Isro’s 104 satellite launch means more for our country than a mere world record

I have no doubt that India’s space program, thanks to Isro, will take us to the next step in our technological evolution.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) PSLV-C37 mission yesterday was one for the record books. If you missed all the fanfare – that's quite a rock you've been sleeping under – the mission successfully placed a record-breaking 104 satellites into orbit at one go.

While I don’t mean to be a sourpuss, I’d like to point out that as impressive as those numbers are, the fact that Isro put a 104 satellites into orbit isn’t the highlight of the mission. As with the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the highlight of this mission was the price, and something a little more intangible.

The PSLV carried 104 satellites totalling around 1,400 kg to low earth orbit (LEO). It only did so because at just $15 million, PSLV-C37 was the cheapest launch option around. SpaceX, for example, could have easily accomplished the same mission, and carried a few thousand satellites more while it was at it.

SpaceX vs Isro

Isro’s 104 satellite launch means more for our country than a mere world record

A Booster on re-entry after launching a ship. Image: SpaceX

If you compare the Falcon 9 and the PSLV, there’s no doubt as to which spacecraft is better. The latter can carry a payload of 3,800 kg to LEO, the former can take 22,300 kg to LEO. The Falcon 9 is also reusable.

SpaceX a private space company with a fraction of the budget that Isro has. In terms of numbers, SpaceX has operated on a budget of $1bn for 10 years, whereas Isro 2016 budget was around $1.1bn. 

isro-pslv-c37

The PSLV-C37 mid-flight

But I’m being very unfair here.

SpaceX is a privately funded company with the full backing of the US Government and Nasa. This means that SpaceX has a thriving ecosystem to work in with Nasa being the bigger player in the US. Isro is a government funded company that’s been forced to survive mostly on its own and under heavy sanctions (Cryogenic engines, anyone?) which slowed progress. The US has also passed legislation preventing US companies from coming to Isro for their launch needs.

In that light, Isro’s achievements are nothing short of staggering.

The space program isn’t about space

If I wanted to paint a bleak picture of our space program, I’d say that in the larger scheme of things, Isro’s barely achieved anything. We’ve launched small satellites to space, put an orbiter around Mars and the moon and that’s about it.

An image of Saturn as captured by the Cassini probe. Image: Reuters

An image of Saturn as captured by the Cassini probe. Image: Reuters

Nasa, ESA, Roscosmos and others have sent men to the moon, maintain a space station, sent probes to the outer edges of the solar system (and one beyond it), photographed Pluto, landed on a comet, penetrated Jupiter’s atmosphere, sent robots to Mars, landed on Venus and a great deal more besides. And they did this decades ago.

India is still contemplating a second Mars mission which might put a robot on the Martian surface. We intend to send an orbiter around Venus. India will only be testing its first cryogenic engine in March and this will only enable the GSLV to take a 5,000 kg payload to LEO. The proposed ULV will only manage a 15,000 kg and India’s reusable launch vehicle is still a prototype.

Image src: Blue Origin

Image src: Blue Origin

SpaceX is targeting a payload of 500,000 kg and even Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket is expecting to take a payload of 50,000 kg.

That is a pretty bleak picture, but it’s misleading. The space race has never been about conquering space, that’s incidental. It’s about technology.

Our space program was built on the sheer willpower, brilliance and hard work of a select few

It didn't just come about overnight. These few carried satellites on bullock carts, rockets on bicycles and built prototypes with their bare hands in a dilapidated church. They didn't have the luxury of drawing on a pool of experienced engineers, millions of dollars in funding and the ecosystem from an existing space program.

Isro satellite bullock cart 640

India’s launch is significant not for its raw numbers, but for what the launch represents. Lacking the resources and technology of more established peers, India has to rely on its own devices and every launch, no matter how small, is hard-won experience. And we are learning fast.

The space program is about progress

India’s investments in Isro are not just about investing in satellite launches, it’s about research and development.

Nasa’s space missions, while they’ve furthered humanity’s knowledge of how we came to be, have huge real world implications. The products of space research include Lithium-Ion batteries, efficient computer algorithms, LEDs, smartphone cameras, image stabilisation, water filtration systems, food preservation technology, artificial limbs, MRI scans, panoramic photos, etc.

The iPhone wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Nasa and the like.

As we point out here, Isro’s research into batteries – which it needed for the MOM mission – has contributed significantly to the development of our nascent electric bus program. Why would we need to import expensive technology when we can learn to build it ourselves?

Sure, we don’t have the capability to launch a Hubble space telescope yet. But we’ll learn, and we’ll do better.

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained in an impassioned plea for a higher Nasa budget, a thriving space program is needed for “rebooting the country’s capacity to innovate”. As he pointed out, a young student will not study something as hard as fluid dynamics with an ambition of improving aircraft wing efficiency by 15 percent, he’ll study it because he wants to build a rocket that’ll get us to space. The wing will be incidental.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Why are we excited for SpaceX? Is it because a private company intends to build a cheap and efficient space-trucking service for hauling supplies to the ISS? No, we’re excited because Elon Musk wants to take us to Mars, to make humanity an interplanetary species.

Humans on Mars. Image: SpaceX.

Humans on Mars. Image: SpaceX.

When the UAE announced that it will build a settlement on Mars by 2117, it’s not doing so because it wants to get to Mars. It’s doing so because it wants to kickstart a space program, to get young minds energised, to invest in research.

If you look at the larger picture of the Indian space program, the 104 satellites launched in one shot would seem like one of many baby steps to space. The real achievement is in putting India on the global map and firing up young minds in our country.

I have no doubt that India’s space program will take us to the next step in our technological evolution.

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