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Take a step back from the techno-Babel that surrounds you: the incessant chatter of satellite TV, your OnePlus5 pinging as the nearest Uber locks into your GPS, the urgent messages to link your UID to PAN to bank account.... Take a step back from all that, and you see a void. Most of what we fill our lives with is borrowed modernity. It’s the 21st century, one that apparently belongs to Asia, yet most of the time we need to take solace from ancient glory. At frustrated moments, one might even feel India’s contribution to the things that run our world pretty much adds up to that old concept we invented: zero. In the private sphere, reverse engineering rules. But the starkest failures belong to the zone that had both the monetary support and the mandate: the public institutional space.
Editing: Suraj Wadhwa
The oft-quoted example is that of the Indian Railways. Its accomplishments—or lack of them—can be easily comprehended. (Look only at the number of miles of new tracks added after the British left. Or the primitive sanitation, or the coaches that have stayed essentially unchanged from way before Gabbar Singh’s hordes chased after the heroes in Sholay.) But there’s also the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The organisation whose brief it was to make India self-sufficient in defence technology is nearly 60 years old—it has to be judged by the arms purchase deals from the West or Israel that still make the headlines. (Unless, as the wags quip, you count the Leh berry juice as a strategic asset.) It’s against this empty canvas that one institution stands out in sharp relief: the start-up that Vikram Sarabhai founded on I-day in 1969.
Archive photo of a rocket nose being transported on a bicycle at Thumba, Kerala
It’s been a hectic summer at India’s space agency, following on from good harvests for a few seasons now. This year has seen four back-to-back rocket launches in as many months, each with many novelties on board. And, the centrepiece of it all: the chubby, new heavy-lift rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III, under whose curved nose cone sits a home-grown cryogenic engine—the agony and the ecstasy, if you will, of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and a big one among the growing list of trophies standing on its mantelpiece.
More will join it soon, and some have been there for a bit. An Indian-built earth observation satellite last rode a foreign rocket to a low orbit about 22 years ago. That’s roughly how long ISRO’s old faithful—the slender Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)—has been around. But what about those heavier communications satellites—the ones beaming down to our dish antennae—which need to go further up? Well, the last one blazed off just two weeks ago, on the European Ariane 5. That’s now 22 foreign launches in all, since the early ’80s. Not for much longer, though. “After a couple of Mark III launches, we will probably not be launching anything from outside India, even in communications,” says A.S. Kiran Kumar, chairman, ISRO, in his quiet, unassuming way. “Their costs are higher, all said and done, than what we can do.”
ISRO’s steady successes over the decades have come in tableaux of iconic images that have fired up generations of Indians—from putting together its first sounding rocket in a church building, the classic Indian ‘jugaad’ idea of mounting its first communications satellite APPLE on a bullock cart (for an antenna test without magnetic interference), to the moon mission Chandrayaan and then even a Mars orbiter. Put all of that together, and you can see why ISRO has easily been India’s most visible scientific establishment. But the question persists.
How and why does ISRO, which turns 48 this year, come up with world-beating stuff on modest budgets in a country where thrift and efficiency—the qualities that keep its struggling millions alive—are conspicuous by their absence in government institutions? Where some chronic ailments seem to be endemic to Indian scientific organisations? The most frequent point of comparison is naturally the nearest kin, the DRDO—long beset as it has been with time lags, products the armed forces aren’t always happy with, and stuck in a restructuring process that’s as slow and grinding as its R&D seems to be. What then, makes ISRO, government-run just as the others, tick?
“Nobody else in India has been able to duplicate it. Nobody is even analysing how ISRO does this,” says aerospace scientist Roddam Narasimha. It is a legacy of Vikram Sarabhai.
Prof Roddam Narasimha, the noted aerospace scientist, says it’s a question he’s often wondered about. “Nobody else in India has been able to duplicate it. Nobody is even analysing how ISRO does this,” he says. And yet, doing so may be the first step towards seeing if any of it can be replicated. For starters, we’ve often heard of the ‘ISRO culture’, a legacy of its early leaders, Vikram Sarabhai, the visionary of the space programme, and Satish Dhawan, its architect. “He (Dhawan) made ISRO’s goals understandable to every person inside, from the top scientists to the heads of divisions, all the way down to the mechanics,” says Narasimha.
One event that impressed him greatly, he recalls, was a project review of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, SLV-3, in the early ’70s, not long after Dhawan had just taken over. “It was held in an auditorium, believe it or not, and there were 250 people…many, of course, from ISRO but a few from outside too,” he says. After A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the project director, made his presentation, a young man from the back seats stood up and asked a question, which seemed to be treated in a somewhat dismissive way. Dhawan, he recollects, insisted the question be answered fully. “I think the message went through,” says Narasimha. “Where technical issues are called, there’s no hierarchy. Anybody can ask a question.”
Many would agree. The idea, Kiran Kumar says, is that people be made aware of the limitations of their designs, and persuaded that improvement is possible. “At the same time, this way you never close the topic and it can become an indefinite timeline,” he says. That’s where the project heads play a key role. “They must balance between the best solution versus a viable solution.”
To be fair, this purity of approach is often a luxury an agency like DRDO can’t afford: critical weaponry is developed in a context of threats. “There’s pressure…it’s not DRDO taking the call. Nobody asks them, ‘Are you geared to do this?’,” says Ajey Lele, senior fellow, IDSA. Often, goalposts were shifted even when the original problem hadn’t been solved. “Then, international collaborations. We were under sanctions, but ISRO still had a certain amount of flexibility. For DRDO, that was not there.” While conceding that some infirmities may owe to DRDO’s working style, he points to the missile programme as one of its successes. Or the Tejas fighter plane, and a plane is more complicated to build than a rocket.
First office, once a church (left); testing a satellite
ISRO folk tell you with a degree of pride that if you were to add up all the money the space agency has spent from Day One, it would be less than one year’s budget for NASA.
That success must, however, be qualified. While the Tejas has been inducted into the IAF, the ship-borne version of the Light Combat Aircraft was famously rejected by the Indian navy as “overweight” just six months ago. Remember also the long-running sequence of shambolic events around the indigenous nuclear submarine. Back in the ’90s, as an Outlook report noted: “The first trials were a scream—the reactor would not fit into the hull of the submarine!” And the painful, never-ending gestation of the battle tank Arjun, whose Mark II has again gone back to the drawing board for modifications. All projects that have been decades in the workshop. Match this dismal report card against ISRO’s, and it’s natural to wonder why.
The thoroughness of the process is a factor. “In all fairness, we have to accept that you come to know certain problems only when you actually deal with them,” says Kiran Kumar. Even if a high-tech project overshoots deadlines and risks being dated, going through with it is vital, he reckons, whether it’s used or not. “But the next (project) should be something that’s not currently available, or better than what’s available.” It’s an ISRO principle.
Take the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) of 1975. “It was the first and largest socio-technological experiment anywhere in the world. So what ISRO has actually tried to do all along is...not just technology...(but) visualising something others have not even thought of. That’s how innovation came to be embedded in the ethos of ISRO,” he says. The synthetic aperture radar (SAR) it’s building with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a 2021 launch is a case in point, he adds. “It’s a new capability of Sweep-SAR technology and the payload is being developed together. That will be flown on our satellite…we’ll build it and launch it.” This is also where ISRO’s deep space missions fit in—they challenge scientists to come up with technology they wouldn’t otherwise.
Of course, ISRO’s famed complex matrix for project management too is human. “There will be conflict, there will be differences, there will be times where the group director or deputy director may think something is higher priority...these are all natural things. At the end of the day, it will get streamlined and we move ahead,” says Kiran Kumar. Yes, there has been talk of groupism, and there was also that cloud over Antrix. And ISRO too has overshot deadlines. It took 15 years from project approval to fly the Mark III: many ask whether it couldn’t have come sooner if ISRO hadn’t laboured over reverse-engineering a Russian cryogenic engine. That’s a bit of history only too well recorded. While the Mark III testing facility was being readied, they had to resize it to test the Mark II failures that were a gnawing problem, losing 4-5 years in the process. But since 2014, focus swung back to the indigenous rocket. Ultimately, it comes down to a core work ethic.
“The success of any launch vehicle in the first go is very rare. We’re all elated,” says K. Sivan, who heads the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. But ISRO has grappled with knots before, especially in the ’90s with its smaller rocket, the PSLV, whose fourth stage, experts recall, had been tricky as well. At the core of the PSLV is a liquid propulsion engine, Vikas, which ISRO has perfected and which is currently manufactured by Godrej & Boyce.
In 1979, the then ISRO chairman Satish Dhawan sanctioned around Rs 10 lakh for N. Narayanan to build a model of the liquid propulsion engine. The engine came to be known as Vikas.
“A cryogenic engine is one-and-a-half times as powerful as other types of storable liquid rocket engines like Vikas,” says Prof B.N. Raghunandan, an expert on aerospace propulsion at the Indian Institute of Science. It means working at unbelievably low temperatures to liquefy oxygen and hydrogen which can’t be stored for long, insulating the systems and pumping them into the rocket motors, every step posing a challenge. “It was what was missing. Now we can build anything, any size. We are beyond looking at the outside world for rocket technology,” he says.
Only a handful of countries have pulled off something like this. As Kiran Kumar puts it, “The one confidence we have is, if somebody has done it, I can too...it’s doable.” It’s a confidence you often see in ISRO folk—they tell you with a degree of pride that if you were to add up all the money the space agency has spent from Day One, it would be less than one year’s budget for NASA. The famous “cheaper than an autorickshaw” Mangalyaan ride (at Rs 7 per km) springs to mind. ISRO still works on smaller budgets than most of its peers in the space business ($1.2 billion last year compared to NASA’s $18.5 billion). But to be fair, there’s a gap in terms of capabilities. While the GSLV Mark III is a huge step forward and makes India self-sufficient in its satellite launches, heavy-lift in the global context is at different level altogether.
“We are maybe in the medium, intermediate category. The Chinese went to the 5-6 tonne class (of satellites) long ago...in the ’90s...they are now moving to 14-tonne plus. The Americans have been there a long time,” says a space expert, preferring anonymity. “At one level, I think the trend is towards bigger communications satellites, more multi-frequency, to accommodate as much as possible. There I think ISRO is quite behind, probably by 3-5 years,” he says. Launch providers like SpaceX or Arianespace can at present launch 8-9-tonne satellites into the geostationary transfer orbit (some 42,000 km above sea level).
Right now, in a way, ISRO is still struggling to meet national needs. It has to plug the supply shortage for Direct-to-Home services. “We have about 44-45 satellites providing various services. We need another 25-30 to meet our basic requirements,” says Kiran Kumar. When it comes to satellite technology, he adds, ISRO is pretty good. “We’re comparable with the best in the world. Functionalities, high throughput...we’re catching up, we’re doing multi-beam...the GSAT-11 will have 32-beam configuration, the highest so far, but we’re also working on 50 and 60 beams.” They are also looking at packing a 6-tonne satellite’s functional capability in a 4-tonne satellite using electric propulsion.
If communications satellites are getting bigger, the opposite is happening in the low earth orbit (LEO), where satellites for remote sensing or earth observation are parked. There’s a sort of boom for tiny satellites: they are easy to put together and are just as capable as larger ones. “Smallsats are seeing rising demand, and most will be launched in constellations of tens or even hundreds for a single system,” says Carolyn Belle, senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, which forecasts that over 3,000 satellites under 100 kg will launch in the next 10 years. That’s good news for the PSLV, the ‘workhorse’.
Planet Labs, the US company that used the PSLV in February to launch 88 Dove satellites (or Flock 3p, as they’re collectively named), can now produce an image of the Earth’s entire landmass every day. “These nano-satellites are expanding the scope of the industry, delivering new services and data products and involving a greater diversity of players,” says Belle.
With the launch vehicle technology in place, the road ahead for ISRO looks quite packed, roughly 12 rocket launches a year. “We want to reach a stage where at least we’ll be able to do, in the immediate term, two Mark-IIs, seven to eight PSLVs and two Mark-IIIs, so roughly one a month,” says Kiran Kumar. “Then, we want to be able to do twelve PSLV launches itself. Then beyond that, the Mark-II and Mark-III, so all together eighteen.”
There’s a delightful little story—recounted by the chroniclers of India’s space journey, Jay Raja and P.V. Manoranjan Rao—about a dinner conversation in the early 1960s that swung the decision on a suitable site for India’s first rocket launching station in favour of Thumba. The fishing village down south on the Kerala coast, apparently, wasn’t what Vikram Sarabhai had been discussing that evening. It was another place, a little to the north at Kollam, along the ‘magnetic equator’ which made it the ideal location to send up sounding rockets—there was, at that point, great interest globally to unravel what exactly went on in the electrically charged atmosphere along this line, where the magnetic needles show no dip. The sprawling Ashtamudi backwaters were an added lure.
When Sarabhai said the station ought to be located there, at a place called Vellanathuruthu, the famous meteorologist P.R. Pisharoty made the following observation: the Malayalam name ‘Vellanathuruthu’ translates into ‘the sandbar of the white elephant’. Sarabhai, we’re told, dropped the idea immediately.
DRDO Diaries: The Projects Yet To Take-Off
Light Combat Aircraft
Airborne Early Warning and Control System
Main Battle Tank
DRDO recently listed over 40 products it developed in the past three years (2014-16) for defence and civilian uses: armour-piercing ammunition for tanks, Akash weapon system, hi-speed ship-launched torpedoes, weapon-locating radars, SONAR systems.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore & Chennai