1979, India's first Satellite Launch Vehicle — SLV-3 — roared skyward from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, carrying a small payload called Rohini Technology Payload (RTP). The mission failed. The rocket and the RTP fell into the Bay of Bengal. The rocket weighed 17 tonnes and the payload about 35 kg.

Satish Dhawan, who was Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), came out of the SHAR station and told a few waiting newsmen that the mission was ``a partial success.'' ``We stumbled a little but did not fall flat on our face,'' he said and walked back. The project director then was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, now the President. A jammed valve in the control system of the second stage of the launch vehicle led to the failure.

Eleven months later, on July 18, 1980, another SLV-3 rose into the sky from Sriharikota and orbited a satellite called Rohini. The SLV-3 weighed 17 tonnes and it was 22 metres tall. The Rohini weighed 40 kg. That success propelled India into the exclusive space club of the United States, the then U.S.S.R., the United Kingdom, France, Japan and China. The project director of the successful flight was Mr. Kalam.

Reason for failure

Some days prior to the successful mission, Vasant Gowariker, then Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, explained why the first SLV-3 flight failed.

``The nitric acid in the solenoid valve leaked. A rocket trying to go up without the nitric acid is like your trying to drive a car without petrol,'' he said.

The ISRO has not thought it fit to commemorate the silver jubilee of the launch of the first SLV-3. At a function at the VSSC on November 21, 2003, Prof. P.D. Bhavsar, one of the pioneers of ISRO, commented with anguish in a different context. ``ISRO has no sense of history.''

At last, a bust of Vikram Sarabhai, the architect of the country's space programme, was unveiled on the campus of the ISRO's headquarters in Bangalore this August 12, his 85th birthday.Several of those associated with that August 10, 1979 launch are no longer alive. Satish Dhawan, then ISRO Chairman, S. Srinivasan, who was VSSC Director, and M.R. Kurup, former SHAR Director, are no more. In 25 years, ISRO has made a spectacular leap. From a SLV-3 that weighed 17 tonnes and an RTP of 35 kg weight, it is all set to launch an aerial leviathan called the Geo-Synchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) next month, which would orbit EDUSAT. The GSLV weighs 414 tonnes and it is 49 metres tall. The EDUSAT weighs about 1,900 kg. Today, India can build its own launch vehicles and its own satellites. It can put any type of satellite into any orbit.

The genesis

India's space programme had its genesis when a Nike-Apache rocket imported from the U.S. took off from the fishing village of Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, on November 21, 1963. It weighed 715 kg and reached an altitude of 208 km. It was an international effort under the auspices of the United Nations.

Its sodium-vapour payload was from France; the range clearance was given by M1-4 helicopter from the Soviet Union; and the rocket and payload engineers were Indians. The two-stage rocket was assembled in the nearby St. Mary Magdalene church, which now houses a space museum. The adjacent Bishop's House served as the Control Centre. But there were contretemps. The French

payload would not marry up with the American rocket. Welding could cause fire because sodium was volatile. So Sarabhai asked Bhavsar: ``How can we fit the payload?'' Mr. Kalam and another colleague scraped the payload with a small hand tool until it mated with the rocket. The launch was a success. The orange trail from the sodium vapour that lit up the twilight sky caused excitement in Kerala. The State Assembly, which was in session then, adjourned for a few minutes for its members to enjoy the spectacle.

Big plans

India's truly indigenous programme began in 1969 when a ``pencil rocket'' that weighed 10 kg sped a few km into the atmosphere from Thumba. The rocket was assembled in the St. Mary Magdalene church.

ISRO has big plans. It has already started working on sending a probe, called Chandrayaan, to the moon in 2008; on building reusable launchers; and on recovering satellites after they fall into the sea. Work is under way on GSLV-MK III. It will weigh 630 tonnes and measure 43 metres in height. It will put a satellite weighing four tonnes at a height of 36,000 km. A second launch pad has been built at Sriharikota at a cost of Rs.350 crores. It will be blooded when a PSLV takes off from it before this year is out.

Recommended for you