From Aryabhatta to Mangalayan, and with more than $100 million earned through launching 45 foreign satellites belonging to 19 countries till date, ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) has come a long way. The silent revolution of space boys over the years has paid off. If India can be proud of something homemade or rather Make in India, then it is ISRO. The first satellite Aryabhatta was launched by it on April 19, 1975, and on September 9, 2012 – in a period of 37 years – ISRO successfully launched its 100th space mission. India had started its indigenous space programme with the launch of sounding rockets in the sixties. By the eighties, India became the seventh country in the world capable of launching satellites with indigenously made rocket technology.
Facing the challenges of fulfilling its aim to make civilian explorations, ISRO barely found its initial days an easy ride. There was no proper infrastructure, and the scientists lacked experience. International technological assistance was not very forthcoming. Some international funding was available in the beginning, but after the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1974, the global powers shut their doors to India for advanced technologies. International aid was also restricted, despite the fact that ISRO’s space programme was intended for social objectives like management of land and water resources, meteorology, education and communication. Indian space scientists and researchers were severely constrained by the lack of exposure and expertise and had to build their knowledge entirely on their own. Despite technical constraints, ISRO scientists and engineers built a good base.
ISRO’s major turning point came around mid-2000s. It was at that time that it became confident enough to conceive of satellites to Moon and Mars and even of human space flight endeavours. The launch of Mangalyaan, the mission to Mars, in 2014 was the high point of its accomplishment. India became the first nation in the world to have entered the Mars orbit in the first attempt. European, US and Russian probes managed to orbit or land on the planet after several attempts. Mangalyaan was built to precision and it was built at a low cost. The total cost of the mission was Rs 450 crore, making it the cheapest Mars mission in the history of space explorations. The Mars mission helped ISRO and collectively the country’s space scientist community to showcase its technological prowess. Although the countries with or without space technology had begun to appreciate India’s indigenous expertise in space research and technology, it was Mangalayan that, so to say, literally took ISRO to Mars. India began to attract more foreign customers to place their orders for relatively cheaper, better satellites. Today ISRO is earning forex for the country. Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, has signed pacts to launch 28 satellites for six countries including Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Singapore and the US and Algeria between 2015 and 2017.
Currently, India is planning to develop indigenous version of regional navigational system and would be launching a satellite for Indian Navy soon. ISRO achieved a major milestone in its next generation launch vehicle the GSLV MkIII this April. The successful long duration of hot test (635 seconds) proved ISRO’s capacity in mastering cryogenic technology. The engine design was made with the help of indigenous experts from areas like fluid dynamics, combustion, thermal, structure, metallurgy, fabrication, control components.
Today when ISRO is set to go full throttle we must not forget the humble beginnings of the country’s space research. Under the leadership of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who is known as the father of India’s space programme, the Indian National Committee for Space Research was set up in 1962. It started off at Thumba, Kerala. The centre was renamed as Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre. Sarabhai was given a cowshed and cattle feed outlet to set up his first laboratory. However, backed by the government of newly independent India that wanted to build respect for the country in the world, a team of rocket engineers went the US. The team had a bright young scientist APJ Abdul Kalam who years later became President of India. The nation must salute Sarabhai, Kalam and all other scientists and engineers who have put ISRO on top. ISRO’s accomplishment is not only in sending foreign satellites in orbit. It has the largest number of remote sensing satellites in the world which provide information from mineral studies to crop status. Their signals are spread all over from Oklahoma to Thailand, Japan to Dubai to Saudi Arabia. For a country that hasn’t got electricity in every village, a space organization of this stature looks unbelievable. It is unbelievable indeed and it is all Made in India. Come September, and the country will make it to the Red Planet with ISRO!