NEW DELHI - The
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is a state-owned entity rare in the
country for meaning business and actually delivering. Last week, the agency
marked its 100th mission by successfully deploying into orbit a French Earth
observation satellite and a Japanese micro-satellite, using its workhorse
single-entry Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
"As ISRO's 100th
space mission, today's launch is a milestone in our nation's space
capabilities,'' said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who watched the launch live
at ISRO's space center at Sriharikota, north of Chennai.
India's space program and the budgets involved, Manmohan said, "Questions are
asked whether a poor country like India can afford a space program.This
misses the point that a nation's state of development is finally a product of
its technological prowess.''
ISRO is estimated to have spent 200 billion
rupees (US$3.6 billion) of taxpayers' money over the past five years on its
multiple space-related activities and research.
The organization has
come a long way since in 1975 it launched its first satellite, Aryabhatta, on a
Russian rocket. Since then, ISRO has had success in developing two categories of
rockets - the PSLVs, designed for Earth observation and scientific missions, and
the larger Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs), which deliver heavy
communications satellites into geostationary orbits 36,000 kilometers above the
Earth where they can "hover'' over the same place.
For decades, ISRO was
hobbled by US sanctions against dual-use technologies. Even so, it succeeded in
copying blueprints from its Cold War partner, the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Over the past seven to eight years, as Indo-US relations have
substantially improved, US restrictions on ISRO have been removed, easing access
to the latest technologies. With Russia no longer the power it was, ISRO has
managed to create an independent equity for itself in the market.
Beginning 1999, ISRO began to establish itself as a global player in the
competitive satellite launching business though it still has to hone its ability
to launch very heavy satellites, for which it still depends on Russia or Europe.
ISRO has to-date launched 29 foreign satellites, including the two last
week, earning itself millions of dollars in revenues. "The launch of these [two]
satellites on board an Indian launch vehicle is testimony to the commercial
competitiveness of the Indian space industry and is a tribute to Indian
innovation and ingenuity," Manmohan said.
India has made progress in
missile technology alongside its strides in space research as the motors used in
the satellite launch vehicles have been incorporated into missiles. The GSLV
motors, for example, have formed critical stages of operations of the long-range
Agni ballistic missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear payloads.
India, Pakistan and China are at various stages of developing attack as
well as ballistic missile defense systems. With China, given its much superior
abilities, actively involved in helping Pakistan's defense capabilities, India
has been seeking help from the US and Israel to ramp up its own know-how.
This help may be essential, as India, otherwise, has a poor record in
developing weapons indigenously, whether it is tanks or jet fighters.
ISRO has a busy calendar ahead with many domestic launches and overseas
orders planned. Chairman K Radhakrishnan told reporters last week that the
agency has plans for 58 missions (25 rockets and 33 satellites) through to 2017.
"The 25 rockets would include PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mark III. The
satellites include seven navigation satellites. Then there will be series of
remote sensing, microwave and communication satellites,'' Radhakrishnan said.
ISRO is also planning India's second Moon mission, the Chandrayan-2,
following the success of Chandrayan-I in 2008. Chandrayaan-2 aims to deploy a
Russian-made vehicle on the Moon's surface. New Delhi has, however, made it
clear that it is in no hurry to push for a manned mission to the Moon, unlike
China. This is not likely to happen before 2020.
"Our plan was always to
have a manned space flight program, which hopefully should begin around 2015. We
can't think of a manned Moon mission anytime soon as several things have to be
achieved before that," Radhakrishnan said.
An Indian Mars mission has
also been recently approved by New Delhi. This will be one of the most
challenging tasks that ISRO will undertake, with the goal of launching a
scientific payload in November next year.
"The Mars mission is more
challenging than the Chandrayaan-1 mission as it involves a voyage of 300 days
and tracking the satellite with a deep space network,'' Radhakrishnan said.
Given China's interest in inter-planetary missions to explore civilian, security
and defense aspects, India will not like to be lagging behind.
is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com