ISRO’s IRNSS-1H fiasco: Failures are common in space missions, but India can’t afford them at this juncture

Thursday’s failure is only the first one involving a PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in 24 years.

India is a country where the success or failure in a cricket match or a satellite launch is seen as a national triumph or an unmitigated disaster and is directly attributed to the prime minister of the day. This is a sign of the medieval psyche of an aboriginal tribe that celebrates the killing of a lion with a feast or mourning a snakebite with rituals.

The macabre humour of internet trolls and Modi-baiters who are talking about the fall in GDP and the IRNSS-1H satellite in the same breath, attributing both to the Prime Minister, should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.

The IRNSS-1C undergoing a vibration test. Image: ISRO.

The IRNSS-1C undergoing a vibration test. Image: ISRO.

On Thursday night, a PSLV-C39 rocket of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) failed to launch the IRNSS-1H satellite due to a technical glitch with the “heat shield”.  Despite the temptation to dismiss it as a minor blip, it’s clear that India is in no position to afford such mishaps. When the country is trying to garner a better share of the lucrative, worldwide satellite launch market and when it is attempting to scale greater heights in space, failures like this can delay plans.

But at the same time, Thursday’s mishap has in no way turned ISRO upside down. The IRNSS-1H satellite is lost, but India’s space programme isn’t. The damage that the fiasco has inflicted on the country’s space ambitions is not irreversible.

Luckily for India, for every single instance of 140-character, below-the-belt sadism of twitter gnomes, there are a dozen saner voices. Look at this, for instance:

Reactions like these befit the balanced maturity of the world’s largest democracy, second most populous country and a grown-up nation that became Independent 70 years ago.

Solve the farmers’ problems before launching satellites, scream some keyboard warriors who suffer from IQ levels that even earthworms would be ashamed of. Such rants are driven more by a visceral hatred for the government in general and Modi in particular and exhibit the lack of even a basic knowledge of science that even a fifth-standard student is expected to possess.

It’s amazing to find that there are still some in this country who are ignorant of the fact that the cell phone that a farmer uses to talk to his buyer, or the weather forecast that he reads, or the ground resources estimation that he is told about, or the radio programme on urea and zinc sulphate that he listens to or simply the family soap that he watches on his TV channel are all facilitated by ISRO’s satellites. The plight of farmers in this country is the doing of the long procession of prime ministers and chief ministers of Congress, the BJP and sundry parties and is not the result of pampering space scientists.

India’s space programmes are not intended to crown the country with any Star Wars fame, while many Indians remain poor. Satellites are, and must be, part of any strategy to end poverty.

The IRNSS-1H with one of its solar panels deployed. Image: ISRO.

The IRNSS-1H with one of its solar panels deployed. Image: ISRO.

Successes overshadow failures

The best that India can do to its space scientists is to leave them alone. Let them do their job, which they have been doing commendably enough. There can be no doubt that the failures of ISRO are far overshadowed by its successes.

Thursday’s failure is only the first one involving a PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in 24 years. The last fiasco happened in 1993, when the very first flight in this series, PSLV-D1, failed to put remote-sensing satellite IRS-1E into space. But after that, many versions of PSLV rockets have had 39 successful launches.

And it’s the first major failure that comes seven years after the destruction of GSLV Mk I-D4 and the tenth disaster that ISRO has encountered in the last 38 years.

ISRO’s major failures so far

  • 10 August, 1979: The first SLV3-E1 crashed into sea because of a faulty valve.
  • 31 May, 1981: SLV3-D1 was a partial success. It placed satellite into a wrong orbit.
  • 24 March, 1987: First flight of ASLV-D1 didn’t succeed because of the failure in the ignition of first stage.
  • 13 July, 1988: ASLV-D2, successor to ASLV-D1, too failed because of inadequate control.
  • 20 September, 1993: PSLV-D1, the very first in the PSLV series, failed when the rocket was unable to ignite after the second stage separated.
  • 18 April, 2001: GSLV Mk-I-D1, the first developmental flight of GSLV, failed to deploy its payload into the right orbit.
  • 10 July, 2006: GSLV Mk-I-F02 was destroyed because its trajectory went outside expected limits.
  • 15 April, 2010: The cryogenic upper stage of GSLV Mk-II-D3 failed after a fuel booster turbo pump packed up.
  • 25 December, 2010: GSLV Mk-I-F06 was destroyed after control was lost over liquid fuel boosters.
  • 8 August, 2017: The PSLV-C39 failed to launch the IRNSS-1H satellite because the heat shield didn’t open.
The GSLV-F06 mission was the previous major failure for ISRO. The rocket blew up 53.8 seconds after launch in 2010.

The GSLV-F06 mission was the previous major failure for ISRO. The rocket blew up 53.8 seconds after launch in 2010.

It’s bad luck for ISRO and India that the latest failure comes only three months after the successful deployment of the 640-tonne Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark-III-D1 to launch the GSAT-19 satellite. The 5 June 2017 success meant not only that India mastered the complex cryogenic technology that went into the CE-20 engine used for the rocket but also that the country scaled up its ability to launch satellites weighing about 4,000 kg. The heaviest satellite India could launch earlier was of the class of 2,300 kg on board the GSLV-Mk-II vehicles.

A “rock star” that failed

The tragic nature of Thursday’s fiasco is evident from the fact that while the country was successful with bigger and better rockets like the GSLV, it failed to use a relatively less advanced PSLV. Though PSLV could lift only 1,800-kg satellites, it had been a dependable workhorse for three decades, even earning itself the nickname of a “rock star” of rockets.

While going ahead with—and improving on—the GSLV rockets, ISRO wanted to keep the PSLV going for the time being because of both the continued utility for launching smaller satellites made by India and other countries.

The PSLV mishap must be understood in the context of the significant advances India has made in space with abilities that only US, Russia, France, China, Japan and Europe can surpass. India still has a long way to go in space—for instance, it is nowhere near reaching the ability to launch satellites weighing more than four tonnes.

Though failures are not uncommon in space missions of even developed nations, India is not in a position where it can afford even relatively minor glitches neither financially nor in terms of reaching the higher goals it has set for itself.

Mishaps like this can mean more than loss of money and time invested. But India can rest assured that its space scientists are aware of this. You can trust them to drape themselves in “heat jackets” of their own to ignore unfair criticism and go ahead with their job with the same devotion that they have shown so far.

The author tweets @sprasadindia


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