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History of Indian Space Research

India's experience in rocketry began in ancient times when fireworks were first used in the country, a technology probably imported from neighbouring China, which had an extensive two-way exchange of ideas with India. By the end of the 18th century, Indian rulers had perfected rockets into a military tool, and when used against the British in warefare, the technology was introduced to Europe, where it became the basis of modern rocket artillery. After India gained independence from British occupation in the 1940s, Indian scientists and politicians recognised the potential of rocket technology in both defence applications, and for research and development. Recognising that a country as demographically large as India would require its own independent space capabilities, and recognising the early potential of satellites in the fields of remote sensing and communication, these visionaries set about establising a space reasearch orginisation


Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was the founding father of the Indian space program, and is considered a scientific visionary by many, as well as a national hero. After the dawn of the space age, with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, he recognised the potential that satellites provided at a very early stage. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw scientific development as an essential part of India's future, placed space reseach under the juristiction of the Department of Atomic Energy in 1961. The DAE director Homi Bhabha, who was father of India's atomic programme, then established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with Sarabhai as director in 1962.

Unlike every other major space programme with the exception of Japan, India's capabilities were not born out of an existing military ballistic missile programme, but instead out of the practical goal of eventually having satellite launch capabilities. From its establishment in 1962, the Indian space programme began establishing itself with the launch of sounding rockets, which was complimented by the position of India near the equator. These were launched from the newly-established Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), built amongst the jungles of Kerala. Initially, American sounding rockets like the Nike-Apache, and French sounding rockets like the Centaure, were fired and used for studying the upper atmospheric electrojet, which until then had only been studied from ship-born sounding rocket launches in the Pacific Ocean. These were soon followed by British and Russian rockets. However, since from day one, the space programme had grand ambitions of developing indigenous technology, India soon began developing its own sounding rockets, using solid propellants - these were called the Rohini family of sounding rockets.

Recognising the need for indigenous technology, and the possibility of future instability in the supply of parts and technology, the Indian space programme endeavoured to indigenise every material supply route, mechanism and technology. As the Indian Rohini programme continued to launch sounding rockets of greater size and complexity, the space programme was expanded and eventually given its own government department, separate from the Department of Atomic Energy. In 1969 the Indian Space Reasearch Organisation (ISRO) was founded from the INCOSPAR programme under the DAE, continued under the Space Commission and finally the Department of Space, created in June of 1972.


In the 1960s, Sarabhai had taken part in an early study with NASA into the feasability of using satellites for applications as wide as direct television broadcasting, and this study had found that it was the most economical way of transmitting such broadcasts. Having recognised the benefits that satellites could bring to India from the very start, Sarabhai and the ISRO set about designing and creating an independent launch vehicle, capable of launching satellites into orbit, and providing the valuable experience needed for the construction of larger launch vehicles in future. Recognising the advanced capability India had built in solid motors with the Rohini series, and that other nations had favoured solid rockets for similar projects, the ISRO set about building the technology and infrastructure for the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV). Inspired by the American Scout rocket, the vehicle would be a four-stage all-solid vehicle.

Meanwhile, India also began developing satellite technology, in anticipation of the remote sensing and commincation needs of the future. India's first foray into space began with the launch of its satellite Aryabhata in 1975 by a Soviet booster. By 1979, the SLV was ready to be launched from a newly-established second launch site, the Shriharikota Rocket Launching Station (SRLS). The first launch in 1979 was a failure, attributed to a control failure in the second stage. By 1980 this problem had been worked out. The first indiginous satellite launched by India was called Rohini-1.


Following the success of the SLV, ISRO was keen to begin construction of a satellite launch vehicle that would be able to put truly useful satellites into polar orbits. Designing of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV} was soon underway, and would be designed as India's workhorse launch system, taking advantage of both old technology with large reliable solid-stages, and new liquid engines. At the same time, it was decided by ISRO management that it would be prudent to develop a smaller rocket, based on the SLV, that would serve as a testbed for many of the new technologies that would be used on the PSLV. The Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), would test technolgies like strap-on boosters and new guidance systems, so that experience could be gained before the PSLV went into full production. This was in line with advice that Wernher von Braun had given when paying a visit to ISRO: "If you have to do anything in rocketry do it yourself, SLV-3 is a genuine Indian design and you may be having your own troubles. But you should always remember that we do not just build on success, we also build on failure".

Rather than indiginously develop liquid engines for the PSLV, the ISRO managed to make a deal which would cut a couple of years from the development of a new engine. In exchange for a modest sum of money, and some Indian help with minor aspects of the production of the engine, France agreed to transfer technology for the Viking liquid engine to India. The deal was probably motivated in part by goodwill, but also by the fact that the French were at the time recieveing little interest from the European community in the development of the Ariane launcher, forcing them to look elsewhere for support. The Indian version of this engine would be called Vikas.

Eventually, the ASLV was flight tested in 1987, but this launch was a failiure. After minor corrections, another launch was attempted in 1988, this launch again failed, and this time a full investigation was launched into the cause, providing valuable experience, specfically because the ASLV's failiure had been one of control - not enough control of the vehicle had been afforded upon removal of the stabalising fins that were present on the SLV, and so extra measures like improved manuvering thrusters and flight control system upgrades were added. The ASLV development had also proven useful in the development of strap-on motor technology.


It was not until 1992 that the first successful launch of the ASLV took place. At this point the launch vehicle, which could only put very small payloads into orbit, had achieved its objective. In 1993, the time had come for the maiden flight of the PSLV. The first launch was a failiure. The first successful launch took place in 1994, and since then, the PSLV has become the workhorse launch vehicle that it was intended as - placing both remote sensing and communications satellites into orbit, creating the largest cluster in the world, and providing unique data to Indian industry and agriculture. Continual upgrading of the performance has increased the payload capacity of the rocket significantly since then.

By this time, with the launch of the PSLV not far away, it had been decided that work should begin on the next class of launch vehicle, intended to place larger satellites into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and thus a launcher partly derived from the PSLV design, but featuring large liquid strap-on motors and a cryogenic upper-stage motor, was devised - the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle. Following the success of the Viking engine acquisition, ISRO had planned to acquire booster technology from the Russian space organization Glavkosmos. The United States, who had begun imposing restrictions on the Indian Space programme when India moved closer to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, opposed the technology transfer on non-proliferation grounds and imposed sanctions against the ISRO in May, 1992. It is debatable whether this action on the part of the USA was at all constructive in non-proliferation, seeing as cryogenic engines are never used in the construction of ballistic missiles, and India has plenty of technical capability to construct rockets anyway - some cite the incident as an example of rules being followed without reason.

Under pressure, Glavkomos halted the transfer of associated manufacturing and design technology to India. The ISRO had not been effected by restrictions in the past thanks to the political foresight of Sarabhai in indiginising technology - until this deal, when elements of ISRO management cancelled indiginous cryogenic projects in anticipation of the deal. Following this, instead of cancelling the deal, Russia agreed to provide fully built engines instead, and India began developing an indiginous cryogenic engine to replace them, in the GSLV-II. There is still some controversy over the issue of the cryogenic engine acquisition, with many pointing to the decision to cancel indiginous projects being a grave mistake - India would have likely had a fully indiginous engine operating by the time the GSLV launched if indiginous development had started from day one. Despite this one uncharecteristic slip in an otherwise extreamly successful programme, and the loss of potential payload capacity over the decade that occurred as a result, the ISRO pressed on.


In 2001, the GSLV successfully launched in its first development flight, despite this, the GSLV has had to suffer payload cutbacks, and has been delayed, leading some to question its usefulness as a launch vehicle. The indiginous cryogenic engine for the GSLV's upper stage will be flown in 2006. It is currently the most powerful Indian launch vehicle in operation. Due to the questionable effectiveness of the GSLV for the needs of the current decade, ISRO began development of a new launch vehicle, the GSLV-III, which despite its name, is not at all related to the GSLV-I/II, but is infact a new heavy launch vehicle, that will incorporate larger versions of proven technology, and be indiginously built. Based around the proven format of liquid main stages and two solid strap-on boosters, the GSLV-III will resemble the Ariane-5 and several other modern launchers. The first flight is scheduled for 2008. Although India has expressed the opinion that it can fullfill space interests without the need for manned missions, the GSLV-III would provide more than enough payload capacity for manned spaceflight.

India also plans to send an unmanned probe to the moon in late 2007, as a first attempt at exploration of the solar system. This project, called Chandrayaan, will use a modified PSLV rocket to send a small probe into lunar orbit, from where it will survey the surface of the moon in greater detail than ever before, in an attempt to locate resources - several other countries including America have expressed interest in attaching payload of their own to the mission. Another more long-term project that has been underway, is the effort to develop a reusable launch vehicle (RLV), similar to many other countries, but only for the launch of satellites. Theoretically such a vehicle, designed on the basis of scramjet technology, would be able to launch small satellites into orbit for a fraction of the cost of current launches, opening up many potential commercial avanues, and making certain satellite technologies feasable for the first time. A scaled-down technology demonstrator is scheduled to fly around 2008. Recently ISRO tested a scramjet air breathing engine which produced mach 6 for seven seconds and it was successful. ISRO is continuing its research about scramjets to be used as RLV after 2010.

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