The birth of the Indian space programme

Let’s look at the birth of the Indian space programme. India joined the very exclusive club of satellite-destroying countries in March 2019. The event made headlines, which is unusual: for fifty years, the Indian space programme has progressed in the shadows. Ambitious but economical, India always aims higher.

India became the fourth nation in the world to shoot down a satellite on March 27, after the United States of America, Russia and China. A missile from the ground destroyed an Indian satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) three hundred kilometres away. “It’s a moment of pride for India”, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a surprise announcement two weeks before the parliamentary elections. An event that contrasts with the rather discreet policy practiced by India in outer space so far: for the Indians, outer space must be useful to the economic development of the country above all.

The Indian space programme began well after the pioneer era: the U.S.S.R. launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, the United States of America followed in 1958 with Explorer 1 before being joined by France in 1965 with Astérix; the United Kingdom, Canada and Italy had also launched their own satellite but not independently.

With the live transmission of the 1964 Summer Olympics across the Pacific by the American Satellite Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite launched in 1964 from Cape Canaveral, demonstrating the power of communication satellites, Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, quickly recognized the benefits of space technologies for India. The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the Indian Government. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) appeared in August 1969. The prime objective of ISRO is to develop outer space technology and its application to various national needs. It is one of the six largest space agencies in the world. The Department of Space (DOS) and the Space Commission were set up in 1972 and ISRO was brought under DOS on June 1, 1972. The Indian space programme mainly focuses on satellites for communication and remote sensing, the space transportation system and application programmes.

Aryabhata was India’s first satellite, named after the famous Indian astronomer of the same name. It was launched by India on April 19, 1975 from Kapustin Yar, a Russian rocket launch and development site in Astrakhan Oblast using a Kosmos-3M launch vehicle. It was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). “It was not until 1980 to see the first satellite launched by an Indian rocket with an Indian firing point”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, India did not have the means to embark on a space programme that rivals the great powers of the time. The objective is more modest and aims to put outer space systems and satellites at the service of national development, all that is needed to get India out of underdevelopment. India is a non-aligned country and the country multiplies the partnerships, without choosing a camp during the Cold War: with the United States of America, the U.S.S.R. and France to develop small launchers or application satellites. “The big problem of India in the 1970s is to master the outer space technologies, including in the field of materials. Launchers require very specific alloys. India started from scratch, but gradually, the country developed its capabilities, at its own pace, it gave itself time”.

Unlike the United States of America and the U.S.S.R., which conceive their outer space programmes in a context of confrontation, India seeks first and foremost to develop a “useful space” by making all possible cooperation possible. Much later, in the 2000s, the country developed Earth observation satellites equipped with increasingly powerful equipment, also to help the defense forces in the conflicts of Kashmir and elsewhere. But, the Indian outer space programme is primarily civil.

In India, there is a word for defining the local outer space programme: “jugaad”, a Hindi term meaning “resourcefulness” or “System D”. The most frequently cited example is that of this space probe sent to Mars in 2013: the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan, launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), fourth space agency to reach Mars, after Roscosmos, NASA, and the European Space Agency (ESA). The Mars Orbiter Mission probe, India’s first interplanetary mission, lifted-off from the First Launch Pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Andhra Pradesh, using a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket C25. India became the first Asian nation to reach Mars orbit, and the first nation in the world to do so in its first attempt.

The mission, which costed only a little more than seventy million dollars, is a technology demonstrator project to develop the technologies for designing, planning, management, and operations of an interplanetary mission. It carries five instruments that will help advance knowledge about Mars to achieve its secondary, scientific objective. The spacecraft is currently being monitored from the Spacecraft Control Centre at ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bengaluru with support from the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) antennae at Byalalu, Karnataka.

With an annual budget of one and a half billion dollars, India has become the first Asian country to reach the Red Planet, ahead of China, which spends every year between six to seven billion dollars on space research. The U.S. outer space programme, both public and private, exceeds forty billion dollars every year, and that of Europe, is about eight billion dollars per year. With this kind of budget, India is currently developing a launcher comparable to Ariane 4, the European launcher capable of delivering seven tones in Low Earth Orbit hat was removed in 2003 and replaced by Ariane 5, capable of delivering twenty tones. India has also developed an operational geostationary launcher (capable of placing geostationary satellites, which remain fixed over a specific area of the Earth, at an altitude of approximatively thirty-six thousand kilometres) and launches five to six satellites per year.

With highly constrained finances, India can boast of having a complete outer space programme with scientific and technical successes, and its own launch pad: the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) or Sriharikota Range, a rocket launch centre, in the south-east of the country, operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It is located in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Sriharikota Range was renamed in 2002 after ISRO’s former chairman Satish Dhawan. The country has a fleet of application satellites deployed under the Indian National Satellite System or INSAT. INSAT is a series of multipurpose geostationary satellites launched by ISRO to satisfy the telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorology, and search and rescue operations. Commissioned in 1983, INSAT is the largest domestic communication system in the Asia Pacific Region. It is a joint venture of the Department of Space, Department of Telecommunications, India Meteorological Department, All India Radio and Doordarshan. INSAT satellites provide transponders in various bands to serve the television and communication needs of India. The country also has its own positioning system, such as GPS or the European Galileo. The local version, which yet only offers services in India, is an autonomous regional satellite navigation system that provides accurate real-time positioning and timing services called the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). It covers India and a region extending one thousand five hundred kilometres around it, with plans for further extension.

Nevertheless, India is not yet at the level of the other space powers. It does not contribute to the International Space Station (ISS) where nations pay in proportion to use. The country has only one astronaut or vyomanaut, Rakesh Sharma, a former Indian Air Force pilot who flew aboard Soyuz T-11, launched in April 1984, as part of the Interkosmos Soviet space programme, designed to help the Soviet Union’s allies with manned and unmanned space missions, and who is today seventy years old. He remains today the only Indian to have ever flown in outer space. But things might change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very interested in outer space since he came to power in 2014. He insists much on India’s need to appear as a space power and has decided to propose an inhabited space programme. This is a turning point because the Indian space programme was more about being helpful and not too expensive than prestigious and expensive.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi want it for 2022. India is also feeding new projects to the Moon, where the United States of America wants to send human beings back by 2024 and where China wants to set up a permanent base in early 2030. Chandrayaan-2, which’ll includes a lunar orbiter, lander and rover, all developed by India, is India’s second lunar exploration mission after Chandrayaan-1. Developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the mission is planned to be launched to the Moon in May 2019 by a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III). The wheeled rover will move on the lunar surface and will perform on-site chemical analysis. The data will be relayed to Earth through the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which will piggyback on the same launch.

Often compared to China, India is the other emerging Asian giant, destined to become the most populous country in the world in 2024 according to the UN. But in terms of outer space, the two nations are very different: China is deprived of international cooperation since the beginning of its programme created under Mao Zedong, a Chinese communist revolutionary who became the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which he ruled as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. The United States of America do everything to ostracize China. Beijing is banned from launching satellites with U.S. technology, which prevents it from participating in the global competition of commercial launchers (Ariane or SpaceX types).

China has a fully integrated system: state-owned enterprises and a military outer space, which is not India’s case. However, Mission Shakti indicates that India has also developed space military capabilities.