Jag Venugopal's Blog

February 12, 2010

India’s Space Ambitions

Filed under: India — Jag @ 7:54 pm
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There has been a lot of recent talk about India’s space ambitions, whether it be launching an astronaut into space, or landing a man on the moon. Ambitions are great, but it is also time for some realistic thinking.

 The one consistently successful rocket booster that India possesses is the PSLV. This rocket is designed to put a 1600 kg payload into a sun synchronous orbit, or a 1000 kg payload into GTO. The PSLV has notched up a few interesting stunts, such as orbiting 10 satellites all at once. In addition, ISRO has provided launch services on the PSLV to other countries, thus earning some money.

 India has another, more powerful rocket in the GSLV, that can place 2000 kg into GTO. It is on this booster and its progeny that most of India’s space hopes and promises rest. The story of the GSLV though, is still being written. At this point, it is not even a wholly Indian launcher.

 The GSLV’s third stage is a so-called “cryogenic stage”, which burns liquid hydrogen and oxygen. India has been trying to create this engine since at least the late ’80s. The first engine is scheduled to fly in 2010 after multiple delays. Until now, India has had to make do with ready-to-fly engines sourced from Russia. Before the GSLV can achieve true operational status, the Indian engine has to fly multiple times and prove that the GSLV is a consistent and safe launcher. The record on this score is not particularly reassuring at this point: One outright failure, and two partial failures where the satellites were injected into suboptimal orbits (including the latest GSLV flight). Indian journalists are only too happy to swallow ISRO’s press releases about the country joining this “exclusive space club” or that, rather than questioning why after so many years, India still hasn’t mastered the technology. Also accepted without question is ISRO’s constant changing of timetables. The GSLV was supposed to fly sometime in 2007-2008. At best it will fly in 2010 (and if there is a failure, a further delay of 2-3 years).

 The GSLV-III, a medium-lift launcher, capable of transferring about 4000 kg to GTO was supposed to be launched in 2009. The date moved to 2010, and now 2011 is being thrown around. How they can promise a 2011 launch is beyond me, considering that they haven’t flight-tested the 3rd stage engine on its predecessor (the GSLV-III needs a significantly up-rated version of the engine that India’s been struggling to build for the GSLV).

 None of this is meant to denigrate India’s achievements in space, be they in communications, earth-sensing, or weather satellites. However when it comes to launch vehicles, India’s journalists should develop some basic knowledge and call ISRO on its inability to successfully develop the GSLV, even though almost a decade has passed since its first “semi-successful flight”. The mandarins of India’s space program must give a clearer roadmap of how India intends to achieve its ambitions, rather than spouting fancy targets and goals (manned missions, the moon, Mars, …) at random every few days.

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