Quantum Leap

Quantum leap: To Mars and beyond

With the successful launch of the Mars Mission, ISRO has proved that it has all the ingredients to become a world class space agency.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   24-09-2014
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By the time you read these lines, India's maiden inter-planetary mission would have coasted past its ultimate test. This was one of the most complicated missions of our national space agency - Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The business of space is costly, complex, competitive and of course, fraught with risks. Executing such missions needs professionalism, top-class scientific leadership, team work and financial as well as political support from national leadership. By executing this mission to Mars in a short span of time and on a shoestring budget, ISRO has proved that it has all necessary ingredients to become a world class space agency.

Though the Indian space programme is 50 years old, we know that the decade of 1960s was spent in early scientific investigations of upper atmosphere using balloons and sounding rockets. The first rocket, a Nike-Apache, launched on November 21, 1963 from Thumba in Kerala, was procured from the US and was considered an academic project. As a formal organisation, ISRO came into existence only in 1969 and the Department of Space was set up in 1972. By this time, man had already landed on the moon and orbiters had been successfully sent to Mars. Some of the top leaders of ISRO now were still in their teens. For instance, Mylaswamy Annadurai, who is the Project Director for the Chandryaan and Mars Orbiter Mission, was a student when America and the Soviet Union had conquered the moon. In this sense, ISRO is a very young space body and its comparison with NASA or European Space Agency would be unfair.

In addition to a relatively late start, our space programme faced hostile international environment right from its initial days. It is highly credible that India could develop its own capability in satellite and launch vehicle technologies despite sanctions and technology embargoes. The first nuclear test in 1974 led to severe sanctions on several scientific agencies including ISRO. The agency was then busy preparing for a satellite launch from the Soviet Union and was also working its own launch vehicle, SLV. We did not even have facilities for conducting ground tests. SLV-3 had to be ground tested at Cologne Portz in Germany. Post-Pokharan sanctions put an end to all such foreign help and supply of electronic and other components. Close cooperation between defence research and space agencies - particularly participation of missile scientist APJ Abdul Kalam in SLV project - had given rise to fears that India was working on a missile to deliver nuclear warheads. Overcoming all such odds, SLV-3 was launched in 1980, followed by first missile a few years later. The saga of sanctions continued in 1990s too. The US prevented Russia from supplying cryogenic technology to India and imposed fresh sanctions after Pokharan-2. Glavkosmos of Russia eventually provided cryogenic upper stage engines for GSLV and not the technology.

This is what makes projects like Mars Orbiter Mission a true example of indigenous technology. And that's why we need to celebrate our space programme.

Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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