Modern space research in India can perhaps be traced to the efforts of the renowned scientist, S.K. Mitra, who conducted experiments in the 1920s in Calcutta (now Kolkatta), leading to the sounding of the ionosphere by application of ground based radio methods. Later, the work of scientists like CV Raman and Meghnad Saha contributed to scientific principles applicable in space sciences. From the mid forties, it was Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai who spearheaded space research in India. Funding for space research was provided through the Department of Atomic Energy, which was founded in 1950 with Homi Bhabha as its first secretary.
On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, an elliptical low Earth satellite into orbit. Sputnik was visible all around the earth and its radio pulses were also detectable. This Soviet success triggered the space race with the West. Its impact and potential were felt in India too, which led to the setting up of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962, with Vikram Sarabhai as its chairman. Dr Sarabhai thereafter set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Thiruvananthapuram for upper atmospheric research. INCOSPAR launched its first rocket from TERLS on 21 November 1963 under the leadership of project scientist Praful Bhavsar. At that time, the station had a single launch pad in the midst of coconut plantations. A local Catholic Church, the St Mary Magadelene’s Church served as the main office for the scientists and the bishop’s house was converted into a workshop. A cattle shed became the laboratory in which young Indian scientists like Abdul Kalam Azad (who later rose to become the President of India) worked and the rocket was transported to the lift-off pad on a bicycle. In those days, scientists traveled daily from Thiruvananthapuram in buses, carrying lunch bought at the railway station. The scientists also transported rocket parts from one place to another within the sprawling range of Thumba, on bicycles. Thus was India’s first sounding rocket, ‘Nike Apache’, successfully launched, to begin India’s space journey. Later, in the 1980s, India’s antenna-range test satellite, was brought in a wooden bullock cart to protect its highly magnetic sensitive instruments, much to the world’s astonishment. The tiny seed planted then, has today, with the vision and dedication of India’s scientists, grown into a mightytree.
INCOSPAR was incorporated into the newly created Indian Space Research Organisation, (ISRO) in 1969. With Vikram Sarabhai at the helm, ISRO embarked on its mission to provide space based services to the country and to independently develop the technologies to achieve the same. This has resulted in India now being one of the six largest space agencies in the world. It maintains a large fleet of communication satellites (INSAT) and remote sensing (IRS) satellites, for fast and reliable communication and earth observation respectively. ISRO also develops and delivers application specific satellite products and tools to the country: broadcasts, communications, weather forecasts, disaster management tools, Geographic Information Systems, cartography, navigation, telemedicine, dedicated distance education satellites being some of them.
India’s first experimental satellite launch vehicle, (SLV-3) was an all solid, four stage vehicle weighing 17 tonnes with a height of 22m and capable of placing 40 kg class payloads in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Its first launch in August 1979 was only partially successful, but a year later, on 18 July 1980, the Rohini satellite, RS-1 was successfully placed in orbit by the SLV-3, from the Sriharikota Range (SHAR), making India the sixth member of an exclusive club of spacefaring nations. Two more launches in May 1981 and April 1983 placed Rohini satellites in orbit, carrying remote sensing sensors. The successful culmination of the SLV project paved the way for the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV). Four development flights were conducted under the ASLV project, with the aim of placing a 150 kg payload in LEO. The Indian space programme had come of age and the country now embarked on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). On 21 March 1996, the PSLV successfully placed the IRS-P3 in the Sun Synchronous Polar Orbit (SSPO). Since then, the PSLV continues to be in service and is today, one of world’s most reliable launch vehicles, having launched over 40 satellites for 19 countries. For India, it has launched various satellites for historic missions like Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission, Space Capsule Recovery Experiment, Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) etc.
Since 2001, India has also placed many satellites into the earth Geosynchronous orbit, with its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV was primarily developed to launch INSAT class of satellites into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The ninth launch of the GSLV took place on 27 August 2015, when GSAT-6 was placed in GTO with the GSLV Mk II launcher. Now ISRO is developing the LVM3, India’s next generation satellite launcher, capable of placing 4 tonne class geosynchronous satellites into orbit. The first flight of LVM3, the LVM3-X/CARE mission lifted off from Sriharikota in December 2014 and successfully tested the atmospheric phase of flight and also carried out Crew module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment. Powered by a cryogenic engine, the module reentered, deployed its parachutes as planned and splashed down in the Bay of Bengal. Soon after this successful launch, ISRO’s former chief, Dr K Radhakrishnan, said, ”we crossed a significant milestone in the development of next generation launcher LVM3 that will not only free us within two years from dependence on foreign launchers for our heavy communication satellites, but also attract a share of global market. Also,the unmanned crew module experiment opened up a new direction in space exploration”. ISRO’s success can be gauged by the fact that today we have a constellation of 26 Indian satellites that provide a variety of space-based services touching the life of every citizen in the country. Also, the PSLV launcher has an unblemished track record and is sought after in the global market, closely followed by the GSLV, which has a cryogenic engine that is made in India.
On 22 June 2016, India successfully launched 20 satellites in a single mission from the Sriharikota Space Centre. This is the most number of satellites launched by India in a single launcher, though it is not a world record. The US has earlier launched 29 satellites from NASA, while the Russians have launched 37 satellites from one launcher in 2014. Nevertheless, it is a significant moment for India’s space programme. Launching several satellites in a single mission reduces cost and has enabled India to position itself as a key player in the lucrative international commercial space market as an effective but low cost operator. Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). On the night of 23 September, 2014, India’s MOM spacecraft, also known as ‘Mangalyaan’ (meaning Mars craft), entered the Red Planet’s orbit, making India the first Asian country to reach Mars. India now joins the US, Russia, and the European Space Agency as the only countries that have successfully orbited or landed a craft on the Red Planet. What was different in the Indian attempt however, was that it is the first time that such a mission has been successfully accomplished in the first attempt! It was done at a relatively low cost of USD 74 million, far less than the budget of the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster “Gravity”. India’s Mars probe is now into its second year and is still going strong. As per ISRO, Mangalyaan is primarily a technology demonstrator, the current mission being focused on monitoring Mars for traces of methane, a gas that could possibly indicate signs of life on the Red Planet. Thus, while ISRO is essentially focussed on launching a large network of communications satellites, it is increasingly moving towards space exploration.
India is now moving towards demonstrating its capability in Reusable Launch Vehicles to enable low cost access to space, through its Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD). Its configuration is similar to that of an aircraft and combines the complexity of both launch vehicles and aircraft. The winged RLV-TD has been configured to act as a flying test bed to evaluate various technologies, namely, hypersonic flight, autonomous landing and powered cruise flight. In future, this vehicle will be scaled up to become the first stage of India’s reusable two stage orbital launch vehicle. The RLV-TD consists of a fuselage (body), a nose cap, double delta wings and twin vertical tails. It also features symmetrically placed active control surfaces called Elevons and Rudder. This technology demonstrator was boosted to Mach no: 5 by a conventional solid booster (HS9) designed for low burn rate. The unmanned prototype of the RLV-TD was successfully launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, to the edge of space on 22 May this year. It has taken over a decade to develop and reached an altitude of 43 miles before returning to Earth. ISRO plans to use the data from the small craft’s launch on autonomous navigation, hypersonic speed, and the re-entry process to launch a larger craft in future. While the focus of ISRO will remain on using space to better the lives of the people of India, as envisaged by its founder Dr Vikram Sarabhai, it is rightly also positioning itself as a major player in space exploration, in conformity with the needs of the times. Creating a reusable space craft has also become a market of its own, with efforts underway from NASA, the ESA, and Russia, in addition to private efforts backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Tesla head Elon Musk’s Space X. While yet not on the level of NASA and the ESA, ISRO has demonstrated the capability ot compete with NASA, despite having just five percent of NASA’s budget. The words of India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narender Modi, signify more than just capability: they signify hope in India’s future. “We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible,” he said, after the launch of Mangalyaan. ISRO has come a long way from the time when its first launcher was transported on a bicycle. Indeed, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Ms Geetika Kasturi is a free lance writer. Currently, she is the Publication Manager at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).