There was a time when the Indian space and nuclear establishments had to face denial of critical foreign technology. Under the discrimitory Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Mission Technology Control Regime (MTCR), advanced countries shut their doors on India. Fortutely, this country had scientists and engineers to step up and take head on the challenge to develop homegrown technologies. Despite lucrative offers from abroad vis-à-vis bleak prospects here, they stuck to their mission. In their vanguard were men like Late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, under whose leadership a quiver of missiles was added to the country’s arsel. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) kept on doggedly taking its baby steps, and is now crossing one milestone after the other. After making a hash of its first developmental flight with the indigenous cryogenic engine mounted on the GSLV rocket in 2010, the ISRO followed up with three successful flights. And then on Thursday last, the first GSLV operatiol flight with this ‘desi’ engine blasted off and put the 2,211-kg INSAT-3DR weather satellite into its desigted orbit. A last minute technical hitch, did in fact delay the launch. But the ‘ughty boy’ was fixed as the gung-ho ISRO scientists felt they had ‘mastered the cryogens and were no longer scared’. It is this confidence in taking setbacks, minor or major, in their stride, that is coming across refreshingly to the rest of the country wondering about ‘Make in India’. It is coming out that the private sector has been a partner in building the cryogenic engine that runs on supercooled liquid hydrogen fired by liquid oxygen — giving the GSLV rocket enough thrust to lift a satellite weighing 2-2.5 tonnes to a geo-statiory orbit. Having made a commercial success of its workhorse PSLV rockets that are routinely going up with smaller satellites, the ISRO is planning a heavier cryogenic engine to lift 4-tonne satellites and thereby break into the top echelons of the 330 billion dollars satellite business.
In the first part of this year itself, the ISRO took two other encouraging baby steps. Last month, it successfully launched a rocket powered by an indigenously made, experimental ramjet-cum-scramjet (DMRJ) engine. It can operate at both supersonic and hypersonic speeds, guzzling up oxygen from the atmosphere to burn hydrogen fuel. Such ‘air-breathing’ engines have been calculated to be even more powerful and efficient than cryogenic engines, but they present formidable technological challenges. The idea is to reduce the propellant mass that a rocket has to carry, nearly 70 per cent of which is oxygen presently. Space-faring countries are racing to develop technologies to reduce propellant mass and rocket sizes, and thereby improve efficiency in terms of payload to lift-off mass ratios. Another important effort is to make rockets reusable, like the US space shuttles. In May last, the ISRO successfully tested its first reusable launch vehicle. A small aircraft-like winged structure, it was carried up by a booster rocket, and then re-entered the atmosphere to be accurately controlled and guided from the ground to splash down at the desigted spot in Bay of Bengal. So in case of both air-breathing engines and re-usable rockets, the ISRO has made initial but significant headway this year. After the first Moon and Mars missions, a second Moon mission (Chandrayaan-II) as well as missions to Venus and the asteroid belt are in ISRO’s sights, its chairman Kiran Kumar has revealed. So long as the ISRO’s satellite launch costs continue to remain competitive compared to rival tions, its commercial arm Antrix Corporation can be a major player in the market. But its space exploration programmes will need unstinted government support; after all, Prime Minister Modi never tires of reminding people how the ISRO sent its ‘Magalyaan’ orbiter to Mars at just 74 million dollars, barely one-tenth the cost of a comparable SA mission. The success of Indian space planners in keeping things simple, and focusing upon indigenous components and capacity building should inspire other manufacturing sectors. In particular, if this ‘can do’ spirit rubs off strongly on the country’s defence industry — bedeviled by delayed projects and cost overruns, so much the better.