India’s Impressive Space Program

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India’s Impressive Space Program

The recent Mars orbit caps an impressive track record for the country’s space agency.

India’s Impressive Space Program
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

India recently made history, when its Mars Orbiter Mission successfully entered the Martian orbit. In doing so, it became the first country to enter Mars’ orbit on its first attempt and also the first Asian country to reach the red planet.

Missions to Mars have rarely been successful. Before India’s Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for Mars-craft), only the United States, the Soviet Union, and Europe had entered Mars orbit. India is part of an elite club.

What makes India’s Mars mission all the more remarkable is its low cost. With a price tag of just $70 million, it is the least expensive inter-planetary mission ever. The U.S. Maven orbiter, which arrived at Mars two days before Mangalyaan, cost NASA a whopping $671 million in comparison.

Experts have pointed out that the enormous cost difference between Mangalyaan and Maven is because the Indian Mars-craft is far simpler than Maven. “They’ve kept it small,” Andrew Coates, who will be a principal investigator on Europe’s Mars rover in 2018, said of the Indian Mars mission. “The payload weighs only about 15kg. Compare that with the complexity in the payload in Maven and that will explain a lot about the cost,” he told the BBC.

Smaller and simpler than Maven it may be but Mangalyaan will contribute to understanding of the red planet. It has gone armed with instruments that will search for methane, a key target in the search for life on Mars.

India’s accomplishments in space had humble beginnings. In 1962, Thumba, a fishing hamlet near the southern city of Thiruvananthapuram, became the site of its first rocket launch pad, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) (later renamed Vikram Sarabhai Space Center). A small church served as TERL’s workshop while the adjacent Bishop’s house was its office. Rocket parts and payloads were often transported by bicycle. Within a year of its establishment, TERLS launched its first rocket: the U.S.-made Nike-Apache. It hasn’t looked back. In 1969, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s state-owned space agency was set up in Bangalore.

ISRO has a string of achievements to its credit. India is among a handful of countries to have carried out deep space missions, and it was on its first such mission in 2008 that its spacecraft Chandrayaan entered the moon’s orbit*. It was on this mission too that water was detected on the lunar surface. It has the biggest remote sensing satellite network in the world. It is also among a select group of countries that provide commercial satellite launch services – putting into space 67 satellites, including 40 foreign satellites from 19 countries.

Mangalyaan’s entry into Mars’ orbit is the latest feather in ISRO’s cap.

Not that everybody is impressed with ISRO’s achievements or India’s extraterrestrial ambitions. Its missions to the moon and Mars in particular have been criticized as a waste of resources, which could be put to better use to tackle rampant poverty, malnutrition, and other problems. “It seems to be part of the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status,” observed development economist Jean Dreze.

“This is uninformed criticism,” counters Ajey Lele, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses and author of Mission Mars: India’s Quest for the Red Planet. “The benefits of any activity in space should not be seen in isolation as it is an ongoing process,” he told The Diplomat in an email interview.

Unlike the programs of other space-faring nations, which were largely driven by military goals, India’s space program was rooted in developmental objectives, a senior scientist at ISRO told this correspondent. Indeed, ISRO’s satellites have played a huge role in transforming the lives of ordinary Indians through contributions in areas such as adult literacy and distance learning programs, prediction of weather patterns and natural disasters, and telemedicine.

Citing a recent example to illustrate how ISRO’s work impacts positively on the lives of ordinary Indians, the scientist recalled that when Cyclone Phailin battered India’s east coast in 2013, ISRO satellites provided vital information on when and where the cyclone would be the most intense. “This facilitated the government’s timely evacuation of over a million people,” he said, drawing attention to the fact that in 1999, a cyclone of similar strength left more than 10,000 dead compared to just seven killed in the disaster last year.

ISRO’s achievements in outer space have come largely on its own steam. Following nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, several Indian scientific research institutions, including ISRO, came under wide-ranging sanctions. These sanctions dealt a huge setback to ISRO’s programs and ambitions as it found itself locked out of Western technology. It was denied access to cryogenic engine technology, for instance, which had severe implications for its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) project.

But such technology denial regimes seem to have worked to ISRO’s benefit over the long run, as it pushed its scientists to master space technologies through their own efforts. “It compelled our scientists to make do with available resources and innovate on shoestring budgets,” said the ISRO scientist. This capacity for innovation on a small budget has helped ISRO hold down the cost of its various projects and programs.

Explaining how ISRO kept down Mangalyaan’s cost, Lele pointed out that the space agency had “developed expertise and infrastructure for its moon mission and where possible used the same for its Mars mission.” As a result, ISRO saved on costs for Research and Development and prototype development and testing.

Importantly, ISRO’s technology development is indigenous, Lele emphasized. Unlike NASA, which often “outsources projects to companies like Lockheed Martin or Boeing for further development, ISRO does it all in-house.” This helps cut costs.

And of course, the cost of expertise is less in India, Lele pointed out. ISRO scientists are paid far less than their counterparts in NASA and other space agencies make. Its scientists receive “standard government department salaries.”

Besides its various odysseys into space, ISRO is earning India revenue too. Its satellite launching services have proved lucrative. In 2012-13, ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix Corportation, reported revenue of $216 million. This is expected to grow by 15 percent in 2014-15.

Although ISRO’s reliable and cost-effective space products and services have drawn many buyers, India is not among the major players in the global space launch market.

Lele attributes this to two factors. One is that India has just one satellite launch site with two operational launch pads, which restricts the number of launches it undertakes to between two and four each year. More importantly, India has failed so far to make GSLV a fully operational system.

To date, India has depended on the Polar Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has proved a reliable workhorse in launching low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites with smaller payloads, usually less than a ton, and used for remote sensing, experimental and navigational purposes. However, the launch market is moving towards 3-7 ton payloads propelled into the geostationary orbit for telecommunications, broadcasting, and weather forecasting services.

ISRO needs to develop the capability to carry heavier satellites and into the geostationary orbit if it is keen to become a serious player in the multi-million dollar global space launch business, which is currently dominated by companies in Europe and China, the ISRO scientist observed.

It took a significant step in this direction in January this year, when it successfully launched a nearly two-ton satellite using the GSLV-D5 with an indigenously developed cryogenic engine. Earlier attempts had ended disastrously.

Operationalizing the GSLV will provide India with a larger share of an estimated global market for 1,000 satellite launches by 2020 in both the low earth orbit and the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit space. It will also make ISRO self-reliant on all aspects of launch technology, eliminating the need for the huge payments it currently makes to foreign space agencies to launch its heavier satellites.

India’s first missions to Moon and Mars were limited in scope because in the absence of GSLV capability, ISRO had to use the PSLV. The payloads were smaller. With GSLV capability India’s outer space ambitions will soar, the scientist said.

To date, ISRO’s market for launches has been restricted to clients in Europe and Canada. It appears to have neglected the market in its immediate neighborhood. Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for instance, turned to China for their satellite launch needs, while Afghanistan’s satellite was propelled into space by the Europeans. India could expand its market by offering its space launch services to developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America.

At a recent launch, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on ISRO to develop a satellite as a gift to India’s neighbors in the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). A SAARC satellite could boost regional co-operation. And in keeping with the development objectives of India’s space program, it could encourage joint tackling of shared problems such as poverty, illiteracy, natural disasters, and so on.

And while it generates revenues from its commercial launch business, India is also taking the first steps towards using its skills in outer space to extend its soft power influence closer to home.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].

*Corrected from original. This was an orbit mission, not a landing.