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India's cryo-engine failure: Beginning not the end

By M D Riti
April 20, 2010 18:48 IST
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It's time that we, as a nation, stopped fearing failure and waiting for instant success in our space ventures. Let us instead applaud the journey, even if it comes at a certain cost to the taxpayer, argues M D Riti.

It took us almost two decades to develop our own cryo-engine. And when we tried it out the first time, on an Rs 330 crore rupee Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, it failed. To most Indians this is just one day's headline news. The games the scientists play, they say, shaking their heads resignedly, as they walk away into their daily survival battles.

To the men and women who have slaved over building this engine at Valiamala -- and many of them have since retired, passed on the mantle to their successors -- it must have been a huge disappointment. As for the high income tax payer, he has long since stopped questioning India's big spend on space research.

The question that nobody is really raising right now is that the cryo-engine, expensive as it may be, is actually a symbol of Indian nationalism and pride. As is our entire space programme. It has always seemed strange that India, with its meager resources, should put down such a high percentage of its annual budget towards space research.

As A P J Kalam, who was one of the first scientists to work on the Indian space programme, says, 'Many individuals with myopic vision questioned the relevance of space activities in a newly independent nation, which was finding it difficult to feed its population. Their vision was clear if Indians were to play meaningful role in the community of nations, they must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to their real-life problems.'

It was this decision taken almost half a century ago, to invest government money that was hard to spare into space research that stood us in good stead when the US declared a two-year ban on the sale of technology and supplies to the Indian space programme in May 1992. The US's bullying did not stop there. Soon after that, the US actually forced the USSR to back out of its agreement to transfer cryogenic engine technology to India.

The US ostensibly objected to India having this technology at that time because we had not signed the Missile Technology Control Regime. However, the Indian Space Research Organisation always believed that the US's real concern was not that India will use this technology to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles, but that our launch vehicle program would speed up and become a threat to its commercial launch services.

ISRO never got worked up about the US sanctions even at that time. The then chairman Dr U R Rao said to this writer, at that time, "We may get some satellite components more easily, once the sanction period ends, but as far as rocketry goes, they were never open with us. We have to be self reliant in critical areas because even if they lift this embargo, they will bring in some other rule."

It really goes to the credit of the Indian space programme that even the US's attempt to twist ISRO's arm by getting the Russian space agency Glavkosmos to back out of its agreement to transfer cryo-engine technology to it did not worry it too much. ISRO immediately began working on developing a cryo engine and simultaneously kept trying to renegotiate its contract with Glavkosmos. Finally, we got some readymade cryo engines from them, but no technology transfer.

ISRO always believed that the US feared its launch vehicle programme for another reason. "Everyone knows that cryogenic technology is not a missile technology," Rao had said to this writer at that time. "I am sure that the embargo is mainly commercially motivated. They want to slow down our launch vehicle development because we will be able to launch satellites for $25 million (about Rs 110 crore), while it costs $75 million (about Rs 330 crore) elsewhere."

Much water has passed under the bridge since then. India's launch vehicle programme has now taken off. We did even launch satellites commercially for other countries, though we are still far from becoming a popular commercial launch seller. Commercial launching is unlikely to ever take off big time in India because the Indian space program has other very clear priorities.

The story of Indian space research really began with Vikram Sarabhai, the man who is called the father of Indian space research. Sarabhai was in his twenties when he returned to India from England, where he had gone to study, and began working with C V Raman in Bangalore. In 1962, the Department of Atomic Energy set up a committee headed by Sarabhai to organise a national space programme.

Interestingly, the history of Indian rocketry goes back to long before Sarabhai or even independence. The first Indian rockets were probably the ones used by Tipu Sultan in the battles of Srirangapatna in 1799. Two Indian rockets even found their way to a museum at Woolwich in Britain, and inspired William Congreve to build one more of the same kind there!

The two primary aims of Sarabhai's space programme was that we should develop our own satellites as well as the rockets or launchers to put them into orbit. The satellites would have two main objectives: Remote sensing and communication. The Americans were closely involved with the programme at this stage, and US National Aeronautics and Space Agency engineers actually helped the early ISRO recruits to launch an American sounding rocket from the launching pad on Thumba beach in Kerala.

Sarabhai himself had anticipated criticism of the big government spend on the space programme, and had said, 'There are some who will question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation.' He himself believed passionately that only space research would help India 'leapfrog' (his favorite word) into the 21st century, but only if it is concentrated entirely on applying advanced technologies to the real problems of the people. He had actually cautioned the government against 'having the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in exploring the moon or the planets.'

The high budget allocations to space research have always been resented, although covertly, by the rest of the Indian scientific community. But as Rao told this writer, "If space is getting a lot of money and attention from the government, it is only because it provides a lot of essential services to the country. Space is not being given importance because it is hi-tech or glamorous, but only because it takes science to the poor man."

The truth of this statement cannot be denied. We use our cell phones without being under the control of big brother superpowers today because we have an independent space programme. We may not be competing internationally to sell launch services, and we may not have put a man on the moon all on our own yet. But we give our farmers scientific data on weather and soil conditions.

So, aren't we all proud to belong to one of the world's relatively advanced space faring nations? And we are reaping big benefits. We have amazing telecom benefits all of which come from our own indigenously developed satellites that are in orbit.

Well, why can't we just pay other countries that have commercial satellite launching services to put our satellites up into orbit? The answer to this question is that after we became free of colonial rule, we as a nation chose a path of independence in atomic energy and space. We had become tired of being forced to give bigger countries power over us.

India uses its satellites communication network, which is now one of the largest in the world, for applications such as land management, water resources management, natural disaster forecasting, radio networking, weather forecasting, meteorological imaging and computer communication.

Space technology made telemedicine possible by directly connecting patients in rural areas to medical professionals in urban locations via satellites. Rural patients in remote areas are diagnosed and treated by doctors in cities in real time through video conferencing.

India's satellites and satellite launch vehicles have had military spin-offs. In its early years, Sarabhai and even Satish Dhawan, when he was ISRO chairman, opposed space research having military applications. Eventually, however, the Defence Research and Development Organisation borrowed people (Kalam and some of his associates) and technology from ISRO. The IRS and INSAT satellites were primarily intended and used for economic applications, but they also offered military spin-offs.

So can we stop right here, since our space programme is already doing a lot, and not spend more money developing a cryo-engine. Not really. You cannot stop the progress of technology or science research just because it has achieved certain objectives.

It's time that we, as a nation, stopped fearing failure and waiting for instant success. Let us instead applaud the journey towards independence, even if it comes at a certain cost to the taxpayer.

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M D Riti