70 years of Independence
Special Feature – I-Day 2017
More than 53 summers
ago, India had successfully put its first signature on space by
launching the US-made ‘Nike-Apache’ two-stage sounding rocket (the first
rocket) from Kerala’s obscure fishing hamlet Thumba.
There were no buildings at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching
Station (TERLS) on Thiruvananthapuram’s outskirts. The bishop's house
doubled up as the Director’s office, the ancient St. Mary Magdalene
church building became the control room and naked eyes tracked the smoke
plume on November 21, 1963. Bullock carts and bicycles carried rocket
parts and payloads to the launch pad.
About 12 years later, in 1975, India launched its first-ever
experimental satellite, Aryabhata, on a Russian rocket. Lacking
infrastructure, scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)
in Bangalore converted even a toilet into a data receiving centre.
From taking its first baby steps in Thumba, the Indian space odyssey has
traversed numerous landmarks. ISRO has emerged as a key player in global
satellite launches and the manufacturing industry. The nation has earned
global recognition for launching lunar probes, built satellites, for
others too, ferried foreign satellites up and even succeeded in reaching
Through these decades, India’s space programme has focused on national
imperatives, and social and economic well-being of society—specifically
in earth observation and application for management of natural resources
in agriculture, water, fisheries, and watershed mapping and development.
Space-based applications like tele-education and tele-medicine have
enabled greater access to rural population to these basic needs.
Space exploration missions have surged ahead during the past three
years. India’s latest communication satellite GSAT-17 on board an Ariane
5 rocket lifted off from French Guiana on June 28. It will strengthen
ISRO’s current fleet of 17 operational telecom satellites and provide
meteorological and satellite-based search and rescue services--earlier
provided by the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT).
In a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to project India as
a global low-cost provider of services in space, ISRO launched on June
23 the PSLV C38 carrying 712 kg Cartosat-2 satellite for earth
observation and 30 other tiny satellites, several of them for European
countries. This was PSLV’s 39th consecutively successful mission.
India entered the big league of space technology on June 5 this year
with the launch of its most powerful, homegrown and heaviest-ever
rocket----the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV
Mk-III D 1)--carrying GSAT-19 communication satellite. The high-tech
3,136 kg workhorse established ISRO’s capability to transport four-tonne
satellites and test a homegrown cryogenic engine, and also paved the way
to send humans, one day, beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Now, Indian
communication satellites can be lofted into space from within the
country. So far, only the USA, Russia, Europe, China and Japan have
launched space satellites weighing 4,000 kg and more.
Earlier on May 5, India catapulted the first-ever South Asia Satellite (SAS)
to boost communication and improve disaster links among its six
neighbours--Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri
Lanka. Following the launch of the 2,230-kg GSAT-9, built by ISRO and
funded entirely by India, on board the GSLV-F09 rocket, the prime
minister had said the "unprecedented" development sent out a message
that "even sky is not the limit when it comes to regional cooperation".
In February, India scripted a new chapter in the history of space
exploration and grabbed world headlines by hurling 104 satellites, a
record, including the Cartosat-2 series satellite, in one mission—aboard
a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV C-37). The rocket carried
payloads from six different countries. The master stroke established
India as the launch service provider for small satellites.
These spectacular achievements have placed ISRO in a commanding position
in the space race. The prime minister's soft spot for space and ISRO
were reflected in a substantial 23 per cent increase in this year’s
budget allocation for the Department of Space.
In 2016, among the major achievements were the successful launching of
the remote sensing satellite RESOURCESAT-2 in December, a record lobbing
of 20 satellites in a single payload in June and three navigation
satellites and the GSAT-18 communication satellite.
ISRO hoisted the GSAT-15 communication satellite and the Multi
Wavelength Space Observator ASTROSAT in 2015. It also ground tested the
indigenously developed high thrust cryogenic rocket engine. Besides,
five satellites were launched in July by PSLV and the IRNSS-1D, the
fourth satellite in the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS),
In December 2014, the communication satellite GSAT-16 was launched. PSLV
hoisted the country’s third navigation satellite IRNSS-1C in October and
the second dedicated navigation satellite IRNSS-1B in April.
In the years ahead, ISRO scientists have a busy schedule. A series of
satellite launches is in the works. In early 2018, the space agency will
launch two lunar missions, Chandrayaan-2, an advanced version of
Chandrayaan-1. The indigenous initiative comprises an orbiter, lander
and rover, which are expected to perform mineralogical and elemental
studies of the lunar surface. The other is in collaboration with Team
Indus, a group of space enthusiasts.
The next grand project is the scientific mission to the Sun for
observing the solar corona (with a Coronagraph--a telescope),
photosphere, chromosphere (Sun’ three main outer layers) and solar wind.
To be launched by PSLV-XL by 2020, Aditya-L1 satellite will probe why
solar flares and solar winds disturb the communication network and
electronics on earth.
Further, ISRO will return to Mars, probably during 2021-2022, with a
second Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft, Mangalyaan 2. Come
September 24, India's first-ever interplanetary robotic probe,
Mangalyaan 1, still going strong, will celebrate three years of landing
on the Red Planet. India had created history by becoming the first
nation to enter the Mars orbit on a maiden mission--also the cheapest
such mission till now.
For the first time, India will have a date with Venus, beyond 2020. The
Venusian oribiter mission will study the planet's atmosphere.
*The author is an independent journalist and columnist, with four
decades of experience in all media streams--print, online, radio and
television. He writes on developmental issues.
Views expressed in the article are author’s personal.