Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022

Five And A Half Decades Of Indian Space Program

On 21st November 1963, the first sounding rocket was launched from the Indian Soil, thereby kick-starting the Indian Space Program.

PTI Photo

The origins and the evolution Indian Space program is one of the most inspiring stories of India since its independence in 1947. The reason behind this is the context in which the country’s space program developed. India was featuring very low in almost all the socio-economic indicators when the launch of Sputnik 1 took the world by storm. The first two decades after independence was devoted for nation-building. India was struggling as a third world country with a barrage of problems. To think of having a space program of its own at that time was in itself a very ‘idealistic’ idea. Many believed that India was not in a position to spend on something which ‘elite nations’ would do. The reference was towards the cold war space race in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were spending heavily towards their space program.

On 21st November 1963, the first sounding rocket was launched from the Indian Soil, thereby kick-starting the Indian Space Program. This Nike-Apache sounding rocket was launched from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS) in the presence of scientists from USA, USSR and France. This rocket was supplied by NASA which was assembled in the Mary Magdalene church building, while the CNES institution from France provided the equipment for the Sodium vapour experiment. This was a proud moment for India. Along with the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Indian Space program owes its existence to the willingness of the political class.

The combined zeal of the scientific and political leadership led to the sowing of seeds of the Indian Space program. “The decision to establish a rocket launch station at Thumba was informed to the parliament on 21st January 1963 when Lakshmi N Menon, minister of state for external affairs and herself from Kerala, answered a question on the behalf of Prime Minister Nehru” (Gopal Raj, 2000).

The manpower required to operate this launch station was fulfilled by DAE which collaborated with PRL to recruit the candidates for the space program. This included scientists like APJ Abdul Kalam (who later became the President of India), R Arvamudan, H.G.S Murthy, D. Easwardas etc. These were the first batch of engineers who were recruited and sent to NASA to be trained. “Their project was to build a telemetry ground station mounted inside a trailer, which, after testing and validation, was to be shipped to Thumba for installation. This was to be on long-term loan to Thumba but would remain the property of NASA”. Almost all of them became the pioneers of Indian Space program. In the first few years, many sounding rockets were launched from TERLS.

Both United States and the Soviet Union were collaborating with India to providing assistance for the development of the space capabilities. “TERLS was developed as a facility for scientists from all over the world who were interested in studying the equatorial electrojet. In this endeavour, India was encouraged and supported by many western countries like the US, the UK and West Germany. India was provided essential equipment like telemetry receivers, tracking systems and computers. Some of them came on loans and some were outright gifts”.

India returned the favour by dedicating the TERLS to the United Nations on 2nd February 1968. On this occasion, Dr.Vikram Sarabhai made a historic speech where he outlined why a resource-scarce and financially strained country like India needed a space program at the first place. He stated: "There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."

This was the era of Sounding rockets. As per ISRO’s website, “Sounding rockets are one or two-stage solid propellant rockets used for probing the upper atmospheric regions and for space research. They also serve as easily affordable platforms to test or prove prototypes of new components or subsystems intended for use in launch vehicles and satellites.” On 20th November 1967, India launched its first indigenous sounding rocket when Rohini 75 was flew into the sky. All this happened before the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It was the sheer dedication and hard work of the home grown Indian talent that the Indian Space program kicked off with a brisk yet firm start.

The Indian Space program was seen a ‘white elephant’ by many. The 1960s was a very turbulent decade in the country’s history. India fought two wars with its neighbours China and Pakistan in 1962 and 1965 respectively. The huge costs of war were literally draining the public exchequer. Adding to it, were the famines, floods and other natural disasters. Therefore, if one looks back in hindsight now, one would be amazed that even in those circumstances when there was a huge resource crunch, the Indian Space program didn’t halt. This is despite the fact the entire money for the space program was provided by the DAE, Government of India. This is when one gets to see the able as well as admirable leadership of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who almost absorbed all the outside pressures and shielded his team of engineers and scientists at Thumba.

As the head of the space program, Sarabhai, who was an industrialist-scientist never let money factor come into the way of the development of the space infrastructure in India. In that period, it was necessary for India to have a two-pronged approach in developing the space technology. Firstly, a solid team of engineers was formed who worked hard to build indigenous equipment and assets. Secondly, it was about collaborating with other countries which had a high command in space related technology. Luckily, this two-pronged approach worked very well for India. The early success of Indian space program could be realized by the fact that India managed to deal and collaborate with both the United States and Soviet Union in that phase when Cold War Space rivalry was at its peak when the Soviet Union and the United States were not seeing eye to eye with each other.

To conclude, the Indian Space Program has come a long way to a point where it is planning to send an astronaut to the outer space by 2022. 

(The author is a Junior Research Fellow at School of International Studies, JNU)