With this, India would have come to the end of a triumphant trajectory that began with the sounding rocket about three decades ago. The GSLV will be able to launch satellites weighing two tonnes to a height of 36,000 km, which means that India wouldn’t have to rely on other countries to launch its satellites. In principle, GSLV will also give the country the capability to go to the moon or the planets. The space programme, however, has been geared to more practical ends; to bring telephone and television to every home, to use space technology to forecast the weather, to provide disaster warnings. And the much-acclaimed remote sensing satellites are being used to find water, an application that few countries have used as extensively.
The wonder is that all this has been achieved with funding that, by international standards, is considered frugal. When ISRO was officially formed in 1972, its budget was Rs 100 million. This has increased steadily over the years to the current Rs 9.22 billion ($ 260 million). The US budgets more than $ 15 billion for its space programme which, of course, is more ambitious and includes projects like the space shuttle. China, which has a more comparable space programme, is estimated to spend around $ 5 billion.
But officials point out that the key factor in this success has been the unwavering support of the political establishment for the space programme. This has given ISRO a freedom rare for a government department and allowed it to develop a flexible management and administrative system. Much of the credit for this, according to the space community, goes to Satish Dhawan who, along with Sarabhai, enjoys a haloed reputation in ISRO. If Sarabhai was the visionary. Dhawan was the builder, but the latter, true to form, denies his stellar role in ISRO’s development. “It wasn’t my doing. I joined only in 1972, ISRO existed before that.”
The first decade was the toughest. When Sarabhai established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in 1963, few took the space programme seriously. R Narasimha, ISRO professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and Space Commission member, says the Americans were convinced the Indian space programme wouldn’t amount to much. Narasimha, who was at Caltech in the US in the sixties, recalls: ‘There were food shortages in India and the US was giving us grain. How could a country which couldn’t even feed itself start building rockets and satellites? They did not think that India would be able to develop the technologies.”
Sarabhai and his band of young scientists proved them wrong but it was a painstaking process, beginning with the simple sounding rocket. These lightweight rockets go up to a height of 100 km, and are used to study a phenomenon called the equatorial jet. Pramod Kale, who moved from the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad (Sarabhai was director of PRL) to the rocket technology group of TERIS in 1966, says: ‘It took us three years to build the first rocket. We had a large number of failures.”
Once a rocket took off when the warning siren was switched on, a full three minutes before the actual time for launch. Another day, a rocket took off horizontally without even being fired. Some of the rockets did not reach the required heights.
But the sounding rocket was only a stepping stone to the real thing: the satellite launch vehicle. As Sarabhai conceived it, SLV was to launch a 35 kg satellite at a height of 400 km. The design, begun in 1970, was not original; it resembled the US rocket Scout closely. Sarabhai decided that the vehicle would have four stages, all of them using solid propellants.
A P J Abdul Kalam, now the defence ministry’s scientific advisor, has an interesting story to illustrate Sarabhai’s vision.
The French had a three-stage rocket called the Diamond PC. They wanted to add a fourth stage to this and were on the lookout for a suitable partner. Sarabhai wanted the fourth stage of SLV-3 to be the fourth stage of this rocket. Says Kalam, who was then in charge of the fourth stage: ‘It was amazing. India had never built a satellite launch vehicle before and the SLV was only on the design board. And still Sarabhai thought this possible.’'
It took quite some doing, but Kalam was able to convince the French of India’s capability. Unfortunately though, Sarabhai died a year later; and the French also dropped the Diamond PC project. Yet, in some ways, Sarabhai’s dream was fulfilled after a decade. The SLV’s fourth stage went on the French Ariane rocket, when it launched India’s Apple satellite.
Kind courtesy: BusinessWorld
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