Sunday, Sep 19, 2021

Genesis Of The Space Program: How A ‘Non-Aligned’ India Negotiated The Space Race

The Indian Space Program hadn’t even begun when the launch of Sputnik 1 made headlines throughout the world

Genesis Of The Space Program: How A ‘Non-Aligned’ India Negotiated The Space Race
| File Photo
Genesis Of The Space Program: How A ‘Non-Aligned’ India Negotiated The Space Race

The Space Race between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics post World War II was a tipping point in the history of mankind. This superpower race intensified the Cold War rivalry because mankind was looking to compete in the arena of space for the first time. Dominance over space and the race to outdo one another became a matter of pride for both the United States and USSR.

The competition to conquer space was so huge that a new benchmark was set by one of the two superpowers almost every year throughout 1950s and 1960s. There were many “firsts” during the Space Race. The first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) in 1957, the first dog in orbit (sent by Sputnik 2) in 1957, the first solar-powered satellite, the first communication satellite, etc.

The Space Race didn’t just leave an impact on the area of space research; it left a wider impact in the field of technology. The technological superiority required for the dominance of space was deemed a necessity for national security, and it was symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites. It prompted competitive countries to send unmanned space probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. It also made possible human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.

The zeal the United States and USSR had to outperform one another proved quite beneficial to the progress of science. The work culture of the two superpowers was poles apart yet both were trying to be better than the other in order to become the best in the world. While the USSR had a highly centralized setup that had an impact on the source of investments in their space program, the United States, on the other hand, got private players to invest in their space program. NASA, the premiere space research agency, was also built in 1958 during the Space Race to counter the early success in USSR in outer space.

The Space Race started with the USSR launching Sputnik 1 in 1957, which created a furor worldwide. The governments and masses were excited to see mankind taking another leap towards progress. When the human race ventured into space, it was a “paradigm shift” moment. Neil Armstrong landing on Moon is still regarded as one of the breakpoints in history and his words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for the mankind,” are now one of the most quoted phrases in literature.

In a May 1961 speech to Congress, President John F. Kennedy presented his views on the Space Race when he said, “These are extraordinary times and we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions has imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause.”

“If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. . . . Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth,” he added.

The space programs of both the superpowers were not just for civilian purposes; it was as much about the military-space program. Through this, the idea was to fight the battle with the rival by displaying power without actually having to fight an actual war. At that point, the United Nations had to step in to ensure that outer space didn’t become a battleground for the superpowers.

That is when the Outer Space Treaty came into picture. The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international-space law. Formally known as Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the treaty bars states party to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space.

It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations and fortifications. Soviets were reluctant to sign this treaty because, in their opinion, the treaty would restrict their dominance over the United States in the Space Race. They later signed the treaty in 1967 when it was opened for signatures. To date, more than one hundred nations have become signatories to the treaty.

The Space Race didn’t have an end date and in many ways the race still continues. But the “space rivalry” ended between the United States and USSR in 1975, when the first multinational human-crewed mission went to space under the Apollo-Soyuz joint-test mission. In that mission, three U.S. astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts became the part of first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight.

The Space Race left a legacy in the field of space research worldwide. As the pioneers of space missions, both the United States and USSR helped their allies build their space missions through the training of scientists and engineers, the transferring of technology, and by allowing other researchers to visit their space laboratories. That way, both superpowers could learn and improve their knowledge and skills related to space research.

The Indian space mission was in its very nascent stage when the Space Race was at its peak. The Indian space program owes its development and expansion to the aid and assistance of both the United States and the USSR because Indian space scientists and engineers were sent to train in both those countries. As a non-aligned country, India maintained a delicate balance between keeping good relations with both the superpowers, especially in the arena of space cooperation. As a result, the Indian Space Research Organization went on to become one of the best space research institutions in the world.

In conclusion, the Space Race is one of the most iconic moments in the history of mankind. It is quite difficult to assess its full impact in the area of space research and technology. One thing is for sure though—if there had been no Space Race, then surely the world of space research and space missions would be quite different from what it is today.

THE SPACE RACE: 1957-1975

The space race with the Soviet Union, which the United States took up in 1957, was entirely the result of international politics, as the US endeavored to contain the perceived damage to its self-perception as the world's leading scientific and industrial power, and it responded to what it saw as a military as well as a political challenge posed by Moscow (Sheehan 2007).

The Space race between US and Soviet Union became an important part of the cultural, technological, and ideological rivalry during the Cold War. Space technology became a particularly important arena in this conflict, because of both its potential military applications and the morale-boosting social benefits.

After World War II, the US and the Soviet leadership began to identify each other as primary threats and competitors. Several crises in Europe and Asia intensified the superpower rivalry and hardened the perception that the superpowers' goals were incompatible. One specific goal incompatibility involved the exploration, monitoring and control of space. Genesis of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union can be traced to this period of intense Cold War competition and rivalry (McDougall 1985).

Through the space race, the cold war got extended into the heavens and even threatened to end the earthly life in a nuclear devastation. In 1957, the USSR successfully launched its first ever satellite, Sputnik. The US soon responded, as the ability to place objects in orbit encouraged serious space research in the United States.

Competition over space officially began with the launch of Sputnik I, but competition for taking position in Space had begun before that date. As reflected in RAND reports as early as 1946, US strategists identified the use of satellites as a vital solution to one of the most pressing issues the United States faced after World War II: the gathering of reliable intelligence of Soviet activity and capabilities (McDougall 1985).

The successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union caused inferiority among the US people as well as policymakers. Not since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had Americans felt so vulnerable to a foreign power (McDougall 1985:22). The Sputnik launch triggered an outburst of American self-criticism and even self-doubt.

After the news of launch, President Eisenhower attempted to calm American anxieties by arguing that the US satellite programme had 'never been conducted as a race with other nations'. He also said that American people were overreacting, but the hitherto prevailing perception that the Soviet Union was a clearly backward society in comparison to the United States made its space achievement seem all the more surprising and shocking (Sheehan 2007: 27).

Expressing the technological and political implications of Sputnik launch, Brooks had stated 'not since the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima had a technological event had such an immediate and far-reaching political fall-out' (Brooks 1983: 6). Gene Kranz in his book has also articulated the Sputnik experience as he has stated that the unexpected achievement of Soviet science gave Americans 'both an inferiority complex and a heightened sense of vulnerability in what was then the most intense phase of the Cold War' (Kranz 2001: 15).

By the end of the 1960s, both countries regularly deployed satellites. Spy satellites were used by militaries to take accurate pictures of their rivals' military installations. Both the United States and the Soviet Union began to develop anti-satellite weapons as well to acquire the capability to destroy each other's satellites. Arms control talks between the superpowers began during the period of detente which resulted in the signing of the ABM treaty in 1972.

At the height of the Cold War, which coincided with the high point of the Space Race, there were rumors that control of outer space was being sought so that whichever nation took control of other planets would use them for the growth of nuclear weaponry, such as being able to develop and test the weapons in absolute secrecy, as well as using other planets as a convenient staging and launching area for nuclear weapons (Raver 2006). Thus, space race became a medium to win the Cold War.

The action- reaction of both superpowers resulted in the deployment of ICBMs and spy satellites which had a larger strategic significance over world politics. In the subsequent period, the purpose of Space Race extended beyond the Cold War, although victory in the Cold War was always one of its largest purposes. During the period of intense space race, Soviet challenges in outer space emerged as threats for the United States.

RACE FOR THE ICBM’s (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile)

In 1953, the USSR initiated, under the direction of the Sergey Korolyov, a program to develop an ICBM. Korolyov had constructed the R-17; a copy of the V-28, based on some captured materials, but later developed his own distinct design. Subsequently, the R-79 was successfully tested in August 1957 becoming the world's first ICBM and, on October 4, 1957, placed the first artificial satellite in space, Sputnik.

The U.S., on the other hand, initiated ICBM research way back in 1946 with the MX-77410. However, its funding was cancelled and only three partially successful launches in 1948, of an intermediate rocket, were ever conducted. In 1951, the U.S. began a new ICBM program called MX-774 and Atlas11. The U.S.' first successful ICBM, the Atlas A was launched on 17 December 1957, four months after the Soviet R-7 flight.


Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous chapter in the consequences of space race between the US and the Soviet Union, which threatened to take the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. The space race had coincided with the arms race. On 14 October 1962, an American U2 spy-plane took pictures of a nuclear missile base being built on Cuba. Kennedy's advisers told him he had 10 days before Cuba could fire the missiles at targets in America.

The new Cold War rockets came perilously close to being used in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (Jones & Benson 2002). In October 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, lacking a capable long- range missile force, put medium- range missiles in Communist Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida.


The Indian Space Program hadn’t even begun when the launch of Sputnik 1 made headlines throughout the world. By the late 1950s, India was starting to grow and mature as a stable democracy. The country, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru was in the nascent stage of sowing seeds for a modern democracy with the country wanting to develop its scientific and industrial outlook.

Around this time, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, founder of Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad started looking for volunteers who were basically engineers to set up a rocket launch-pad in South Kerala. Sarabhai, being a visionary, wanted India to become one of the players in the outer space in years to come. For that to happen, India needed to have its own space program, which was still a distant dream.

Being one of the pioneers of Space Race, the US had already made strides in the area by establishing its premiere space agency NASA in 1958. Sarabhai wanted to form a core group of young engineers who could be sent to US to be trained at NASA before they come back to India and start working at the rocket launch pad station at Thumba in Kerala.

In his book ‘ISRO: A PERSONAL HISTORY’, Dr. R Arvamudan, one of pioneers of Indian Space Program, wrote, “The first batch of engineers was sent to NASA in December 1962. 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.”

The early task for these engineers who later became great scientists was to get trained in launching and tracking ‘Sounding Rockets’. The training offered to these engineers from India by NASA was what normally given to an operator or technician as they were not given exposure to the technology that went into building the big rockets and satellites.

The early part of Indian space program was backed by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and therefore some of the engineers working for Indian space program were still on the payrolls of DAE, while other engineers were recruited directly from the Physical Research Laboratory.

The impact of the Space Race on the Indian Space Program could be itself judged with the fact that the vision for a third world country like India which was facing problems of development on multiple fronts became interested in investing in the area of space was only because of the fact that superpowers like US and USSR were actively involved in space research and space race. This is why groups of engineers were sent to NASA to be trained and get some knowledge of radar and telemetry tracking.

The reason for sending the engineers to US instead of USSR, (which at that time was ahead of US in the space race) was because of two reasons. Firstly, the Soviet space program was very ‘secretive’ in nature and they feared that any sharing of information with anyone could enable the US to get ahead in the race. They were already a lot of reports of spying and counter-spying involving both the CIA and KGB vis-à-vis space technology. The second reason was of language; Indian engineers being more comfortable in using English had no problems in getting trained at the US as it is an English speaking country as opposed to the USSR, where one had to know basic Russian.

The seeds of the Indian Space Program were sown at Thumba, which during the 1960s became an international launch station. The Thumba space station is officially known as TERLS i.e. Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. It was developed as a facility to scientists from all over the world who were interested in studying the equatorial electro jet. In this endeavor, India was encouraged and supported by many western countries like US, 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 (Arvamudan, 2017).

One of the equipments that were provided to India was DOVAP (Doppler Velocity and Positioning System), which was a 40-feet-long trailer housing a ground station built by NASA. This was transferred to India under a collaborative agreement with NASA. With USSR, India had its first significant collaboration later in 1970. Under this collaboration, India had agreed to launch M-100 rockets from Thumba every week in synchronization with Russian sites so that a simultaneous set of data on meteorological forecasts could be obtained (Arvamudan, 2017).

India launched more than thousand M-100 rockets between 1970 and 1993. The Soviet Union has been a major contributor to India's space effort. Foremost in this effort was Soviet technical assistance in building and in actually launching India's satellites, Aryabhata and Bhaskara. On April 19, 1975, the Soviet Union launched India's first satellite Aryabhata. Designed purely for scientific experiments, the satellite was built by India, but the Soviets provided technical assistance and components such as solar cells, batteries, thermal paints, and tape recorders. 


1. Abbey, George and Neal Lane (2005), United States Space Policy Challenges and Opportunities, Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

2. Adkins, Larry D. (2005), "Space Superiority: Does the US Really Have It?”, High Frontier Journal, 1 (Winter 2005): 13-16.

3. Altmann, J. (1986), "Offensive Capabilities of Space-Based Lasers", Security Dialogue; 17(2): 151-158

4. Baines, P. (2004), ''Non-Offensive Defences: Space Protection Without Space-Based Weapons", Astropolitics, 2 (2): 149 -174

5. Belote, H. D. (2000), "The Weaponization of Space: It Doesn't Happen in a Vacuum", Aerospace Power Joumal,46-52

6. Bell, T. D. (1999), Weaponization of Space: Understanding Strategic and Technological Inevitabilities, Alabama: Air War College Maxwell Air Force Base

7. Collins, Martin J. (1999), Space Race: The US-USSR Competition to Reach the Moon Space History Division, National Air and Space Museum.

8. Deblois, B. M et al. (2004), "Space weapons: Crossing the US Rubicon", International Security, 29(2): 50-84

9. Dockrill, Saki (1996), "Eisenhower's New Look National Security Policy, 1953-61", London: Macmillan Press.

10. Jones, Thomas & Michael Benson (2002), The complete idiot's guide to NASA,(Online Web)

11. Kranz, Gene (2001), "Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond', New York: Berkley Books

12. McDougall, W. A. (1985), "Sputnik, the space race and the Cold War", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 41 (5): 22.

13. Sheehan, Michael (2007), The International Politics of Space, New York: Routledge

14. R. Arvamudan (2017), ISRO: A Personal History, Harper Collins


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