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ISRO - Life Begins at 40

Issue: 10-2009By Group Captain (Retd) Joseph Noronha, Goa

ISRO turned 40 in August. Following the success of Chandrayaan-I, it is now eyeing the Moon. If the government agrees to foot the bill, an Indian astronaut could walk on the surface of our nearest heavenly neighbour as early as 2020.

Around 2015, an Indian unmanned space¬craft should blast off for a rendezvous with Mars. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), buoyed by a string of recent successes, is evaluating launch opportunities for a low-cost voyage to the ‘red planet’. Only the fool¬hardy would be willing to bet on its failure.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the space race between the Americans and the Russians, the former had dismissed India’s nascent space programme as inconsequential. A series of early disasters seemed to bear them out. Like a raw gymnast who frequently stumbles, ISRO could do almost nothing right. But building on each failure with unwavering confidence it has reached a stage where, seemingly, it can do nothing wrong. Spectacular successes are now taken for granted and occasional flops accepted as inevitable hazards of the high-stakes space game. And the world is sitting up and taking notice. ISRO has been hailed globally for its contribution to the recent discovery of water on the Moon. In another sign of recognition, ISRO’s former Chairman, Dr G. Madhavan Nair, took over as President of the International Academy of Astronautics on October 11.

Failure Breeds Success

ISRO turned 40 in August. In its early years, India’s space programme was limited to launching sounding rockets of uncertain performance. Then, on August 15, 1969, ISRO was formed, bringing all space activities under a single umbrella. Dr Vikram Sarabhai was its first chief. Within a few years, ISRO painstakingly established several research, test, construction and launch, and tracking and control facilities across the country.

ISRO’s first major foray into space was via the Satellite Launch Vehicle, a light launcher. First flown in 1979, it was intended to reach a height of 500 km and carry a tiny payload of 40 kg. Only two of its four test flights were successful. Its successor, the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), first tested in 1987, hardly fared better. Its first two launches were failures and some began to wonder if the Americans were right after all. However, an expert committee thoroughly reviewed every aspect of ASLV and many changes were made. The next two flights were flawless. On hindsight, ASLV’s steep learning curve was perhaps responsible for ISRO’s subsequent successes.

Next in the series, and more powerful than ASLV, was the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Its first launch in September 1993 failed, but ISRO was unfazed. Subsequently, PSLV has proved its reliability and versatility through an amazing 15 consecutive successful launches, putting 30 satellites (14 Indian and 16 foreign) into a variety of orbits. In April 2008, it successfully launched 10 satellites at one shot, breaking a world record earlier held by Russia. PSLV-C11 will go down in history for launching India’s first Moon mission, Chandrayaan-I, on October 22, 2008. It used larger strap-on motors to achieve higher payload capability. Apart from an orbital study of the Moon, Chandrayaan-I delivered the Tricolour on its surface. According to ISRO, it also validated many important principles of interplanetary travel.

The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) first flew in April 2001. At present, it is ISRO’s heaviest launch vehicle, capable of putting a payload of 2,500 kg into geo-synchronous transfer orbit. December should see the first flight of an indigenous cryogenic engine powered GSLV—a crucial milestone. GSLV Mk-III, currently under development, is designed to make ISRO fully self-reliant in launching heavy satellites weighing 4,500 kg to 5,000 kg. Its maiden flight is expected by 2011.

What Makes ISRO Tick?

In a country where most government departments are synonymous with corruption, waste and inefficiency, ISRO’s excellence is remarkable. Enjoying support across the political spectrum and freedom rare for a government agency, it has been able to develop a flexible management and administrative style. It learns from each failure. And there have been many. ISRO was prevented from accessing western technology for decades, yet it turned adversity into advantage and crippling sanctions into successful indigenisation. Though the space programme was delayed by several years, engineers triumphed in developing many critical technologies with little or no outside help.

ISRO has its critics. Considering that a large proportion of the population live below the poverty line, India’s space programme may be considered wasteful extravagance. However, as ISRO has repeatedly shown, predicting monsoon rains, forecasting crop yields and forewarning the government of possible food shortages is critical for the country’s development. Producing topographical and hydrological maps from satellite images helps rural communities locate areas most likely to yield underground water. Consequently, the success rate for drilling wells has doubled to 90 per cent and an estimated $100 million (Rs 470 crore) has been saved. The same information can be used to plan where to build small dams to capture rainwater and recharge underground reservoirs, thus helping to reclaim arid and semi-arid land for agricultural use. From doubling fish catches in the last decade to implementing disaster-warning systems, from tele-education to telemedicine— ISRO has a finger in many progress pies. Its latest project is to study climate change. ISRO claims that the space programme has returned $2 (Rs 94) on every dollar invested. It is today the lowest-cost satellite launching agency in the world. No wonder then that Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s commercial arm, is reportedly pursuing contracts worth $100 million to $150 million (Rs 704 crore) and is in global demand for low-cost space solutions.

ISRO has successfully operationalised two major constellations: the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) System for communication services and the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) Satellite System for management of natural resources. INSAT consists of multipurpose geostationary satellites that satisfy the telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorology and search-and-rescue needs of India. Commissioned in 1983, it is the largest domestic communication system in the Asia-Pacific Region. IRS is a series of Earth observation satellites that constitute the largest constellation of remote sensing satellites for civilian use anywhere in the world.