'GSLV will fulfill the last element of Sarabhai's vision'
(This interview was published before the ISRO aborted the test flight.)
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Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman Dr K Kasturirangan is probably the tensest Indian you will find today, March 28.
This afternoon he will know whether his latest project, the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, on which the country has spent over Rs 4.5 billion, will succeed.
Now on a 24-month extension, Dr Rangan, as his colleagues call him, is in his seventh year as the head of India's space programme. Besides his charge at ISRO, this efficient, soft-spoken space scientist is the secretary to the Department of Space, Government of India.
Dr Rangan took time off from his busy schedule to meet M D Riti in Bangalore for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Why is the GSLV almost two decades behind Dr [Vikram] Sarabhai's schedule and a decade behind the ISRO's own plan?
Sarabhai's vision was not limited to the GSLV. It involved using the space systems of even other countries to evaluate their efficacy, and then become self-reliant, build our own satellites, first experimental and then operational for remote sensing, communications and so on. And then develop our own vehicles to launch our satellites from the Indian soil. So it's a large agenda, vast in scope.
We have been taking this vision step by step and translating it into concrete actions. If you look at it, we began by using space systems from outside, evaluating them and then put down our own framework to make them in India. Next, we built experimental satellites like the Apple and Bhaskara.
Right at the beginning of our space programme, we separated the design and development of satellites from launch vehicles. This is because on one side we have satellite technology that could be fully evaluated, tested on the ground and simulated, and could hence be moved in an accelerated fashion. On the other side, launch vehicles are more complex in terms of technology and the uncertainties of ground simulation. They have to be evaluated through a series of protracted flights and test flights. This called for a larger timeframe.
This is why we were able to operationalise the IRS much before we could operationalise the launcher PSLV [Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle], which is to launch the IRS satellites. Similarly, the INSAT system continues to be launched with foreign launchers. Soon, we will be launching them with the GSLV.
The major milestone we are achieving today is the first step towards evaluating our design and development of the GSLV, which can put a two-tonne satellite into geo-synchronous orbit. This will fulfill the last element of Sarabhai's vision.
So it has been a very systematic process of achieving this long-term vision, spread over almost three decades. This is a very reasonable timeframe for any country, especially a country like India with limited infrastructure and industrial base.
If the object was to make it possible for us to launch two-tonne satellites, why is the GSLV going up with only 1,530 kg of payload now?
One likes to evaluate as many parameters as possible in the first flight of any launch vehicle. We normally make sure that there are enough margins in every level. We have erred more on the positive side to make sure that these margins do not come in the way of a successful flight. Obviously, the overall mass of the payload itself comes down. Slowly, in subsequent flights, you develop more confidence and make the margins less. This is a standard strategy for all launch vehicle programmes. Our own PSLV started with 800 kg on its first flight. Now it can carry 1,200 kg. The Delta launcher began with 500-600 kg, and now goes on to more than two tonnes. Optimisation comes slowly with the confidence you gain.
Do you think that by the third flight you will be able to put an INSAT into space? Will you then start marketing the GSLV?
We have established a criterion that we need two successful flights of the GSLV, which will qualify the vehicle for INSAT satellite launches. On the basis of our evaluation of the first two flights, we will decide either to make the third flight operational or wait longer. If everything goes well with this flight, we will attempt one more launch in a year's time. The third flight, two years from now, can take an INSAT.
What is the idea behind setting up a second launch pad at the Sriharikota space station?
The existing launch pad was built over a decade ago. Today we have a clear direction for our launch vehicle programme, which goes far beyond the PSLV. The existing pad had to be changed to take into account the GSLV, the handling of the cryo fluids and so on. We will bring to the second launch pad the enormous experience we have now garnered as well as worldwide developments on preparation of launch vehicles, moving them to the launch pad, servicing of these vehicles at mobile service towers, and so on.
The second launch pad can fly PSLV, GSLV and even the advanced versions of the GSLV with larger size boosters. The total period for which the launch vehicle needs to be at the mobile tower is also greatly reduced, and just 4-5 days is sufficient. Now, we have to keep the launch vehicle at the pad for 30 days or more. We will prepare the entire system at the vehicle service centre and the vehicle integration bay, and then move the nearly integrated vehicle into the launch tower.
This pad will only be ready by the end of next year. So this GSLV will, of course, be launched from the original launch pad. The first pad will continue to be used too.
What will you price GSLV launches at when you start marketing them? Your predecessor Dr U R Rao told me seven years ago that he estimated a GSLV launch at about US $ 25 million.
The GSLV was developed to launch the INSAT class of satellites, which weigh about two tonnes. There are not too many two-tonne satellites elsewhere in the world for communications. They are all three, four and five tonnes. But there should be niche areas in the market that we could exploit. The vehicle can be programmed for many objectives, and not just to put satellites into the geo-synchronous orbit. Currently we have not done market assessments for putting this category of satellites into orbit. We are waiting for our first successful launch to do that. Until then, we have not arrived at a flight price that we can tell the global user community.
How far has the ISRO progressed in developing indigenous cryo engine technology?
It is going on. In the last 2-3 years, we have mastered several technologies related to cryo engine development including the materials, development of pumps, gas generators, processes for fabrication and assembling including vacuum raising. So there is a whole host of technologies that come along with this. We have evaluated all these processes, overcome the problems related to these aspects.
It is against this background that one should see the first engine that we tested last year. We got good data and results out of that engine. In fact, the engine even performed for a few seconds according to the expected specifications. Taking all this into account, we should be able to now complete in the coming months a series of tests on the engine, leading to a full level of testing in the next one year or so.
We are also working on the stage configuration. The stages, as you know, are more than just the engine. The engine is a propulsive element. The stage carries the fluids, the propellants, and it also has control walls, plumbing, regulators and a whole host of things that allow it to work as a whole propulsive model. This also we are now working on. We should start the testing of the stage also in a year or a year-and-a-half's time.
These are complex areas. As of now, once we move through a few tests and reach a level of confidence, we can set up a very concrete timeframe and a stage that is very indigenous. I am confident that by the time we use up the seven stages that are imported from Russia, we will be in a position to replace them with our own indigenous stages.
How is the relationship of the Indian space programme with the US now? Post embargo and after the Glavkosmos deal for cryo engine technology transfer fell through on US intervention?
We are still under sanctions, as everyone knows. Certainly, we have maintained a level of contact with National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. In fact, we have an agreement with NASA and NOVA, and the Department of Science and Technology and ISRO. We have a programme of sending them INSAT data and its meteorological data. We have another programme of exchanging data and research in areas of atmospheric sciences, where primarily it is the meteorological department that is concerned.
But we are in touch with some senior NASA scientists too. We hope that things will improve and we will have a better relationship. We have certainly seen to it that we have good contact with these agencies. But consistent with the limitation that a sanction imposes, we have not been able to move as well with them as we would have liked to. We hope this will happen in the coming years.
Many feel that it is not because India did not sign the MCTR [Missile Technology Control Regime] but really the fear that the GSLV will give them a run for their money in space business that led to the sanctions against ISRO.
I would hesitate to give any reasons why this embargo is on. As you know, national development is the primary objective of all our programmes. We conduct all our activities with such transparency. We make sure that people in space technology elsewhere know what we are doing. So I would not venture on any explanation on why this sanction still exists. I would say instead that I look forward to it being removed soon. It is not something we need to do research on.
What will be the next launches? Both of satellites and launchers?
This year is going to be a bit busy. The GSLV goes up now. It puts an experimental satellite up. Immediately following is the PSLV with an advanced technology satellite, primarily to prove a number of technologies that are to prove the future remote-sensing satellites, particularly the cartographic satellites. There are technologies that are to be proved in terms of mobility, agility, improved sensor and control systems, better camera systems. We are planning to prove these technologies in forthcoming flights. This flight will also carry two piggyback satellites, one from Belgium called Prova and the other called Bird from Germany. But this will be a triple launch like we did last time. This mission will happen in the middle of this year.
Closely following will be the INSAT-3C, a communication satellite that will considerably augment the C-Band capacity in space, and also extended C-Band. That is now in the advanced stages of testing and hopefully will be launched in the middle of the year, from an Ariane launch vehicle in French Guyana.
The fourth one we are launching either at the end of this year or early next year is a meteorological satellite. We plan to launch an exclusive meteorological satellite with a very high-resolution radiometer, including water vapour channels. This particular satellite, which will be under one tonne, we plan to launch with the PSLV in a geo-synchronous transfer orbit configuration. We are trying to use the GSLV up to a tonne or so, to put the satellite into a GTO, and after that, we will use satellite engines to take it to its ultimate geo-synchronous orbit.
We are getting ready INSAT-3A, which is another communication satellite, but along with a meteorological payload. We are also working on an INSAT-3E, which will augment further the capacity of transponders in space.
And lastly, we are working on the RESOURCESAT and the CARTOSAT, which are progressing well and will go up either at the end of the next year or early 2003. This is our schedule. It's quite a tight one.
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