January 26, 2014

People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 04

January 26, 2014


success: Indian Space
Programme Comes of Age




and engineers
at ISRO, and people all over India,
heaved a huge sigh of relief and cheered loudly, at the
successful launch on
January 5 of the GSLV D5 rocket with an indigenous
cryogenic engine and the
accurate insertion of the 2 tonne GSAT-14 satellite into
geo-synchronous orbit.
The notes of triumph and release from tension were
palpable at Sriharikota, and
the ISRO team would be forgiven for any hyperbole that
might have crept into their
self-congratulatory speeches.


was a moment that
ISRO and the nation had long been waiting for. There was
a lot riding on a
successful mission, and failure would have seriously
lowered morale among India’s
space scientists and engineers, and
maybe even eroded public support for India’s
space programme.


successful GSLV launch
with indigenous engine has boosted India
into the small club of
nations with serious launch capabilities. As the cliché
goes, it is such
capabilities that separate the men from the boys. With
GSLV D5 and GSAT-14, India’s
programme has truly come of age.


space programme has
undoubtedly had many significant achievements, and has
seen its Polar Satellite
Launch Vehicle (PSLV) develop into a proven work horse
with 23 successive
successful launches, including the Chandrayan and
Mangalyan missions. But
scientists and engineers throughout the world, and
especially in all
space-faring nations and agencies, know well that the
PSLV has limited
capability in terms of the size of satellites it can put
into earth orbit
and  the
height of this orbit above the
earth which is crucial to the role such satellites can


to launch
heavier satellites into high orbit – and ISRO plans to
further upgrade the GSLV
to enable launch of 4 tonne plus payloads – also implies
the ability to
undertake serious inter-planetary missions. Regular
readers of these columns
will recall our sharp criticism of the Chandrayan and
Mangalyan missions using
the PSLV for being clever “trick shot” missions, using
highly elliptical orbits
to fling the tiny satellites towards their targets in a
slingshot manoeuvre,
more to claim success in the lay public’s eye than for
any substantive
scientific or technological achievement. Now, after GSLV
D5, subsequent
missions to the Moon or to Mars can be undertaken with
greater seriousness and
with more meaningful experiments on board larger craft.


GSLV rocket, including
its forthcoming upgraded versions, will also have major
positive impact on India’s
ability to launch communication
satellites both for itself and for others, earning good
money for ISRO and
reducing fund outflows on commercial launches for India
by others such as by the
European Space Agency.




success of GSLV D5
would have tasted all the sweeter to the ISRO team given
the train of bitter
failures in the long and arduous struggle to master such
heavy launch
capability with an indigenous engine in the face of a
technology denial regime
driven by the US.


first of the GSLV
series of rockets, designed to place larger satellites
in geo-synchronous
orbits, was flown in 2001 after a highly chequered early
development phase that
started in 1991 when India
entered into an agreement with the Russian space agency
Glavkosmos to procure
cryogenic engines for the third stage of the rocket. For
the first and second
stages, the GSLV used the proven technologies from the
PSLV, namely the
S125/129 solid fuel boosters and the liquid-fuel Vikas
engine, likely derived
from the French Viking engine that powers the Ariane
series of rockets of the
European Space Agency.


original agreement was
that Russia
would sell India
engines and transfer technology for ISRO to develop and
produce subsequent
engines on its own. But the US
stepped in sharply and mounted enormous pressure on Russia
to scrap the deal on grounds
that such technology transfer violated the Missile
Technology Control Regime
because it could also be used for inter-continental
ballistic missiles. Russia
amended the agreement to outright sale of seven engines
and one mock-up stage
without transfer of technology. ISRO had no option but
to opt for indigenous
development of the cryogenic engine about which more


of the GSLV
then proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes using
Russian engines and
sometimes the indigenous one in hesitant steps. Given
what can certainly be
considered, certainly in hindsight, an under-funded
programme of indigenous
technology development, the GSLV saw many failures with
both Russian and Indian


very first flight of
the Mk1 version of GSLV D1 itself failed. Two successive
flights succeeded only
for the next flight in 2006 to fail, taking its INSAT 4C
satellite down with


now ISRO was running
out of its Russian bought engines, which were in any
case not performing to
promise and expectation, and were prone to problems as
were other Russian
components on the GSLV, and the future of the GSLV
depended on the indigenous


2010, the first flight
of the Mk-II GSLV with the indigenous third stage
failed, as did the next
attempt in the same year with a Russian engine. These
led to concerted
trouble-shooting, rededicated efforts at rectifying
problems with the Indian
cryogenic engine and what was tantamount to a do-or-die
launch this January
which, fortunately, did not come to that.


would now have to go
through two successive, successful flights and would
only then be considered an
operational launch vehicle. And it would take several
more successful launches
for international users to develop the confidence to use
ISRO’s services for
commercial launches on the GSLV.




that is at all
possible, the story of the indigenous development of the
cryogenic engine is
even more chequered, and somewhat shrouded in mystery,
than the GSLV story.


rocket engines are
based on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants
which ensures the
highest efficiency. But oxygen stays in liquid form only
at temperatures below
minus 183 degrees Celsius and hydrogen stays liquid
below minus 253 degrees
Celsius, hence the cryogenic engine has to keep both the
propellants at these
extremely low temperatures.


had decided early on
to embark on a programme to indigenously develop a
cryogenic engine, having
seen their success in NASA’s famous Atlas rockets, then
on Japanese, French and
Chinese rockets and finally on Soviet rockets in 1987. A
Cryogenic Study Team
was in fact set up as early as 1982 and drew up plans
for indigenous
development of a cryogenic. After that, a mysterious
phase of indecision or
hesitation followed which seemed to drag on even after
the agreement to go for
technology transfer from the then Soviet Union and later
its successor
, Russia
In the early 1990s, top leadership of ISRO made public
declarations that the
Indian cryogenic engine would be ready in a couple of
years, while other senior
ISRO engineers maintained it would take at least 10
years. It finally took 16!


adapting from the
Russian cryogenic engine, ISRO had to master many new
technologies including
development of new materials and alloys.


GSLV series, including
its Mk-III version to be developed soon for heavier
launches of 4 tonne plus
payloads, will depend heavily on the reliable
performance of the indigenous
cryogenic engine.


if the successful D5
launch is any indication, coming as it did after a
series of failures and the
valuable lessons learned from those, the indigenous
cryogenic engine is here to
stay and will power India
to the next, more mature phase of its space programme.




GSLV will enable India to
least partially close the enormous gap between its
demand for transponders on
communication satellites and what it is able to put up
using indigenous launch
capabilities and the far costlier launches by other
agencies especially the
European Space Agency. Against a target of 500
transponders by 2012, India now
only around 300 which, allowing for degradation and
life, may effectively be
only 200 or so in a few years time.


has to
pay other Agencies to launch all the balance on
satellites, it will cost a lot
which could be saved if ISRO could take on the launches
itself. Of course, this
will not happen overnight but, with GSLV now on stream,
finally on its way to have capability to launch its own
satellites including for its ambitious satellite
navigation programme. The
Indian space programme has definitely come of age.