Space Technology in India

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai recognized the potential of artificial satellites. He hence persuaded the government on the importance of space technology for a developing country like India. He emphasized the importance of space technology for developing countries in the following quote

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight.

But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

Dr. Sarabhai is considered by many as the visionary founding father of the Indian space program. Additionally, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged the importance of scientific development as an essential part of India’s future. He was responsible for placing space research under the jurisdiction of the prestigious Department of Atomic Energy in 1961.

It could be argued that the Indian space program formally began in 1963 with the launch of a sounding rocket acquired from NASA. Sustained government backing ensured a healthy continued growth of the space program. This trajectory of burgeoning space technology in India culminated in the founding of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on 15 August 1969 under Department of Atomic Energy. By June 1972, ISRO was brought under the newly formed Department of Space.

India recognized the importance of developing indigenous technical capability in space technology immediately after the inception of its space program. As a result, India earnestly embarked on developing domestic operational launch vehicles and spacecraft systems throughout the 1970s. Two launch vehicles have successfully been made operational by ISRO while a third launch vehicle is currently under development. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is first operational launch vehicle realized by ISRO and it delivers payloads into polar Low Earth Orbits (LEO). The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) was the second Indian launch vehicle to be operational. The GSLV maiden flight was conducted on April 18, 2001 and it is the ISRO workhorse for delivering payloads in geosynchronous orbits (GEO). The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk-III) is the third Indian launch vehicle which is presently still under development. The GSLV Mk-III is envisaged to be a multipurpose vehicle not only capable of launching heavier loads, but also deliver them to multiple orbits such as LEO, GEO and intermediate orbits.

Indian launch vehicles.

India’s first domestically built satellite christened Aryabhata was launched on 19 April 1975 aboard the former Soviet Union’s launch vehicle. In 1979 India’s second domestically built satellite—experimental remote sensing satellite, was successfully launched again by the former USSR. However, in August 1979, the first Indian rocket—Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3) failed to achieve orbit and the experimental remote sensing satellite Rohini on board was lost.

The successful launch of the Rohini-2 on top of SLV-3 in 1980 marked the onset of indigenous launch capability. Despite an initial failure of the PSLV in 1993, a second successful attempt in October 1994 placed a remote sensing satellite, IRS-P2 in orbit. Since then, the PSLV has become the workhorse of ISRO with over 20 successful launches so far. PSLV has been used to place spacecrafts in both sun synchronous LEO orbit and into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The GSLV with 4 successful launches and 3 failures provides the capability to place up to 2,000 kg in geostationary orbits.

The Indian space program was founded to utilize space technology for the socioeconomic advancement of the greater population. Consequently, two major operational system frameworks were established to facilitate the realization of this objective, they are;

  • Indian National Satellite (INSAT)—for telecommunication, television broadcasting and meteorological services.
  • Indian Remote Sensing satellites (IRS)—for resource monitoring and management.

Today, the INSAT system has 10 operational satellites in geostationary orbit while IRS has 12 satellites in sun-synchronous LEO. This is one of the largest domestic remote sensing satellite systems in the world, a remarkable achievement in deed.

India successfully launched its first unmanned moon mission on 22 October 2008 called Chandrayaan-1. Future missions planned by India include a Space Capsule Recovery Experiment; Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon constituting a surface rover and an orbiter; a mission to study the sun’s corona; and, a space-based regional GPS augmentation system. Manned spaceflights are planned for post 2017. The Indian space program’s annual budget of about $1.45 billion for the FY2011-12 ranks sixth in the world. It employs about 20,000 personnel in over 30 centers and facilities distributed across the country.

India has signed formal Memorandum of Understanding agreements to collaborate in space technology with a over 20 foreign partner governments from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia. It has been 49 years since India ventured into space-based technology. In this duration,  India has successfully undertaken 100 space missions, launched 62 Satellites and conducted 37 launches.

Space technology is an integral component of addressing the national development goals as evident in the ISRO motto which states:

Space technology in the service of human kind

The following are some of the areas in which India applies space technology to improve the socioeconomic status of its citizens: telecommunications, TV broadcasting, Tele-education, Tele-medicine, Village Resource Centers, satellite aided search & rescue, meteorology, satellite navigation, disaster management support, groundwater prospects & recharge zone mapping, forecasting agricultural output, agro-meteorology,  national agricultural drought assessment & monitoring etc. Further examples of how India utilizes space technology for national development can be found on the ISRO website.

3 thoughts on “Space Technology in India

  1. Hate them or like them, India is a special case. I was fortunate to be in India when they undertook attempts to develop indigenous technology after being frustrated by the US and Russia and being threatened by China and Pakistan:

    First they developed PARAM 8000 super computer to burst a US embargo that limited their nuclear simulation testing capability. They went on develop and commercial better machines for sale to countries that wanted cheaper machines than the American Cray computers from IBM. Ultimately American dominance was broken and today any university with cash can get Cray machines without restrictions.

    Second, They developed an indigenous cryogenic rocket engine to beat an embargo imposed by Russia under pressure from the US. They now have rockets that enable them launch satellites independently and even do so for other countries on very attractive terms.

    Third, I watched mesmerized as Maruti Udyog of India negotiated a technology transfer with a small Japanese car maker, Suzuki, to build cars in India with a a revolution taking place as first only labour was Indian, then a year later the body had to be built in India. Today Maruti makes entire cars in India with about 6 models on the market. India did this with a liberalized market, unlike protected China. However, the impressive thing is that they are able to meld international trade with national development to gain skills that enable them create a market for their products and also develop new products.

    Finally, all these developments came about due to the country being beaten at war by China in 1962 with that enemy testing a nuclear bomb in 1964. India thereafter upped its game and tested a device in 1974.

    The moral of the story is that we in Kenya have not really understood how to move from concept to actualization stage. We are a bit too laid back and take things easy like a frog being boiled in a pot without its knowledge – we think we are in a its a sauna while we are actually in a sauce.

  2. Allan,
    The additional insight into other technological areas you have highlighted are indeed useful and pertinent to our objectives here. Unquestionably, Kenya should look up to India for valuable lessons in national technological advancements across many fields not only in space technology.
    It also important to acknowledge the significant innovation impact exerted by the quest to advance space technology on other fields. This was also highlighted in the post – Why Kenya Needs Space-Based Technology.

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