The September 2014 cartoon published by New York Times about India’s Mars Mission was a fluky reminder of the ubiquitous Western haughtiness towards subcontinental science and innovation. Mangalyan, India’s flagship space mission had just entered an elite group of space research giants such as the US, orbiting the planet Mars, making it the first Asian nation to achieve such a feat in the process. The NYT cartoon depicted an Indian farmer with a cow behind him, knocking on the doors of an “Elite Space Club”, whose members were busy reading about India’s achievements. Ignoring the obvious condescension in such gimmicks, it was quite a remarkable feat from a space mission agency whose wings had been clipped as early as twenty-five years ago over the transfer of cryogenic engines by the United States of America. In its iconic 104-satellite launch, 96 of the satellites launched by ISRO belonged to the US.
India’s tryst with galaxy research started way before the formation of INCOSPAR in 1962 (Indian National Committee for Space Research). Through the hands of Meghnad Saha and Vikram Sarabhai, it grew slowly, but quite steadily. ISRO was formed from INCOSPAR in the year 1969. In our last 48 years of space research, we’ve achieved quite a remarkable considering the bare minimum resources we had, and the technologically challenged shanty we started out from.
The launch of GSAT-19, a geostationary communication satellite, in 2014 was a landmark in India’s space research history because of the technological significance it carried. The GSLV-MKIII is an entirely homegrown engine which propels this satellite. India’s conventional launch vehicle, the PSLV can only carry up to 2 tons of payload, and the GSLV will further that limit to 5 tons, which proves India’s competency among the big boys. There is an added historical context behind it which makes this mission so sweet for the ones at home. The GSLV – MKIII has an entirely home-made cryogenic upper stage, the same transfer of technology we were refused at the persistence of the United States.
Cost effective space research has been the hallmark of ISRO’s success. The prestigious Mangalyaan mission cost a fraction of its American and European counterparts. The Chandrayaan Mission of 2008, was considerably cheaper than its preceding lunar missions. It was highly successful, and even discovered large amounts of water molecules on the moon’s surface.
India’s success in space research has earned itself considerable veneration from across the world. A story of a third world country with limited resources at stake achieving such consistent remarkable feats isn’t a story that’s common in the neighborhood. ISRO now ranks with the best space agencies in the world. The father of Indian Space Program, Vikram Sarabhai deserves a lot of credit for his vision. ISRO has already developed its first Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), which has had a successful first test run. A manned space mission is on the cards by 2021, and a second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2 is on the books by 2018. The persistent efforts of the Indian luminaries have made ISRO such a respectable research organization. Is it India’s most consistent department? Well, that’s an answer best kept for the future.