M D Riti reports for the GSLV launch
  March 27, 2001     HOME | NEWS | SPECIALS














Part 2

'A single GSLV flight can work out to Rs 4.5 billion'

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First the Russians promised a prefect rocket engine technology at less than Rs 2.5 billion. But finally they sold the Indian Space Research Organisation just seven engines for something close to six times that cost. And there was no technology transfer.

Then, just as the ISRO was getting over that, the Kerala police arrested the project's director, accusing him of being a spy. Now the scientist in question, S Nambinarayan, has been cleared of all charges. Recently the National Human Rights Commission awarded him a compensation of Rs 1 million, to be paid by the Kerala government.

These are just two of the challenges that the ISRO had to overcome in its endeavour to build the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, the last generation satellite launcher conceptualised by Indian space vehicle designers some decades ago.

The GSLV, which is readying for its first test flight on March 28, is two decades behind the schedule set by Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space research programme. Sarabhai had wanted the launcher ready by the early 1980s.

Dr K Kasturirangan For their part, ISRO scientists point out that it is better to be safe than sorry, that they only operationalise a new generation of satellite launch vehicle when they are sure that it is completely ready for use. The huge costs involved make this the only option.

"A single flight of the GSLV can work out to about Rs 4.5 billion," says ISRO Chairman Dr K Kasturirangan, who is also the secretary, department of space, Government of India. "You can say that three GSLVs will have cost us Rs 14 billion."

THE space profile for the 1990s, drawn up by the ISRO, had envisaged the launch of the first GSLV by the end of 1995, the second a year later, and three more before 2000.

However, this depended on the ISRO's agreement with Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency, to transfer cryogenic engine technology to India. The US forced the USSR to back out of the deal in the early '90s, ostensibly because India had not signed the Missile Technology Control Regime. But the ISRO believes that the US's real concern was not that India would launch Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles through this technology, but that the GSLV would make India a serious player in the space business.

The original technology transfer deal with Glavkosmos finally became a contract to supply four cryogenic stages to ISRO. Then, three more stages were commissioned and transacted at a huge additional cost.

"We will be paying an additional three million dollars per stage for three more engines," says Dr Kasturirangan. "Each stage will be for one GSLV, so we can go up to seven GSLV flights with these imported stages."

"Everyone knows that cryogenic technology is not missile technology," says Dr U R Rao, former chairman of ISRO and member of the Space Commission. "I am sure that even the US embargo on the sale of technology and supplies to the Indian space programme was commercially motivated. Now that our GSLV is ready, we will be able to give them a run for their money."

'Cryogenic' is of Greek origin, from the word kryo, meaning icy-cold. The science of cryogenics deals with the production of low temperatures and its use. It dates to 1877 when oxygen was first liquefied in small quantities at -183 degrees centigrade.

The ISRO started developing cryogenic engine only in 1994. And almost at once disaster struck. Dr Nambinarayan, who then directed the prestigious cryogenic system project of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Valiamala, Kerala, and another space scientist Shashi Kumar were alleged to be conspiring with anti-nationals through two Maldivian women.

The ISRO spy scandal, as it came to be called, rocked the Kerala government, then led by K Karunakaran, and eventually led to its downfall in 1995. Later, after months of investigation, the Central Bureau of Investigation completely cleared Nambinarayan and Shashi Kumar. The ISRO reinstated them, but their career graphs were permanently affected.

"Until all that trouble blew up, I was very happy with my life and work in Kerala," says Nambi, as his friends affectionately call him. "After that, I was glad to leave Kerala, at least until all the loose talk blew over.

"ISRO had suspended me for a while when I was arrested. But they vindicated me after conducting a detailed enquiry. My organisation has been most supportive throughout: I just wish everyone else had been so considerate."

Nambinarayan is now director of advanced technology and planning, ISRO, at Antareeksh Bhavan in Bangalore. He is due to retire next year. He has filed a case against the Kerala government in the Kerala high court and is awaiting its outcome.

SPACE research was once a symbol of friendship between India and the erstwhile USSR. Rakesh Sharma's expedition into the cosmos on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz-T was largely a public relations exercise to celebrate this friendship almost two decades ago.

Ironically, the Americans too were closely involved with the Indian space programme at its inception. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration trained the first few Indian space engineers ever, and even helped launch the first American rockets ever sent up from the Thumba launching station near Thiruvananthapuram.

But for a programme that began as one visionary's dream, backed by the patriotic zeal of a handful of young men he hand-picked, it is another big step towards what the newly independent India set out to achieve -- self-reliance and self-dependence.

"We used to assemble the rockets ourselves, carry them personally to the launch pad, check out the systems, go back to the control room and press the button to activate them," recalls R Aravamudan, one of Sarabhai's original team, now an advisor to the ISRO.

"We put into the process the kind of mental and emotional energy that one normally invests in personal domestic matters. Those days were tough, but there was a kind of warmth and family atmosphere then that has now gone forever.

"But," he continues, "that is a minor casualty. It would have been a tragedy if we had remained a provincial family assembling and launching provincial rockets using imported equipment."

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