Jag Venugopal's Blog

December 28, 2010

What Ails the Indian Space Research Organization?

Filed under: India — Jag @ 10:49 pm
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Christmas was a disappointment for most Indians that are space enthusiasts. India’s heaviest rocket yet, the GSLV, designed to loft 2000 KG payloads into a geostationary orbit failed for the second consecutive time. The last time, it was a new 3rd stage engine that India was trying to indigenize which failed. This time, the rocket failed at the first stage itself. What’s particularly galling is that China crossed this threshold quite a while ago with its Long March rockets.

I don’t know much about spacecraft beyond what a person with a general science background could discern. Thus I am no expert of any sort in commenting on the issues ISRO faces with its rockets, but at least a few problems stand out:

1. Insufficient attention to quality control: If it turns out that this GSLV was lost due to a malfunctioning component, this would be the second such instance. A previous GSLV was lost because a $2000 valve malfunctioned. Previous satellites have been lost prematurely due to failure of key components (e.g. the much heralded Chandrayaan sent to orbit the moon failed within half its designed lifespan; a satellite built for EADS failed within days of launch; various INSATs have experienced failures of some or all of their components).

2. Trying to do too many things all at once: You have to learn to walk before you can run. And you better get your walking under control before you even talk of entering the 100-meter dash. ISRO still does not have a reliable rocket that is capable of lifting 2000 KG, yet each day brings even fancier targets: one day it is for a new rocket to launch 5000 KG payloads. Another day it is for an RLV (a reusable launch vehicle). A third day, it is to launch a couple of (grandly named) Vyomanauts into space (God bless them if they go on the GSLV), yet a fourth day, it is to launch payloads to the moon and Mars. To me it appears that ISRO is trying to do too many things at the same time, without first perfecting the basics.

3. Not enough oversight: ISRO has a relatively large budget for a poor country. The question is — who is supervising it? It is supposed to be under the Department of Space, a portfolio handled by the Prime Minister. Mired as he is in various corruption scandals involving his government, I am not sure he even knows that he’s supposed to oversee ISRO’s affairs. It is not clear whether anyone in the Prime Minister’s office is actually supervising their charge, setting priorities and ensuring that the right managers are hired and poor ones fired.

Ultimately, ISRO can build upon its past achievements, but only if it is realistic about what it can achieve, and the entire organization focuses on a few critical priorities first. A good goal for the next decade is to focus completely on reliably manufacturing and launching geostationary satellites for domestic as well as international consumption, with the stretch goal of building a moon orbiter or two. I am sure that the Vyomanauts can wait.

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