Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, takes a keen interest in India's space programme. When he was the prime minister, Vajpayee was even thinking of sending an Indian man to the moon. That’s what K Kasturirangan, who was the then chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), told me during an interview in 2003.
Strong political will, that even Modi is showing to back India’s space programme, is a good thing. It only adds to the gung-ho enthusiasm of India’s talented space scientists who have toiled hard ever since they built the country’s first satellite Aryabhata in 1975.
Congratulations to @isro scientists for time and again demonstrating top-notch skill, unparalleled dedication & remarkable determination.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 8, 2016
Our space programme keeps making us proud with the exemplary achievements. Successful launch of INSAT-3DR is a moment of immense joy.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 8, 2016
In its latest feat, Isro made the GSLV's first operational flight with a home-made cryogenic engine a success on Thursday. This proves India’s capability to launch satellites weighing up to 2,500 kg into geosynchronous transfer orbits at a price cheaper than those of advanced countries, and this gives the country some more edge in the world’s lucrative commercial satellite launch business.
And exactly three months from now — on 8 December to be precise — India would have been proud to launch the Saarc satellite with a similar rocket and from the same launch pad, if everything went off well. But everything didn’t. That rankles India’s space community, particularly Modi, whose idea it was.
But mischievously and quite brazenly, Pakistan sabotaged the project, raising questions that ranged between scientific to silly. Pakistan was bent upon denying India any clout in the South Asian region and also pleasing the Chinese, whose help is vital for its own infantile space effort. India is going ahead with the project along with Saarc countries other than Pakistan: Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Afghanistan. It will now be called a South Asian Satellite or a South-east Asian Satellite.
As a result of the deliberate confusion kicked up by Pakistan, India has postponed the launch of this Saarc-minus-Pakistan satellite from 8 December, the so-called "Saarc day", this year to sometime next year.
Pakistan first made a false pretence of warming up to the idea, first mooted by Modi soon after he took over as the Prime Minister in 2014. Modi’s idea was to "gift" a satellite (Rs 235 crore) to Saarc nations to help them in areas like telecommunication, broadcasting and disaster management.
At one point, Pakistan even made some “constructive suggestions” (words of the Pakistan High Commission in India) but, just when Isro was expediting the process of making the satellite, began to raising questions.
Pakistan demanded that the satellite come under Saarc umbrella but not under that of India alone. Pakistan also insisted on being part of the project’s technical team and sharing the cost, but India rejected the idea, saying it was Modi’s gift.
Pakistan also started asking whether the Saarc satellite would help India steal its sensitive data.
As an Isro scientist pointed out to Firstpost on Thursday, India must forget "the Saarc satellite as a bad dream, must go ahead with it with a different name for the rest of the the region and, most importantly, must focus on its own space programme."
"India’s space programme is now progressing more rapidly than before," he said.
It indeed is.
What next for India’s space programme?
India's PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) series is capable of launching satellites weighing up to only 1,800 kg. And the Mark-2 version of GSLV (like Thursday’s GSLV-F05 flight) can handle payloads weighing up to 2,500 kg. To launch heavier satellites, India now depends on foreign rockets.
When operational, India’s GSLV Mark-3, whose first developmental flight is tentatively slated for December this year, can loft satellites weighing nearly 5,000 kg.
India is eyeing the global satellite launch market and has the advantage of lower costs. Isro has launched 74 foreign satellites so far and is striving to raise its share in the $-300-billion market, which is currently insignificant in the face of superior capabilities of and stiff competition from agencies such as French multinational Arianespace and SpaceX of the US.
India can launch satellites at costs that are a fraction of what Arianespace and SpaceX charge. An Ariane-5 rocket launch by Arianespace can cost about Rs 660 crore and the Falcon-9 of SpaceX comes at Rs 440 crore. In comparison, the cost of India’s PSLV rocket is as low as approximately Rs 100 crore and GSLV (Mark-2), about Rs 230 crore. But Isro is aware that the Indian insurance costs are higher and that SpaceX is engaged in some very advanced research to bring its costs down even more.
So India must drop its own costs even lower. That’s what Isro is trying to do.
It is as part of that effort that, last month, Isro tested indigenous scramjet engines which reduce the fuel-oxidiser payload and make the rockets lighter and cheaper. Using a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) significantly cuts costs. India made a good beginning in May this year with the successful flight-testing of its RLV-TD (Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator). But it would take India some more years to perfect both scramjet engines and the RLV technology.
Some well-meaning critics in the scientific community told this writer that India is not moving fast enough in the rapidly progressing area of rocket technology. But the Indian successes so far are indeed no mean achievements. Nobody says rocket science is a child’s play.
Here are Isro's future missions for 2016: