India’s space programme has a very interesting history. It is important to look at India making investments in the space domain not in isolation, but against the backdrop of India’s overall science and technology policy since independence. Post-independence, Indian political and scientific leadership was convinced that systemic investments in various fields of science and technology (S & T) are central to the growth of society. During both pre- and post-independence (1947) phases, India’s political leadership placed great emphasis on the need for investments in these fields.
India’s investments in sciences date back to the 19th century when the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science was established in Calcutta in 1876 by Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar. The Tatas played an important role towards establishing the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore, which started operating around 1909. During 1930s, the Indian National Congress (INC), under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, started planning for science and industry. During this phase of development, Indian scientific community was also found making its mark globally with their extraordinarily original scientific work.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the scientific community mainly comprising scientists like Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai made S & T an important constituent of independent India’s national policy. India’s investments in space since early 1960s are an offshoot of this overall science policy.
Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite in the world called Sputnik-1 on 4 October 1957. This made rest of the world realise the potential of space technologies. Pandit Nehru introduced space science as a subject for research under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) agency during August 1961. At that point in time, DAE was the only suitably established scientific structure in the country and was headed by Dr Homi Bhabha as a Secretary. During Feb 1962, Bhabha created in DAE, the Indian National Committee on Space Research (INCOSPAR) under the Chairmanship of Dr Vikram Sarabhai. The committee was tasked to promote international collaboration in space research and explore the subject for its peaceful use. Initially, India started working on sounding rocket systems with international assistance. The first sounding rocket was launched by India on 21 Nov 1963 with the assistance from the United States (US). Finally, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was formed under the Department of Atomic Energy in 1969 and was subsequently brought under the newly established Department of Space (DoS) in 1972.
During the initial phase after its entablement, the progress of ISRO was found bit slow but steady. In its long journey, ISRO has witnessed some major successes along with some failures too. ISRO’s scientific community for all these years has worked hard to take ISRO to a very respected level, globally. Today, ISRO gets recognised as one of the most successful space organisations in the world. This recognition has come owing to various important programmes undertaken by ISRO in different fields of space science. The major success for ISRO comes from the fact that they are continuously innovating and have successfully undertaken major space missions (like Moon and Mars missions) in a very cost-effective manner. ISRO is globally famous for its frugal engineering capabilities.
Dr Vikram Sarabhai has played a very pivotal role in shaping ISRO and India’s space policy during early years and rightfully gets recognised as the ‘father of India’s space programme’. While Prof Satish Dhawan (1972-1984), has been the longest serving Chairman of ISRO till date. It is Prof Dhawan who could be said to have singlehandedly shaped the trajectory of India’s space programme in general and that of ISRO in particular. He is recognised as the most eminent ‘statesman of space’ India ever had. One lesser known fact is that Mr T. N. Seshan, one of the sharpest administrative minds in the country had served as Joint Secretary in the department of space from 1972 to 1976 and subsequently as Additional Secretary during 1980-1985.
ISRO’s programmes could be evaluated at different levels like their investments towards developing launch vehicles, satellite systems and other interesting fields of space sciences. India’s space programme has been civilian in nature since its inception. For all these years, it has a clear focus as a programme meant for socioeconomic purposes and the similar focus even continues today. However, in recent times there has been additional focus on using space technologies to secure the country’s strategic interests. In addition, there has been increasing emphasis on commercial aspects and series of efforts are getting made towards developing private space industry in the country.
The first satellite for India was launched during 1975. This satellite called Aryabhata was launched with the assistance from the Soviet Union. India could achieve the status of ‘space-faring nation’ during 1980, when it launched its own satellite form Indian soil by using indigenously built satellite launch rocket called SLV-3. Subsequently, ISRO has developed two important rocket launchers called the Polar Satellite LaunchVehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Amongst these, PSLV has played a very pivotal in ISRO’s success story. This vehicle has helped ISRO to undertake various successful launches including missions to Moon and Mars. Presently, ISRO is in the final stages of developing Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which is expected to commercially boost ISRO’s programme. On 15 Feb 2017, ISRO had launched 104 satellites in a single launch creating a world record of sorts. This launch had attracted global attention. ISRO has also undertaken few multiorbital launch missions, which have both strategic and commercial relevance. The basic idea here is to undertake only one launch, but use this launch to put satellites into different orbits.
India has been designing and developing its own satellites for long. During the period of 1970s/1980s, India developed two important satellite systems called INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) and IRS (Indian Remote Sensing Satellites). These systems were considered as the two legs of India’s application programmes. Today, India has one of the most advanced commutations, remote sensing (earth observation) and weather satellites. India has also established its own regional satellite navigation network (Navic).
One of the important scientific missions launched by India is the launch of Astrosat, India’s first astronomy observatory to study distant celestial objects. More importantly, India has also launched satellites for the purposes of intelligence gathering for the armed forces. These (constellations like cartographic satellites or CAROSAT, Radar Imaging Satellite or RISAT etc) satellites normally get recognised as dual-use satellites useful for civilian agencies and also for the armed forces. These satellites have sub-metric resolutions and match with the best in the world. Also, ISRO has launched commutations satellites, exclusively for the use of Indian Navy and Indian Army. In coming few years, ISRO would be launching satellites for Indian Army and for paramilitary force. ISRO also designs and develops satellites for international clients on commercial basis.
ISRO’s successful missions to Moon and Mars could be viewed as a ‘feather in cap’ for ISRO. India is the first Asian country to enter into the Martian orbit successfully in the first attempt. The maiden 2013-14 interplanetary mission of ISRO was called Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Chandrayaan-2 (2019) are two Moon missions launched by ISRO till date. The first mission gave a major success to ISRO when their scientists, in collaboration with the scientists from the US were able to find water on the Moon’s surface. The second mission was a partial success since ISRO failed to successfully land the rover and lander system on the Moon’s surface. ISRO is currently working towards undertaking a similar mission (Chandrayaan-3) in near future. Also, ISRO is developing a mission to Venus as part of its overall planetary mission agenda.
ISRO understands that they have a responsibility towards grooming young scientists and ensure that the interests of the younger generation remain (and increase) in the areas of space research and development. After all, space is all about ‘rocket science’ and requires dedicated efforts to prepare the younger generation. Since 2007, ISRO is engaging student bodies under its student satellite programme and till date various collages/universities in the country along with the ISRO’s assistance have launched more than ten student satellites.
A very interesting mission on which ISRO is currently working on, is the mission called Aditya L-1, a mission to the Sun. This mission has generated interest globally amongst the community of astronomers and planet scientists. A very ambitious mission called Gaganyaan is also on the anvil. This would be India’s first attempt towards sending Indian astronauts on an Indian spacecraft. India is also proposing to establish its own space station in coming few years.
All in all, it could be said that ISRO has made a significant amount of progress in limited time and with limited budgetary support. In recent times, many of ISRO’s projects have got delayed owing to the Covid-19 threat. ISRO is expected to overcome this time-lag and get all its project on track. ISRO deserves rich applause for all that has achieved ever since its inception. Let us hope that ISRO would continue to bring laurels to the country in future too.
-The writer is a Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.