Bengaluru: The third and final successful ground test of the indigenous cryogenic engine by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) last Friday has raised hopes of launching the country's first heavy-lift version of the geostationary satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) in December.
The GSLV-Mark-III can carry a payload of four tons, about twice the capacity of ISRO's existing rockets. The C-20 engine that was "hot tested" for 635 seconds at the Liquid Propulsion Complex at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu will be used to power the rocket's upper stage.
But S. Nambinarayanan, former Project director of ISRO's Liquid Propulsion Systems, says this milestone could have been crossed 12 years ago had his project not been derailed by an “international conspiracy” to halt India's leap into space.
It was Nambinarayanan who introduced the liquid fuel rocket technology in India in the 1980s. The Vikas engine used today by all ISRO launch vehicles, including the one that took Chandrayaan-1 to the moon in 2008 and Mangalyaan, was the result of two decades of work by his team with assistance from France.
And, as project director of the newly-launched indigenous cryogenic engine project, he plunged headlong into developing the propulsion systems for ISRO's GSLV and interplanetary missions. With this in mind, in 1991, he signed a contract on behalf of ISRO with the Russian space agency Glavkosmos for the technology transfer of a cryogenic propulsion system.
But things did not turn out as planned. Glavkosmos, in 1993, reneged under pressure from the United States. And Nambinarayanan was arrested on November 1994 on charges of selling India's "rocket secrets to Pakistan through two Maldivian women "spies" leading to his suspension from his job. With Nambinarayanan out of the scene, the cryogenic engine development suffered.
"Cancellation of the contract and my arrest were part of an agenda of the US, accomplished by conniving with officials of our Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Kerala Police," Nambinarayanan told this correspondent in an email. As an evidence of conspiracy, he refers to the dismissal of an IB officer of the rank of joint director in 1996 for his alleged links with the CIA.
In fact, in 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), which took up the "ISRO spy case" found it to be false and fabricated by the IB and the Kerala Police — a finding endorsed by the Supreme Court in April 1998 and by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in September 1999.
The NHRC also passed strictures against the Kerala government for having "tarnished (Nambinarayanan's) long and distinguished career in space research apart from the physical and mental torture to which he and his family were subjected."
Nambinarayanan says he managed to obtain the supplies and documents relating to the cryogenic engine from Russia's Glavkosmos before it cancelled the contract and arranged a private airline (Ural Aviation) to transport the cargo to India in four shipments.
"With this, I hoped ISRO could master the cryogenic technology," he said. But his suspension from ISRO's cryogenics systems project put an end to that.
"Had there been no conspiracy, ISRO would have achieved space power status long back, maybe as early as 2000," Nambinarayanan told IANS. "Today, we are not only delayed by more than 12 years but have also lost several billion dollars worth of launch business."
The rocket scientist feels sad that while the CBI concluded that the ISRO "spy case" was false and fabricated, nobody bothered to unearth the motives behind it or punish those officers of the IB and the Kerala Police who were charged with negligence and dereliction of duty by CBI.
"The government should constitute a special investigation team to find out the total truth in the ISRO spy case," he said.
While ISRO is celebrating last week's successful "hot test" of its new cryogenic engine, Nambinarayanan, 75, who started this work two decades ago, is now spending much of his time fighting court cases — to get Rs.1 crore (Over $145,000) in damages he had claimed from the state and central governments.
He is also seeking action against police officers who framed him and others in a false case that harmed India's space programme.
(K.S. Jayaraman can be contacted at email@example.com)