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India in Space - 2020

Kimaya Gokhale and Dr. R. L. N. Sarma


In a speech, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai[i] succinctly summarized the driving force behind the Indian space program as follows:

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.”

At the time this statement was made, the scientists in the space program were aware that India was an agrarian economy. Against the backdrop of a pre-industrial society, building a space program was extremely difficult. Most notably very little funding was actually available for space research in independent India. With these factors in mind, the leaders of space research in India gave primacy to remote sensing and communications satellite systems. The leadership reasoned that these two technologies would boost meteorology, enhance information dissemination and directly impact the welfare of Indians. Given the high cost of space launches emphasis was also placed on achieving launcher autonomy by the end of the century. These basic trends highlight a strain of pragmatism that even today shapes most space related thinking in India.

A Brief History of ISRO[ii]

India’s quest for space autonomy began in 1962, when the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was created under the auspices of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The early goals of the program mostly related to meteorological and atmospheric investigations using sounding rockets. By 1969, space related research activities had gained sufficient momentum to merit the expansion of INCOSPAR. Thus, on August 15 1969, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was born. ISRO, in its formative years, was still under DAE. However a more modern and ambitious phase of the space program began in 1972 with the setting up of Space Commission and the Department of Space (DOS), and ISRO was brought under DOS.

In April 1975, ISRO launched its first satellite, Aryabhatta through the Soviet rocket Intercosmos and by 1979, Bhaskara-1 the first Indian earth observation satellite was launched. Both these satellites carried space science payloads and their success was an auspicious start to India’s space program.

Initial efforts at attaining launch vehicle capability had proved quite demanding and the first SLV-3 (Satellite Launch Vehicle) test carrying a Rohini-1A satellite, in August 1979 was a failure. However, on July 18 1980, an SLV-3 was successfully launched into the skies above Sriharikota, placing a Rohini-1B satellite into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This launch placed India firmly into the community of spacefaring nations, and greatly enhanced morale at ISRO. A year later, ISRO had placed its first experimental geostationary communication satellite APPLE into orbit using the French Ariane launcher.

True to Dr. Sarabhai’s vision statement, ISRO worked on the indigenous development of the IRS (Indian Remote Sensing Satellite) and the INSAT (Indian National Satellite) class satellites. In the 70s, while collaborating with the US and French scientists, ISRO had successfully conducted experiments that demonstrated the utility of space based communication systems. These initiatives provided the driving force for the INSAT program. The first INSAT bird took to the sky on April 10, 1982. Throughout the 80s there was a steady stream of space related developments. In 1984, Indo-Soviet cooperation resulted in Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma’s flight into space aboard the Soyuz T-11, the first for an Indian. This event caught the public imagination.

The year 1994 saw the first successful launch of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV-D4) carrying on board a SROSS-C2 (Stretched Rohini Series Satellite), after two initial failures and a third partially successful launch. This marked India’s indigenous entry into the area of gamma ray burst spectroscopy. In 1994, ISRO was also able to successfully demonstrate the launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This vehicle has since been developed into a commercial launcher by ISRO. In the 1990s, ISRO’s indigenization program in remote sensing and communication largely freed India from foreign dependence for satellite technology. In April 2001, ISRO was able to successfully launch its first Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-D1) carrying a 1.3 ton GSAT-1 satellite. In the subsequent launch in May 2003, a heavier 1.8 ton satellite GSAT-2 was placed into the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). These two launches mark the zenith of ISRO’s achievements to date.

In the course of last 3-4 decades, Indian space program has truly come of age. It has attained the necessary critical mass that could make India a major player in Space. However the road to such maturity has been an arduous one and the denial of technology by western nations at regular intervals has hampered the program. It is estimated that the sanctions imposed by the US in 1993 and the subsequent scuttling of the cryogenic engine technology transfer from Russia has put back critical programs by at least four years. However, despite these setbacks, ISRO is going from strength to strength. Even as this article is being written, the indigenous content of India’s launchers is going up, and newer and more powerful series of satellites are being locally built.

In the new millennium, ISRO and India’s space science community is standing on a mountain of achievements; it has managed to build a credible program of space research and has enormous interaction with industry[iii]. The question in everyone’s minds is: Where do we go from here? In this paper, the authors will argue that the time is upon us as Indians to re-examine the letter of Dr. Sarabhai’s speech, and re-evaluate India’s priorities in the field of space research. In doing so, the authors hope to lay down a plausible plan for the future of India’s space research program.

Motivations and Patterns of Utilization of Space today

It is impossible not to see space research through the prism of philosophy or metaphysics. Given its sheer vastness and our monumental ignorance of it, a philosophical foundation is vital. The simplest notions of the motivations of space research and utilization revolve around two basic themes.

1) Space is always there. It was there before us, and it will be there after us. And, while we are around, we cannot escape space. It is simply impossible to not look up at the sky and wonder what lies out there and if it has some relevance to the way we live our lives. The term used to characterize or define that vastness, “Space”, probably reflects our ignorance of it.

2) The mere act of looking at space spikes our curiosity. As we don't understand it very much, we routinely ask questions about it. We look to it as a place that may hold unknown benefits or unforeseen dangers. This lures us towards it and drives us to confront our ignorance.

In more modern terms, Scientific Positivism sees this sort of realization and confrontation as being beneficial in nature, as it provokes the mind to grow in the appreciation of reality. However, it is also quite natural that we as Indians, the inheritors of a great civilization that establishes an intimate connection between space and metaphysics, should take an inherent interest in space science. In terms of the ancient Indian philosophy, most notably in the context of `dvaita’ (Dualism), a relentless force impels the atman, the eternal flame of life, towards the Brahman (Paramatman), the underlying reality of creation. This relentless force can compel an individual to confront ignorance and illogic, and by doing so clear the path to self-actualization. Even a casual glance at space would cause an observer to wonder what dynamics rule it, but our inability to penetrate the vastness of space feeds our ignorance of it. Unless we overcome this barrier, our grasp of the underlying principles of creation will remain weak. So in this sense, our search for answers about space goes much deeper than idle curiosity or passing fancy.

Quite obviously, one does not have to resort to such esotericism, in practical terms, whatever the motivations of the pioneering space-faring nations may have been, it is difficult for India to ignore the main patterns of utilization of space today. Given the pragmatism ingrained in India’s space science community, it is important to discuss the four main patterns of utilization prevalent today:

1) Communications and Conveyance

Communications: Though there are a number of wireless communications systems, satellites have an overriding advantage over terrestrial systems. A well-placed reflector in space can be used to bounce information signals, thus allowing us to overcome the limitations of the earth's curvature. It is estimated that a single satellite can “see” about one-third of earth’s surface from its vantage point in space. Thus, three satellites in space can cover almost the whole of earth’s surface. However, there is an enormous need for greater communication volume (bandwidth) as Internet usage in the world grows exponentially.

ISRO in the past has focused solely on needs of India’s citizens; as a result of this single mindedness commercial telecommunications, despite its profitability did not receive adequate attention at ISRO. For example in 1996, the ISRO chief Sri. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan offered a lukewarm reception to a proposal from Motorola to launch Iridium-type communication satellites (used for international cell phones) into the LEO orbit using the PSLV. Sri. Kasturirangan’s response[iv] was “It is possible to use PSLV for Iridium class of satellites, but we have not pursued it seriously because we wanted to ensure that our vehicle qualification process is gone through.” While technically sound, Kasturirangan’s statement reflected the lack of commercial appetite at ISRO then. However, the Indian space program has since woken up to the pressures and the opportunities for partnership and profit of the international space market. ISRO policies are slowly emerging out of its populist straitjacket. In order to accommodate the increased frequency of launches foreseen, a second launch pad (suitable for GSLV launches as well) was constructed at Sriharikota in 1999. The initial plan is for three commercial launches a year (PSLV and GSLV). This would enable ISRO earn valuable foreign exchange, reducing the dependence on government grants.

A lot of communications bandwidth is commercially available and it is here that ISRO is trying to create a niche for itself through the INSAT program. The excess capacity on the INSAT series of satellites can be leased out to private users after meeting the national needs. Currently, all the eleven transponders on INSAT-2E have been leased out to private users. According to ISRO’s assessment, transponder demand across the Asia-Pacific region would quadruple in the next decade and ISRO hopes to exploit this opportunity. The number of transponders that ISRO can lease out is still governed by the INSAT Coordination Committee (ICC), comprising several ministries in GoI, however this is slowly changing[v]. To the authors this indicates a positive momentum.

Conveyance: Early schemes of conveyance relied on the use of a high capacity launcher to push material and people into space and then let them fall under gravity towards a chosen destination. This was thought possible in the 70s, but fuel costs alone proved prohibitive and research by most countries in this area was abandoned despite the promise of shorter travel times. Modern schemes of conveyance rely on the use of new propulsion technologies, newer kinds of engines like `scramjets’ that utilize the speed of the vehicle to compress the air at the edge of space and permit quicker flights. There are some projects underway to examine the possibility of such platforms, however no application outside a military one appears feasible in the near future. Currently, only the United States has a viable hypersonic flight research program, called the X-43A. In this program, NASA, in collaboration with Boeing, aims to develop an air-breathing vehicle that can travel at speeds of Mach 7-10.  The first ever test of X-43A in 2001 ended in failure. A subsequent test is planned sometime 2003. Given the complexity involved in the task of building space vehicles, the authors caution against taking such failures with an air of finality, the story of the `Hyper Plane’ is far from over. India has no presence in this area, but the technology in itself is sufficiently novel to merit greater attention.

2) Navigation

No individual country should be allowed to gain monopoly control of the global positioning system (GPS) space since that advantage could be misused to exercise dominance over others,”

-          Prof. U.R. Rao, former chairman of ISRO and Chairman Prasar Bharati

The development of atomic clocks has enabled the accurate measurement of time. It is possible to use an atomic clock to synchronize a radio frequency signal. Using such signals from three accurately positioned satellites in the geostationary orbit, it is possible to track one’s exact position on the surface of the earth with a minute error. In the US and Soviet Union, this basic impetus had led to the creation of the Global Positioning Satellite System. This satellite network has revolutionized global navigation.

Global Positioning System (GPS) has three basic components namely

  1. The space segment: consisting of 24 satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 10000 nautical miles.
  2. The user segment: consisting of a receiver, which is mounted on the unit whose location has to be determined.
  3. The control segment: consists of various ground stations controlling the satellites.

Each satellite generates radio signals that allow a receiver to estimate the distance between the satellite and the receiver. The receiver then uses these measurements to calculate its own location with reference to Earth in terms of coordinates expressed in latitude and longitude. Thus, the receiver continuously records its coordinates at given time intervals. GPS satellite capacity is now confined to just two countries, the US and Russia. Many nations have been demanding that the management of GPS should ideally be entrusted with an international agency to prevent the system from being manipulated by any single country to its advantage. India does not have this technology and atomic clocks are still under development in India. It is time for India to focus its attention on developing an indigenous satellite navigation system.

ISRO is also drawing up tentative plans for the development of a Space Based Augmentation System (SBAS) called GAGAN (GPS and Geo Augmented Navigation), in coordination with the Airports Authority of India (AAI). The SBAS system consists of GEO satellite based GPS compatible navigation payloads over a region, supported by the necessary ground segment and uplink earth stations.

These are steps in the right direction, but the acquisition of GPS satellite technology and a GPS based navigation system are still some distance away.

3) Remote Sensing

By recording emission patterns from the earth in the radio frequency (RF), visible light and infrared (IR) spectra, one can discern details about the earth’s surface and the atmosphere. These recordings can further be analyzed to predict weather patterns, discern geological features, map land-utilization, and catalogue electromagnetic emissions. Such an analysis is very useful in national policymaking. The first-world countries have a vast array of remote sensing satellites. These are often classified according to their specific application and most of them are placed in Low Earth Orbit. India has a small but noticeable presence in this area; we also have an established launcher capability (PSLV) to place satellites into the LEO. ISRO, through its marketing wing, Antrix, has been trying hard to capture a share in the international satellite imagery business through the IRS satellite series. It has entered into a marketing alliance with Space Imaging-EOSAT, and offers satellite imagery with resolution comparable to the finest commercially available. Improved technologies have enabled Antrix to provide high quality images of clouds, land or oceans in days than months. True to ISRO’s mandate, these images are provided at prices affordable to even individual farmers. The gradual segregation of communication and meteorological payloads began with the METSAT (Kalpana) series of satellites; this has led to a qualitative improvement in weather prediction in India. ISRO is in a relatively comfortable position in this area.

4) Exploration

This pattern of utilization attempts to redress our ignorance of space. In this area, one does not always have a manifest commercial gain, but rather one carefully probes space by conducting experiments that examine its nature.

There are two basic streams of activity under exploration:

1) Study of Celestial Bodies: Planets, Stars, exotic objects (Quasars, Neutron Stars), Asteroids etc.

2) Study of Space Continua: Involves Cosmological parameters (cosmic background radiation), Ultra-Violet (UV) or infrared (IR) spectra of the universe as a whole etc.

India has a notable presence in the astronomical sciences but only a minor presence in the field of space based experiments. This is mainly due to the sometimes-prohibitive cost of making experimental modules for space exploration and the lack of direct (or apparent) applications for the technology developed herein. The authors feel that this is precisely what needs to change in the future.

A number of other novel schemes have also been proposed in the context of space exploration. These revolve around using space for advanced manufacturing of certain kinds of mechanical parts or using space to mine special metals. Some schemes involve the use of novel propulsion techniques to reach relativistic speeds. Other schemes are more ambitious and talk about terraforming the planet Mars, i.e. induce climate change that makes it more inhabitable -- like Earth. However, it suffices to say that most of these schemes are currently in the realm of science fiction.

Challenges before India in Space utilization – What Next?

The success of the PSLV heralded ISRO’s entry as a player in the international space market. The successful launch of the GSLV-D1 & D2 augurs well for ISRO’s future. Also, the development of the larger and more capable GSLV versions will keep ISRO busy for the next decade or so. But the question -- after GSLV, what next? -- will invariably arise in the minds of the policy makers and scientists. Despite animated discussions however, the path is not clear. An idea to which much thought is being given is the lunar orbiter. The moon mission is perhaps ISRO’s next big dream, after the GSLV. It is projected to cost around 150 million, far below comparable missions by other space agencies. 

Such a mission would entail launching a moon orbiter (called Somayana-I)[vii], weighing about 350kg, using a modified PSLV. The journey to moon, which is at a distance of 384,000km away, will take about 5 days. The spacecraft would orbit the moon at an altitude of about 100km for a period of 2-3 years. It would be fitted with a 5m-resolution camera that would enable it to make a 3D high-resolution map of the lunar surface. The orbiter would observe the moon from various angles and provide images that could improve our understanding of lunar mineralogy. Of special interest would be the ice caps at the lunar poles, reported recently by the US Clementine and the Japanese Hilten orbiters. Reports of moon surface having Helium 3, claimed to be a clean fuel, in abundance have also been seen. The information and imagery provided by the spacecraft are expected to throw fresh light on the origin and the evolution of the planetary system and life on the earth.

The scientists in favor of this mission argue that the capability to build launch vehicles and satellites should be used to study the origin and evolution of planets. Obviously, a moon mission is the vanguard of subsequent planetary missions. Further it is their contention that such a mission will pose complex challenges in the areas of miniaturization, weight optimization, control guidance, navigation and computation of the orbits to be taken to the moon and so on. Communicating with the spacecraft is also a significant challenge. The farthest that ISRO has ever communicated to is the GTO orbit at a height of 36,000km. In addition to the scientific challenges, Dr. Kasturirangan argues that such a mission will “electrify the Indian people” and enhance our national pride and international prestige.

The flip side to the above argument is that a moon mission is a beaten path and goes against the utilitarian ethos propounded by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. Opponents also argue that there are not going to be any path-breaking technology spin-offs as the mission will employ basic PSLV know how with not-so-significant modifications. Given that India is still a poor country with various priorities fighting for scarce resources, the money spent on such a mission could be better utilized elsewhere.

However the authors feel that a moon mission is an integral part of any future ISRO undertakings. It is a technologically challenging project that is bound to throw up complex problems, which would require innovative solutions. This process will inherently result in the development of beneficial technologies that could be used elsewhere. The argument that the money could be better spent is untenable since such a stand could be perilously applied to many other scientific efforts in India that do not have immediate national utility.  More generally speaking, the authors doubt if Dr. Sarabhai would approve of a literal interpretation of his statement.

Figure: A schematic of ISRO’s moon mission

(Courtesy: Frontline)


After considering the aforementioned factors, it is possible to summarize the challenges facing India in space as follows:

1) Expanding presence in Navigation and Exploration: Critical technology has to be acquired or developed while not drawing away resources from other projects of immediate national relevance.  Indian space research has to expand without compromising its existing position in Communications and Remote Sensing.

2) Getting past the conundrum of manned space flight: The high cost of manned space flight poses a major challenge even to the most developed countries in the world today. The choice is complicated further by the increasingly powerful computers available today, which reduce the need for a human presence in space missions. The cost overhead of having a serious life support system is indeed quite high, but the mere presence of a human being offers considerable flexibility. Most proponents of the idea of manned space flight argue that it vastly enriches the human experience.

The authors feel that it is imperative for India to pursue manned space flight as well. However, given the tough competition for resources in India, the Indian people need to be convinced of the necessity of such an endeavor. One possible way of convincing people that manned space flight will be beneficial to the country is to examine in some detail the possible spin-offs of such an initiative. 

Spin-offs of the expansion into space

We feel that if India aggressively pursues an agenda for expansion into space, there are three main avenues for technological spin-offs. They are:

1) Technology improvement

Space programs require a large number of precision parts. This means that even the most mundane parts like screws, nuts and bolts need to be of high quality, requiring the use of hi-tech machinery and a stringent quality control process. The need for precision parts and stringent manufacturing standards can spawn a number of precision manufacturers in the private sector. An infusion of higher quality parts will do wonders to the industrial competitiveness and eventually improve the quality of life.

2) Application related spin-offs

Expanded presence in communication could lead to higher bandwidth being made available to Indian customers at a lower price. The most direct impact of this will be a major increase in the number of telephone users in India. This will also increase Internet connectivity in India and bring us together as a nation.

Increased availability of remote sensing will lead to more extensive geographic information databases about India and the surrounding regions. This will help and guide the government in formulating an informed national policy, for example, a National Afforestation Policy to prevent environmental degradation. It will also help improve weather forecasting, which can lead to better conditions for cultivation, water management etc.

Navigational aids in space will contribute immensely to improving air and surface transport in India. There will also be several critical improvements to the shipping and fishing industries.

In the area of Search and Rescue, and other aspects of disaster relief also, the presence of space based navigational and support aids will improve the quality of response.

3) Scientific Spin-offs

Increasing India’s commitment to space utilization, will lead to an expansion in the scientific manpower base in India. This will enrich India’s science community as a whole, and create a new generation of technologists who will carry India well into the next century. 

In spite of the above benefits Indian space program will provide, there are certain cautionary notes one needs to keep in mind as well:

a)      Competition for space resources: Space is getting crowded. A lot of competition already exists for lucrative satellite spots. There is also the problem of hazardous `space junk’, i.e. old satellites floating around in slowly decaying orbits. India’s entry will only increase the competition and add to the space clutter. A 1999 study estimated that there are some four million pounds of space junk in Low Earth orbit alone. The clutter problem is universal to all the space programs, but the competition over lucrative spots in space could set the stage for international rivalry over the utilization of space[viii],[ix]. Hence, it is essential for India to create a niche for itself in the so-called “fourth territory”.

We recommend that the following options be pursued aggressively in order for India to achieve an optimum utilization of space:

(i)              Building a high speed information highway

(ii)              Steady increase in meteorological infrastructure in the space

(iii)             Establish a 3-D navigation and positioning infrastructure

(iv)             Launching of ocean satellites that will help in ocean observation and research

(v)              Establishing a disaster and environment monitoring infrastructure

b) Environmental footprint of the Indian space program: Space related materials are not environmentally friendly to begin with, and after a space flight the exposure to the harsh environs of outer space tends to make them radioactive. This makes their disposal difficult. India will have to avoid the mistakes of other nations and keep the environmental footprint of its space program to a minimum.  

A Scenario for India in Space

Based on the aforementioned motivations, opportunities and concerns, the authors visualize the following scenario for India’s presence in space. This scenario is in a narrative form as it minimizes the technical details, and offers a unique flow to events that have to as yet occur.

In the footsteps of Vamana

Mission specialist Ashok Krishna quietly glanced at the instrument panel before him. Before him lay the environmental surveillance unit, an array of green lights lit up indicating a normal performance. To his right was the main power system module, which also had a row of healthy yellow lights indicating that all was well with the spacecraft’s power sources. Next to that was the trajectory control and navigation panel – another collection of happily glowing lights that indicated that nothing was amiss. The spacecraft, Ashok Krishna realized, wasn’t all that different from an aircraft… if you could get used to the idea of not having wings and a tail that is. There was also a HOTAS style `joystick’, with all sorts of redundant controls and hotkeys to enable a rapid response to emergencies… but all in all, watching the steady dance of yellow and green lights on the panel was incredibly soothing. “Whew, no red lights … so far so good…” thought Ashok. Flicking his communicator switch, he reported “All systems nominal, Commander”. To his right, the Mission Commander Soudamini acknowledged his message with a thumbs-up, and activated her communication link to the Mission Control Facility (MCF) at Hassan. Speaking into the microphone, Soudamini noted, “Mission Commander to MCF-Hassan, Vamana-1 is ready for re-entry”.

Upon hearing these words, the Mission Control boss, Dr. K. M. Siddique nodded. Pulling a microphone closer he calmly said, “Initiate re-entry sequence”. Though his tone was calm, Dr. Siddique’s mind raced furiously through the various components of the re-entry sequence. The liftoff on the GSLV-M1 had been flawless, Vamana-1 had ungrudgingly injected into the Low Earth Orbit at 221.7 Km and the 72-hour orbital period too had passed without incident but now Vamana-1 was at the most dangerous part of its mission. Once the re-entry started, there would be no way to change anything. Perhaps reading Dr. Siddique’s mind, the re-entry controller S. Vijayan began a series of final checks before initiating the re-entry sequence. Everything had to be done just right…   

Figure 1: Schematic of a Vamana class manned space probe[x]

In a small lounge in the MCF facility guesthouse, Ashok Krishna’s mother prepared another round of tea. Commander Soudamini’s husband and Ashok Krishna’s father, having let anxiety get the better of them, were in a heated discussion about politics. Ashok Krishna’s wife and Soudamini’s mother sat glued to a monitor showing the MCF control room. As Ashok Krishna’s mother poured the tea into the neat porcelain cups with the ISRO logo embossed on the side, she did not realize that the cups weren’t porcelain at all. They were made from a new lightweight polymer first developed at the Material Research Laboratory in Bangalore as an insulator for ISRO’s Somayana Moon Mission. Almost immediately after the success of Somayana, private entrepreneurs had realized the potential applications and soon various small-scale units were churning out crockery made with this new material. The children, Commander Soudamini’s son, and Ashok Krishna’s daughter had both fallen asleep in the uncomfortable lounge chairs; the excitement had been too much for them. It was at this time that Commander Soudamini’s father called her husband on his cell phone, and informed him that most of the residents of his village had assembled in the verandah of their ancestral home in rural Bihar and were awaiting news of Vamana-1’s mission. Though it didn’t really matter to Commander Soudamini’s relatives, the call from the far-flung Araria district of Bihar had been patched via the satellite uplink in Purnea town, and from there it was bounced off ISRO’s INSAT-CR communication satellite, the combination of an optic fiber landline and the high bandwidth uplink was providing for a very low static communication to approximately 300 Million telephone users at that very moment.

A blue ribbon wafted across the bottom of the screen at MCF, and a countdown appeared on it. At the Auxiliary Reception Facility in Akola district of Maharashtra, Technical Officer Commanding Col. (r) Ravi Pitale ordered the console operator M. G. Rao to activate the sideward looking cameras on a Divyadrishti remote sensing satellite. The satellite code-named `Divya-8’ had just come over the horizon and it would observe Vamana-1 as it descended into the atmosphere. Ravi knew that some time after that `Anahita-2’, an ocean surveillance satellite would be in a position to observe the splashdown site. This improvisation had permitted surveillance on about 65% percent of the re-entry path; the rest would have to be attempted via ground-based telescopes. With a deadpan face, Col. (r) Pitale stared at plasma screen in front of him as Divya-8’s electronic eyes scanned the sky – a `veteran’of ten years in satellite monitoring, he was not what you would call an excitable sort of person.   

Aboard the Vamana-1, Commander Soudamini stared out of her tiny window at the dark expanse of space. A row of orange lights began to glow and soon the trajectory correction rockets fired. Vamana-1 began to tilt slowly towards the earth. As she pulled down the heat-shield on her window, Commander Soudamini reflected on the fact that she and Ashok Krishna had just completed the India’s first indigenous manned space flight. Whatever happened now, August 15th 2020 would be a day forever etched into the pages of history.

After the trajectory correction rockets had fired, Vamana-1 entered a decaying orbit. In order to reduce the re-entry weight, the spacecraft’s designers at ISRO had created a detachable experimental module. ISRO had come under a lot of criticism a decade ago for its ambitious space program. Most of the critics had emphasized that ISRO was simply imitating the developments in other countries without any specific vision of its own. To answer its critics, ISRO’s design team worked hard to make the Vamana-1 different from others that had entered space before it. They focused considerable energy on the experimental module. This module would separate from the rest of Vamana-1 before re-entry, and in normal circumstances it would be discarded into the earth atmosphere. In this module, ISRO scientists saw certain possibilities, and instead of discarding it, the scientists proposed to keep it in orbit. So as per the conceptual scheme; after each mission the experimental module could remain in space and be replenished by an unmanned probe. Once the module had been replenished, a mission could be sent up with a different crew and new experiments could be attempted. As the experimental modules were identical in design they could be produced quite cheaply in large numbers. A number of different experiments could fit into these modules and theoretically one could connect up a few of them together and build a mini-space station as time went on. As the descent began Commander Soudamini began to think of the future. If her re-entry was successful, the next mission by ISRO would test the highly crucial `space-lock’ technology that would enable two spacecraft to connect up in space.  Once ISRO demonstrated its ability to launch and dock manned and unmanned craft into LEO, there would be a possibility of competing for the re-supply contract for the International Space Station. With that in hand, Commander Soudamini thought, the possibilities of the Vamana program would expand.

Many miles below her, more immediate concerns held sway. Elements of the Indian Navy’s Local Flotilla West had gathered somewhere in the Indian Ocean. In the flagship, INS Suryavir, Rear Admiral V. T. Joseph, read the flash communiqué from MCF Hassan, turning towards his executive officer he barked, “General Quarters - All Hands! The Vamana has begun its descent”. At the sound of the klaxons, a group of seamen sitting in the Suryavir’s lifeboat began to don NBC suits and cylinders of special fire-suppressing foam were pulled towards the bow of the ship. On the helipad activity mounted as `Khanjar’, the Naval ALH (Advanced Light Helicopter) attached to the Suryavir began pre-flight tests. Calculations had indicated the area in which the spaceship would land. Navigation would be precise, as the recently installed Gamini GPS satellite would be providing coordinates. With the help of its considerable speed and the surveillance radar on the Khanjar, the INS Suryavir would be the first to arrive at the site of the splashdown.

In a large sofa facing an equally large television monitor somewhere in South Block, the cabinet ministers for Defence, Finance, External Affairs, Home Affairs, and the Prime Minister settled down to watch a live feed from MCF Hassan. The watch and ward staff had some tea and samosas laid out on the table before them but no one seemed particularly hungry. It was the early hours of the morning and at Rashtrapati Bhavan, an aide was gently nudging the President from a deep slumber. The headquarters of major news organizations in Delhi were buzzing with activity at this late hour… after all this was going to be the story of their lifetime…

We choose to end this scenario here, as it preserves the essential element of unpredictability common to everything in space research. We really do not know what will happen next, our hopes like that of India itself will always be for the best.

Milestones in the Indian Space initiative


Figure 2: Possible milestones in the Indian space program

Budgetary Allocation

In most discussions about space research in India, critics of the space program often raise the issue of cost. The proponents of space research often counter this with `cost-benefit’ arguments. However both sides accept that space research has a high cost. It is very difficult to obtain an estimate of this cost. The authors have considered the following ways of determining cost:  

1)     Comparing costs from other space programs: The first US manned space flight is estimated to have cost around 400 million USD[xi]. Chinese program currently underway is estimated to cost about 1.5 Billion USD [xii],[xiii]. No clear references are available to determine the costs of the Soviet era manned space program. These estimates are of a poor quality, as the costs are generally spread over a number of different applications and one cannot really use these numbers as a guide as the Chinese and American space organizations started under completely different conditions and there is no easy way to inflation adjust the costs for ISRO.

2)     Component costs: This process takes into account ISRO’s current capacity and calculates the money required to improve that quantity to the level required. So if we split up the manned mission component wise, we have the following:

·   Launcher Development Costs: This will involve making improvements and adjustments to the GSLV Mark I[xiv]. There will also have to be an extensive program of testing to ensure that failure rates are minimized. The authors estimate an approximate cost of 0.5 Billion USD for that program.

·   Vamana Spacecraft Development Costs: As far as propulsion and electronics goes, this will be an extension of existing capacity in the INSAT and IRS programs, however developing a new geometry for the inside of the experimental module will cost more. One will also have to develop serious heat shield technology and a life support system. ISRO has considerable expertise in the heat shield technology. It is possible to defray the cost of the heat shield technology by combining it with other projects like the reusable vehicle program currently underway at ISRO, but all taken together developing the Vamana class spaceship will involve costs similar to the development of a completely new satellite series like INSAT or IRS and the costs over a twenty year period will be comparable. So the authors estimate to require about 9-10 Billion USD over a twenty-year period[xv].

·   High Altitude Research and Astronaut Training: This program though relatively small in size will require the import or development of high technology. It will also involve a quantum leap in current aerospace medicine[xvi] capabilities. The authors feel that this will cost about 0.5 Billion USD.

·  Telemetry and Guidance Development:  This will involve the development of several robust communication and telemetry systems to ensure a safe flight. It is possible that a more general program of development and expansion could bring current ISRO technology to the required levels but the authors would like to conservatively budget about 1.5 Billion USD for the project.

The cost estimates for the manned space program alone amount to about 12.5 Billion USD. The authors feel that it is probably best to set aside a reserve fund of about 2.5 Billion USD to deal with unforeseen expenses.

The authors strongly feel that it is possible to defray the cost of the manned space program by carefully investing in existing space projects and making incremental improvements in technology in each area thus bringing things to a point where the manned space flight falls literally like a “ripe fruit from a tree”. This approach would therefore entail a gradual increase in ISRO funding[xvii] over the next 20 years, with a net commitment approaching 20 Billion USD over a twenty-year period. The authors realize that this is a serious amount of money, but remind the readers that manned space flight is an extraordinarily difficult endeavor. Readers should also bear in mind that these are rough estimates of costs drawn by novices, and that should ISRO come up with a costing of the project, it is likely to be very different from our estimates. The authors are merely interested at this point in coming up with an `order of magnitude’ number for the cost.


India’s space science community has so far strived to meet the aspirations of its founding fathers and the Indian people. The authors consider it immensely fortunate that India was blessed with visionaries like Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Dr. Homi Bhabha, Dr. Satish Dhawan, Dr. Abdul Kalam and several others, who dared to dream of a modern India and then brought those dreams to life. The Indian Space Program’s current success owes as much to the blinding brilliance of its leadership as it does to the relentless toil of its scientists. The story of India’s journey in space is an inspirational tale that touches all our hearts.

Today we are being asked by history to write the next chapter in that story. Our innermost desires compel us to confront our ignorance about space. The slow and steady buildup of technology in the country has placed even the most difficult goals in space research within our grasp, but the readers should hold no illusions; the achievement of these goals will not come without perseverance and sacrifice. The authors can well imagine what sacrifices the people of India will have to make to achieve these goals.

The poor state of the Indian economy almost makes it a crime for someone to retain such lofty ambitions. The authors acknowledge that it is virtually impossible to justify investment in a space program, while numbing poverty stalks our citizens.  The authors strongly feel that this economic adversity should not be allowed to become a reason for intellectual poverty. We should not allow our sadness over the state of the basic economy of India to chain our thinking. Most critics of the space program have correctly pointed out that bulk of expenditure in space makes no direct improvement in the lives of Indians. Taken in a positive sense, such criticism should only spur the development of more direct applications of space technology aimed specifically at improving the lives of Indians. This sort of thinking however should not become a bar to defining ambitious objectives in space research.

India’s economy needs a strong and vibrant industrial sector. The space program is a key element of most strong industrial nations. Such research programs go a long way to improve competitiveness in industrial production. India’s space program is no different in character; it only differs in scale. The debate on the quality of space research and the need for ambitious space projects is not new. It will become increasingly common as the human endeavor in space grows. There will always be people who seek to use the statements of Dr. Sarabhai to beat down those who wish to pursue lofty aims. This is very much the way of the future and therefore this must not overwhelm those who dare to dream.


[x] We have drawn on ideas prevalent in existing space designs. Most notably we were impressed by the philosophy of space craft design outlined in the following link

[xv] Estimates drawn from ISRO annual budgets from 1990-2000.

Copyright © Bharat Rakshak 2003