PSLV rocket at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at Sriharikota, about 110 km (68 miles) northeast from the southern Indian city of Chennai Photograph:( Twitter )
The space research activities were initiated in India during the early 1960s, when applications using satellites were in experimental stages even in the United States
As India completes 75 years of its independence, it is time to introspect the country’s space programme that has grown and evolved significantly in the last decades.
The programme originally focused on developing space assets that provided direct developmental benefits, for example, telecommunications and remote sensing satellites that helped both in improving communication facilities and giving direct assistance to India’s farmers.
But over time, India has shifted a part of its focus towards space exploration and other high-profile missions. This includes, for example, India’s Mars and Moon exploratory missions.
Overall, India has been fairly successful in these efforts and its space programme has become a comprehensive one that includes not only a robust launch capacity and very large remote sensing satellite systems, but also a very well-rounded scientific and deep space exploratory programme.
The space research activities were initiated in India during the early 1960s, when applications using satellites were in experimental stages even in the United States. With the live transmission of Tokyo Olympic Games across the Pacific by the American Satellite ‘Syncom-3’ demonstrating the power of communication satellites, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of Indian space programme, quickly recognised the benefits of space technologies for India.
As a first step, the Department of Atomic Energy formed the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) under the leadership of Dr Sarabhai and Dr Ramanathan in 1962. Later, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was formed on August 15, 1969. The prime objective of ISRO is to develop space technology and its application to various national needs.
It is one of the six largest space agencies in the world today. The Department of Space (DOS) and the Space Commission were set up in 1972 and ISRO was brought under DOS on June 1, 1972.
In 1984, air force pilot Rakesh Sharma was the first Indian to go into space, riding in a Soviet spacecraft.
Since its inception, the Indian space programme has been orchestrated well and had three distinct elements: satellites for communication and remote sensing, space transportation system and application programmes. Two major operational systems have been established – the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) for telecommunication, television broadcasting, and meteorological services and the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) for monitoring and management of natural resources and Disaster Management Support.
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced that India will allow the involvement of private companies in its space exploration and satellite launch programmes.
Both industries are currently predominantly operated by ISRO.
Planning manned space flights and a space station
India wants to launch its first manned space mission in 2022, to mark the 75th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Codenamed Gaganyaan, a space vehicle in Sanskrit, the project has a budget of almost $1.5 billion.
Gaganyaan will have a crew of two or three people and spend around seven days in low Earth orbit. ISRO says the mission is the first step towards building India’s own space station, which it plans to do in five to seven years.
Months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, India became the first Asian nation to reach Mars when its first mission to the red planet entered orbit, at a cost of $74 million, or less than the budget of the Hollywood space blockbuster “Gravity”.
The country is planning to launch another space probe to Mars along with its first manned space mission by 2022. It has also approved a project to study the sun late next year, and ISRO chairman Dr K Sivan has reportedly said that he wants to reach Venus in 2023.
India is planning these ambitious missions on the back of its development of a range of increasingly large launch rockets, culminating in the GSLV Mk III, which is as powerful as the Saturn V, the rocket that launched the Apollo moon missions”.
India’s already robust space programme has also acquired national security implications over the last decade. This is partly driven by India’s growing technological capacity. But an important reason for this change is the evolving security threats that India faced, especially in relation with Pakistan and China. The perceived need to keep pace with the expansion of Pakistan’s ballistic missile capabilities has become stronger over the years, making India much more willing to consider the utility of such weapon systems. In addition, China’s first successful anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007 suddenly made India’s space-based assets vulnerable. India thus had to consider developing its own ASAT capability, at least as a deterrent to anybody else using ASATs against Indian assets in space.
China’s achievements in space led not only to India’s own ASAT programme, but also to other elements that enhanced the security component of India’s space programme.
As the military characteristics of its space programme are becoming more evident, India is also moving away from its traditional position of non-weaponisation of space to a more nuanced approach to its national space policy. While the official policy itself has not changed, India is beginning to have a much more determined approach to how it wants to protect its assets in outer space as well as its ground infrastructure and the services linked to space.
One of the biggest shifts evident in the last decade is the development of India’s military space capabilities and the establishment of the institutional architecture that supports the new functions and roles for space in India’s national security calculations.
In particular, India established a Defence Space Agency (DSA) in April 2019, which is expected to be the forerunner for a full-fledged aerospace command. It is also establishing a Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO), which is meant to undertake research and development on the capability mix that is required as per the strategy and policy developed by the DSA.
In a first, India conducted a space security table-top war game called “IndSpaceEx” in late July 2019, which involved all the different stakeholders such as the military and the scientific establishment.
This is another reflection of the growing synergistic approach between space and the military. The Indian space programme, thus, is being carried along not only because of its developmental needs, but also because of larger international political factors, such as the heightening international tension, great power competition and the lack of sufficient safeguards, international norms and institutions to protect the non-weaponisation of outer space.
A leader in satellite launches for other nations
There are more than 2,000 working satellites orbiting the earth. Almost half of them belong to US-based organisations, 300 originate from China and roughly half that number is from Russia.
The market for commercial space launches is crowded and competitive, with Russia’s Soyuz and Vega launchers competing with those of the European Space Agency and the reusable rockets flown by US entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation.
Commercial satellites now heavily outnumber those used by the military.
Clearly, India is a leader in this segment. For the nation, as far as space is concerned, sky is not the limit.