ISRO: Coming of Age in Space

ISRO: Coming of Age in Space
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How ISRO made explorations beyond the orbit cost-effective

ON WEDNESDAY, 22 June, an Indian PSLV rocket launched 20 satellites simultaneously, a feat that put India in the league of select countries which can carry out such complex missions. Seen from a historical perspective, it is a fine moment for Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

From the first sounding rocket launched in 1963 to the 20 satellites on Wednesday covers a period of more than half a century. During this time, ISRO has seen some failures and a number of notable successes as well. That launching satellites into polar orbits was once a challenge for it is now long forgotten, and the success of its moon mission with Chandrayaan has shown what it is capable of.

Over these decades, India was subjected to successive technology denial regimes led by the West—meant largely to prevent missile proliferation. ISRO’s failures, and ironically even successes, were an outcome of this denial. Unlike other countries, which stole or copied blueprints of rockets, India did the heavy lifting on its own.

When the Indian space programme was conceived soon after Independence by a prime minister alert to the technological possibilities that a new nation could harness for its progress, many scoffed at the idea. Then, as now, the refrain was that India should first rid itself of poverty. The country has managed to reduce poverty and explore space, both, without letting one get in the other’s way.

The PSLV mission is important in another respect. The cost of launching multiple satellites is a fraction of what is charged by space agencies in Western countries. There are countries with more powerful rockets that can launch up to 35 satellites in one go. India has competed with them successfully. The cost of a launch depends on the kind of orbit sought for a satellite. Where India steals a march is in its ability to keeps costs in dramatic control. The focus of ISRO’s innovations and abilities, for the moment, are the low to medium earth orbits.

While India has successfully placed satellites into geosynchronous orbit, a far more challenging exercise, it has some distance to go before it can enter the market for such launches. But India’s current expertise certainly allows it to corner a share of the market for commercial satellite launches. And this plan is working well.