ISRO’s Naughty Boy puts India in the Cryo Club

The “naughty boy” reference in the title of this post is how the Mission Director, GSLV K Sivan called the GSLV. He said the naughty boy had finally obeyed the flight path and delivered the GSAT-14 into orbit.

Today’s success is a big deal for India. India has been trying to build launch vehicles capable of launching communication satellites since the 1990s. They initially thought they would buy the technology from the Soviet Union. It’s collapse and faced by pressure from the US, India’s then ISRO Chairman, Prof U R Rao decided to embark on India’s indigenous cryogenic programme called the Cryogenic Upper Stage Project (CUSP). The launch today is the final culmination of that project started in 1994. As the current ISRO Chairman rightly said, “20 years of efforts in realising an indigenous engine and stage has now fructified”.

Today’s success was built on the hard work of a lot of people in industry and in ISRO. The problems that have been plaguing the project in the last 5 years include three flight failures. The team had undergone a gruelling review from several boards and had made several design changes and run several tests. The failures as the LPSC Director said after the launch were painful.

I must admit that I was really tense before the telecast started. The telecast began at 1530 hrs (IST) on Doordarshan instead of the publicised 1552 hrs (IST). Seeing the sombre faces of those present there did not ease my tension. My tension persisted till about the cryogenic engine ignition.

Unlike ordinary telecasts that are met with quiet claps at each stage separation event, people were actually up on their feet after the second stage separation. The first smiles and applause broke out as the cryogenic engine lit up as planned. As the ignition was sustained, that is, more claps broke out. A few smiles appeared on the people’s faces 300 seconds into the flight of the cryogenic stage. As the stage efficiently provided enough velocity to the put the satellite into orbit, everyone in the Mission Control Center was on their feet and with their faces glued to the screen. I had not seen so much tension in the room even during the Mars mission!

I personally would rate this success a higher one than even the Mars mission. Success in this critical technology enables India’s space programme to indigenously launch communication satellites, launch interplanetary missions like the Chandrayaan-II and perhaps even the second Mars mission and opens the ground for heavier science missions that India has not considered yet.

While this was an important success, the improvements need to continue and the GSLV needs to show more consistency in its success rate in the future before it can be trusted with more important missions like Chandrayaan-II. If the GSLV Mk-III mission slated for March-April 2014 succeeds, India will gain capability in launching all classes of satellites it builds by the end of this decade.

There are more tests in the road ahead, but tonight we celebrate another important milestone  in the Indian Space Programme. I had a nice medu-wada sambhar, the fuel that powers ISRO in the evening to celebrate.

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