India: Space in 2008

On November 21, 1963, a Nike-Apache rocket blasted off from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station at Thumba, Kerala. This event signalled the dawn of the Indian Space Programme. In 2003, India commemorated the 40th anniversary of the sounding rocket launch with a speech delivered by R Aravamudan, an adivsor to ISRO and a person who has been associated with the effort from much before the sounding rocket launch. The Indian Space Programme was picked out from a large talent pool within the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) by the father of the Indian Space Programme, Vikram Sarabhai.

Unlike many space programmes around the world, the Indian Space Programme progressed at a steady pace. In what can be called the Vikram Sarabhai decade stretching out from 1963 to 1973, the period was for vision, sowing the seeds of the programme, getting the key people together and setting up of various resources required for the development of these programmes. The second decade under the healm of Satish Dhawan from 1973 to 1983, India delineated the Space Programme, got Government approvals (ISRO became a government body in 1972 and was formed out of INCOSPAR). In this decade, India saw the launch of it’s first satellite, Aryabhata in 1975 and also the development of the indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle by Abdul Kalam. Almost simultaneously, the USA applied sanctions against India on the export of dual-use technology to India. India was thus forced to look at indigenous solutions. Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), called the largest social space experiment in the world, also happened during this time. The third decade was under U R Rao (1983-1993), was a learning period of India. A period of sub-system and launch vehicle component development, testing out of the new launch vehicles (ASLV and PSLV) yielding significant data, setting up and operationalising of the remote sensing programmes, development of ground infrastructure and launch of operational satellites in geosynchronus and low earth orbits. It was in this decade, that India had its first Cosmonaut in Rakesh Sharma who famously said,”Saare jahan se acha, Hindustan hamara” (More beautiful than all lands on Earth is our nation, India). The fourth decade came up under Dr. Kasturirangan (1993-2003), saw rich returns for India’s investments in the space programme. Successes with launches and launch vehicle technologies like the PSLV and GSLV ensured with an assured safety gave India the confidence to move ahead. It was around this time that ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation was setup. India began to provide launch facilites for international customers. The end of this decade was also when ISRO claimed in 1999 that it was ready for a journey to the moon and the root of Chandrayaan 1 lay. The programme was announced in 2003, giving ISRO the go-ahead for the programme.The current decade is under the healm of Madhavan Nair and is expected to stretch out till 2013. We’re already seeing the boost of Indian space science missions along with other satellite missions of the INSAT and IRS classes. Astrosat is another space science mission expected in 2009-10 timeframe. The expansion of the space science programme is a wonderful thing to be a part of.

With this back ground, I think we can more realistically look at ISRO’s successes in 2008. 2008’s crowning glory for ISRO is India’s maiden mission to the Moon (Video – requires Internet Explorer), Chandrayaan 1. The beautiful launch (Video – requires Internet Explorer) with monsoon clouds for a back drop, the thrilling sensation as the PSLV went into and burst out of a bank of clouds are perhaps the most wonderful images/videos to come from the Indian space programme. It happened on October 22, 2008. A little more than a fortnight later on the momentous occassion of Children’s Day (the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who backed the initiation of the Indian space and nuclear programmes when India had just attained freedom), the Moon Impact Probe crash landed on the surface of the Moon, signalling India’s presence there with a symbolic flag painted on all sides of the MIP. This heralded India’s entry into the deep space missions category. Later in December, India completed the design phase of Chandrayaan II and announced that it would be on track to reach the lunar surface in 2012. Chandrayaan 1 also announced a low cost access to space by costing only $79 million, much of which was invested in technology and training that would aid future space missions of India.

In the launch vehicle section, the PSLV which also put Chandrayaan 1 in orbit, scored a success by placing 10 satellites in orbit. This was using only its core rockets and without using its strap-ons. The satellites, placed in orbit including the Indian CARTOSAT-2A and IMS-1 (Indian Mini Satellite) and eight foriegn payloads had to be done with great precision to ensure that satellites do not hit each other and are placed in appropriate orbits, as per requirements. This success in April 28, 2008, assured ISRO of the reliability and flexibility of the PSLV as a launch vehicle. There were also significant gains in the indigenous cryogenic rocket technology, which passed flight acceptance on December 18. The engine will fly with GSLV-D3.

In the commercial satellites section too it has been a great year. Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s commercial arm started the year with a secret launch of Israel’s millitary satellite. It’s achievements also include the development of TECSAR and W2M. W2M, the more recent launch on 20 December, 2008, was built for the European telecom giant, Eutelsat. Built in an awesome 26 months for an amazing $80 million, ISRO managed to meet all deadlines set down by Eutelsat. The W2m also allowed India an opportunity to control the launch and early orbit phases of operations from its Master Control Facility, Hassan. In addition to these big commercial successes, Antrix also continued supporting the launch of nanosatellites.

ISRO also ended 2008 on a high note by announcing a slew of upcoming missions/partnerships. India announced that it would be on Mars by 2013 and said it had evolved missions for landing a space craft on an asteroid and a comet flyby missions. Many of the major announcements related to the Indian human space flight programme. The ISRO chief announced that any Indian who was healthy and physically fit can join up into what would be India’s astronaut corps. It also announced a venture with Russian Roskosmos, where it said that India would use a re-modelled form of the Soyuz for its human space flight in 2015. India also announced a joint 2-manned mission with Russia ala Rakesh Sharma’s flight with erstwhile USSR.

It has been a great and busy year for India and hopefully 2009 will see more missions,more scientific results, more social aid, more commercial benefits and more exciting missions. Wishing all of you a happy and prosperous 2009!

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