Techtree is targeted mainly at consumer technology enthusiasts. We have always been in the forefront when it comes to the coverage of consumer technology, which, as you know, includes mobile phones, laptops, televisions, MP3 players' computer hardware and so on. However, for a website dedicated to tech, we at times found ourselves too focused on "just" consumer technology and thought why not spread our wings a bit and cover stuff that usually consumer technology websites don't. That's why, starting 2008, we've been carrying articles and snippets related to advances in space technology in India.
In 2008, we covered India's Chandrayaan mission with great interest, and to our surprise our readers welcomed those articles. From then on we have always covered news related to any significant activity on the Indian Space technology front - the latest being the GSLV D3 launch. This prompted me to write an article concerning India's continuous advancements in the field of Space research. This article is a brief description of how our Space Program evolved over the years, and has gained much respectability. Let's go through the major chronological events that shaped the future of the Indian Space Program.
India began its tryst with space just over a decade after Independence. In 1962, the then Indian Government established the Indian National Committee on Space Research (INCOSPAR). Note that this was just five years after the US-Russia space race began in 1957 when Russia launched the world's first spacecraft, the Sputnik -I. Therefore we can proudly claim that India's space program is amongst the worlds oldest. The INCOSPAR later went on to become Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which was incorporated in 1969 - the same year, man landed on the moon!
Even before the ISRO was set up, India had already built the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Kerala under the aegis of the INCOSPAR. This was way back in 1963. This is largely thought to be the beginning of the Indian space program. A decade later, in 1972, India created the Department of Space (DOS), of which ISRO was made the research and development wing. In just six years since the establishment of ISRO, the very first satellite made by India was up in space. Known as the Aryabhatta, after the great Indian mathematician, it was launched with Russian help (then U.S.S.R). As for the Aryabhatta, it managed to function only for four days after its launch - a failure - but a start nevertheless!
The next launch came in the form of the Bhaskara 1 in 1979. Around the same time, India took its first steps in developing its own launch vehicles, so that it could make and launch spacecrafts without foreign help. Three decades later, ISRO is amongst the most successful space agencies and one of the three large space agencies in Asia - the other two being China's CNSA and Japan's JAXA.
Space for Development
While US and Russia were in a space race to prove who was the best, India, right from the beginning, concentrated on space research that would eventually prove beneficial to the people of India. In fact, Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer of the Indian space program, had showed great zeal in "convincing" the Indian Government how India could benefit from a space program. Little is known about the fact that he leased an American satellite using which he showcased how India could use satellites to broadcast health and educational television programs to remote villages of India.
Later, he showcased the use of satellites for other purposes like remote sensing education and even national security. It was not until Chandrayaan I that India turned its attention to a mission dedicated to pure science. India's attempts in bolstering its own space technology paid off and by the early 2000s India had the largest number of remote sensing satellites in orbit. India's INSAT series of satellites, as you all might be aware, is a famous success story. The INSAT series are used for various purposes including remote sensing, television broadcasting, weather predictions and other such useful purposes.
Right from the beginning, India aspired to be able to send its satellites into orbit using its own launch vehicles. However, advanced satellite launching abilities require a lot of technological input, financial backing and a lot of effort. It is by no means a simple task to achieve. While India excelled in the last requirement, it was not right up there on the technology front and did not get sufficient financial backing. In spite of all these unfavourable conditions, a dedicated team of scientists - including Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam - worked on the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) project that aimed to fulfill India's dream of having its own launch vehicle.
It wasn't until 1980, when India managed to send to space its own indigenously built satellite, the Rohini, on an Indian made launch vehicle that India managed to achieve its dream. Just a year prior to that, in 1979, the first launch of the SLV using a Rohini Technology payload ended in failure. In 1983, India successfully placed the Rohini 3 in orbit - again using its own SLV rocket. The Rohini was instrumental in increasing the television coverage in the country. It was able to increase the extent of coverage from a mere 20% to 70% in a matter of just over two years. With the success of the SLV, ISRO turned its attention to making even larger and superior launch vehicles. This resulted in the arrival of the Asynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) in 1987.
The first launch of the ASLV was a disaster. It did not place the SCROSS satellite it was carrying in to orbit. Undeterred, ISRO went for a second launch - which also ended in failure. The third and the fourth launches, however, were successful. The ASLV was replaced by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The PSLV, since its first flight back in 1993 has gone on to become the most successful rockets made by the country. Apart from placing Indian satellites in orbit, the PSLV is credited with launching satellites for other countries as well. Like in the case of the ASLV, the first launch of the PSLV was unsuccessful. The PSLV is credited for placing most of the INSAT series satellites in orbit. In the meantime, India had also sought help from the European Space Agency (ESA) to help launch satellites using their Ariane series of launch vehicles, marking the beginning of collaboration amongst various space agencies.
While the PSLV still continues to do duty for the country, it was clear that India needed a bigger, more powerful vehicle for more complex missions in the future. This forced the designers and the engineers to go back to the drawing board. They came up with what is now known as the Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV was first introduced in 2001 and had a few successful test and developmental fights. However, the last three launches were unsuccessful. The latest launch happened earlier this month and used India's own Cryogenic engines, which did not perform as expected.
India is already working on the next generation GSLV, known as the GSLV MKIII. Just to add a bit of interesting twist to this story, let's see how India's biggest launch vehicle compares to the largest rocket ever made. India's biggest rocket is the GSLV. It is undoubtedly huge; 49 metres in height and weighing over 402,000 kilograms. Now, compare that with the largest US made rocket ever, the Saturn 5. It was a whopping 110 metres tall and weighed over 3,039,000kgs! The Saturn 5 was used to send astronauts to the moon - in the 1960s.
If you ask any layman, which event pertaining to the ISRO has done the country proud; his answer would most likely be the Chandrayaan mission of 2008. Chandrayaan I was India's first mission to the moon and the most important mission to the moon by any country after the last of the Apollo spacecrafts relayed data back to earth from the moon - back in the 70s. There were minor missions from other countries since the late 70s but Chandrayaan was the first "global" mission that India had participated in and would later go on to become one of the most important lunar missions in human history.
Using a PSLV rocket as the launch vehicle, the Chandrayaan mission carried scientific instruments from various countries including Britain, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and the US. The Chandrayaan mission was a success - even though the craft lost communication from earth a little less than a year from launch. However, the craft, with its on board instruments, had managed to study the moon in detail and was instrumental in revealing that the moon does contain significant amount of water. India is also warming up for Chandrayaan 2 mission, scheduled for launch in 2011. Unlike the Chandrayaan 1, which orbited the moon, Chandrayaan 2 will involve a lunar landing. India plans to send a rover to the lunar surface to collect and analyze dust and other samples from the surface, and relay the information back to India. India is likely to use an advanced version of its GSLV rockets to complete this mission. With India having tasted success in sending a craft safely to the moon, the world is looking forward to the Chandrayaan 2 with hope.
Where we stand
India's space program is one of the worlds cheapest and amongst the most successful. India today possesses the capability to send missions to other heavenly bodies - a feat accomplished by only a handful of countries. While we have a long way to go before we can even come close to the capabilities possessed by the US, there is no doubt that India has achieved a lot considering the limited resources it has. The success of the Chandrayaan has catapulted India to the list of countries that possess advanced space technologies.
Apart from the aforementioned Chandrayaan 2 mission, India is also looking forward to its first manned missions by 2015. Then there is the plan to send a mission to Mars - that too as early as 2013. This like the Chandrayaan 1 would be an entirely robotic mission. The estimated cost for the Mars mission is USD 2.5 billion. India is also testing a Reusable Space Capsule that will aid in future manned missions. The space capsule will enable astronauts to return to earth safely after a mission. In fact, back in 2007, India had conducted the very first launch and re-entry test in which a capsule was launched aboard a PSLV rocket. It remained in space for 12 days after which it re-entered the earth's atmosphere and eventually splashed into the Bay of Bengal.
Milestones1963 - The first sounding rocket was launched on November 21 from TERLS
1969 - Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was created
1975 - Aryabhatta, the first Indian space satellite, was launched for India on April 19
1979 - Bhaskara-I, an experimental satellite for earth observations, launched on June 7
1979 - The first experimental launch of an SLV-3 rocket -Failed
1980 - India successfully launched its own Rohini-1 satellite on July 18 on a Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) rocket
1984 - Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma, a 35-year-old Indian Air Force pilot, was launched to space along with two Soviet cosmonauts aboard Soyuz T-11 -making him the first Indian in space.
1987 - The first developmental launch of a larger Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) rocket on March 24 takes place - Failure.
1992 - The Indian-built INSAT-2 geostationary communications and meteorological satellite launched
1993 - The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) makes its debut
2001 -- The first launch of a still larger Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket was successful on April 18.
2008 - Chandrayaan Mission to the moon successful