Jag Venugopal's Blog

April 15, 2010

Come to Jesus moment for the Indian Space Research Organization

Filed under: India — Jag @ 7:40 pm

Going by the self-congratulatory messages that Indian space scientists have been issuing over the past two-three years, one could be mistaken for believing that India was somehow poised to overtake the US in the race for space. The recent failure of a totally indigenous GSLV launcher should bring ISRO back to earth.

The latest creation of ISRO was the much heralded “cryogenic engine” that promised to replace a few Russian specimens purchased on a turnkey basis. Much ink was spilled on how the success of this technology would enable India to join this “exclusive club” or that (one could be forgiven for thinking that ISRO honchos had a country-club fetish). As failures go, this was a particularly embarassing one in that the engine did not even start up properly. Its one thing for an engine to underperform. Its another for the horse to never leave the starting gate.

To any neutral observer, it would be quite obvious that India’s history with satellite launchers is quite checkered (it is so with satellites, too but that is a different topic for another day). Here are some statistics on launcher successes and failures:

Launcher Successes Failures (including “partial”)
SLV 2 2
ASLV 1 3
PSLV 14 2
GSLV 2 4
From the above table, it is obvious that India has exactly one launcher that performs to international standards. This launcher can catapult at most a 1000kg payload into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Much of ISRO’s success over the last three years has been with the PSLV. A fawning press, which should know better, has been heaping fulsome praise on the organization, despite its inability to create a wholly indigenous launcher for two-tonne communication satellites after two decades of effort. A survey of newspaper reports seem to ascribe near-mythical status to ISRO: Specifically how it is an emerging force in the commercial launch market. Nothing can be farther from the truth: the few commercial launches on the PSLV were made for political reasons, not commercial ones. And the one satellite that ISRO made for EADS failed within two weeks of launch.
Yet, to ISRO’s stargazers, even the moon is not the limit. There is talk of a GSLV launcher that will launch a six-tonne payload to GTO. This launcher is expected to be ready by next year (never mind that India still does not have a working cryogenic engine of much lower capacity). Further flights of fancy have Indian astronauts going into space, landing on the moon, launching a lunar buggy and sending a Mars probe. Each passing day brings an even more ambitious goal.
Here’s a suggestion for ISRO: Cut all the fancy talk of sojourning to planets hither and yon, and focus on reliably launching communication satellites to GTO on a working version of the GSLV launcher. Until this is done, put all other programs on hiatus. Better to focus on one goal and succeed, rather than have ten disparate targets and fail to achieve any of them. Also, forget about commercial (read non-political) launches for paying customers for the foreseeable future. Commercial customers like to see your product work reliably before they will pay for it.


  1. Jag, I find your armchair criticism to be a bit harsh. Firstly, it’s the starry-eyed Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission which generated the greatest enthusiasm among the Indian public. Suddenly, the number of applications to ISRO and to Indian Institute of Space Sciences shot up in a way that no multi-ton launch to geo-stationary orbit could have ever done. The international news media in other countries likewise stood up and took notice, many expressing surprise that a country like India could send something to the Moon. That kind of surprise helps to elevate India’s brand, by catching attention to the country’s positive strengths and to overturn the image of India as a land of snake-charmers. By the same token, the media love to gush over India’s “IT success story”, preferring to boastfully cover InfoSys, Wipro, etc, and to overlook the legions of crummy little bodyshops and H1-B rackets. To be fair, the US and NASA are also guilty of dreaming giddily over Constellation – now replaced by Obama’s latest last-minute promises of sending men to Mars – when it’s dependent on Soyuz just to get payloads to the ISS. People always mock dreamers, even while nature is very unforgiving to flights of fancy. But remember when JFK exhorted his countrymen to go to the Moon, the US was clearly much behind the Soviets and had barely popped up Alan Shepherd out of the atmosphere. It was that exhortation however which spurred his nation’s best and brightest to try for a man on the Moon — which they gloriously achieved. Remember the old saying, “If you want to reach the Moon, you’ve got to shoot for the stars.”

    Comment by Sanjay — April 15, 2010 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  2. Comment by Sanjay — April 15, 2010 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

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