Who is behind the progress of ISRO

Indian space travel

The space program was intended from the outset to underpin India's claim to be one of the world's leading powers. Exactly 50 years ago, a handful of scientists in the desperately poor and backward country began to lay the foundations for the conquest of space. In 1975 they succeeded in building the first “Aryabhatta” satellite, which was brought into orbit by a Soviet rocket. Five years later, the Indian SLV launch vehicle took off for the first time with the “Rohini” satellite on board.

“We really started out very small, with a few men and a tiny budget,” says space physicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, one of the pioneers. "Still, there were always people who accused us of wasting money on useless missions instead of fighting hunger."

Indian politics firmly adhered to the program. The country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, used to say, "Only science can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, poor hygiene and illiteracy, problems of a rich country inhabited by starving people." And he was certain that in the future "the countries that have the technology will be among the winners".

The state held a protective hand over the prestige project without succumbing to megalomania. The Indian scientists working with the physicist Vikram Sarabhai, who is considered the father of the program, knew from the start that they could not keep up with the leading nations, the USA and the Soviet Union. They refrained from planning manned missions and did not take part in the race to the moon or other planets. The Indian program should focus on practical applications. "We want to use space technologies to improve the lives of people in India," said Sarabhai. “Space for Development” was the motto.

Right from the start, the Indians built communication and earth observation satellites to research weather, crops, water resources, soil erosion and biodiversity. And they developed launch vehicles to put these satellites into orbit independently of other countries. “We cannot rely on buying these technologies internationally,” says Chandrasekhar. "They are our strategic resource." They wanted to bring social progress to the remote corners of the country, tried to improve urban planning, medical care and educational offers with the help of satellites. Above all, India expanded its telecommunications networks. There are around 800 TV satellite programs on the subcontinent today.

The space industry has recently grown particularly rapidly. In the current year, the Indian government is spending 1.3 billion dollars on the space program - twice as much as in 2005 and about a tenth of the NASA budget. The results are impressive: India has 101 space launches on the account, its launch vehicles brought more than 65 satellites into space. The Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe landed on the moon in 2008, with a second to follow in 2014. A mission to Mars is planned this year, then a solar probe and maybe even a manned space flight in five years.

However, the ambitious plans are met with criticism. In fact, the contrast between the archaic lifestyle of the rural population and the ambitious space projects is enormous. More than 300 million people live in dire poverty. The infrastructure is ailing, in July 2012 the power supply collapsed for two days almost everywhere, affecting 650 million people. "Why does India want to send a mission to Mars when half of its children are malnourished and half of the families have no access to medical facilities?" Asks Jean Dreze, a renowned Belgian-Indian development economist in Delhi. The government of a developing country would have to use all resources to fight hunger and disease first.

India is a country of two speeds and "different realities," counters Krishnan Lal, President of the Indian Academy of Sciences. “On the one hand we have the space missions, on the other hand the large number of ox carts. We cannot get rid of the ox carts first and then conquer space. We have to move forward on all levels at the same time. "

Anyone who wants to discuss the sense or nonsense of the expensive space programs in a developing country like India has to go to Bangalore, where ISRO has its headquarters and where all the major IT companies are located. Bangalore stands for modern India - an India of mirrored office towers and modern shopping centers. The city prides itself on its universities, which are among the best in the country. Above all the Indian Institute of Management, where the country's elite study.

This is where Subramanyan Chandrasekhar teaches. “A big country like India can't just think of bread and butter,” he says. “We need large projects to inspire young people and keep talent in the country. Otherwise the best will emigrate to America. ”He considers the discussion about the costs of the space programs to be idle. "When the raw materials on earth run out in the 22nd century, we have to be technically able to mine them on the moon," he says. "In addition, the Indian satellites have already brought in ten to twenty times the investment made."

There could be a lot more in the future. Because India wants to make its know-how available to other countries. Around 1200 satellites will have to be put into orbit over the next ten years, a market that has annual sales of around $ 180 billion. ISRO wants to secure a share of 20 percent in the cake. In particular, the emerging countries such as Nigeria, Turkey or Indonesia, which do not have launch vehicles themselves, have already inquired.

The goal is ambitious. In three years at the latest, ISRO wants to start one space mission per month, twice as many as today. "It took us 27 years for the first 50 space missions and ten years for the next 50," said ISRO President K. Radhakrishnan last November at the high-level event to celebrate the 100th space mission. "We are planning a total of 58 different missions over the next five years."

India today has two launch vehicles, the PSLV and the GSLV. The former, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, whose maiden flight was in 1997, is the workhorse and has had 21 successful launches. “It is a perfect carrier for Earth observation satellites,” says Susmita Mohanty, CEO and founder of Earth2Orbit, the first Indian start-up in the space industry. The company works with overseas customers looking for launch vehicles for their satellites and designs the architecture to fit the missile.

The state is overwhelmed

The GSLV geostationary satellite launcher was developed to launch telecommunications satellites into orbit. After the unsuccessful first start in 2001, there were three successful missions and three false starts. The last stage cryogenic engine is causing problems for the Indians. “Originally we wanted to buy the license for the cryogenic drive from Russia,” says Chandrasekhar. “But the talks were broken off under pressure from the USA.” The Americans imposed sanctions on India in 1998 after the state tested its own nuclear weapons several times. It was therefore forbidden to sell missile technology to India that could also be used militarily.

“We have to do all of the development work ourselves,” says the physicist. In the coming year the new GSLV Mark III is to start, which is supposed to transport up to five tons of load into the geostationary orbit. India's share of the global satellite business will depend on the success of this launcher, which competes with the American Falcon 9 and Russian Soyuz 2.

Another problem is already emerging: the space industry has grown so large that the state can no longer cope with the tasks on its own. ISRO has reached its limits. So far, the space agency has coordinated and controlled the manufacture of launch vehicles and satellites itself. Around 400 industrial companies, both state and private, produced parts and components under strict supervision, which were then assembled by ISRO engineers. ISRO supplied all of the raw materials required for production, from steel to screws, and made sure that no secret patent leaked to the public. "This model has survived," says the head of the Radhakrishnan organization. "Success makes a rethink necessary."

By 2017, Radhakrishnan wants to hand over the production of entire rockets and satellites to the industry, which will build the complete PSLV launch vehicle and also take responsibility for its quality. ISRO would then concentrate exclusively on the research and development of new carriers and the construction of particularly innovative systems. “This is a real paradigm shift,” says Susmita Mohanty in Mumbai. "If India wants to compete with other space powers, there is no alternative." But can the change really succeed?

The Indian industry has proven in the past 20 years that it is efficient and innovative, and that it is also outside of the IT sector, for example in machine and vehicle construction, that internationally active groups such as Tata, Mahindra, Godrej and Aditya Birla are now successful . But there is currently no company in India that focuses on the manufacture and research of space technology. "That's a disadvantage. They would have to found a consortium in which they bundle their space activities, ”says Ashok Saxena, who has long been managing director of the state-owned aerospace company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and knows the industry like no other. "ISRO, the companies and the government must all sit down at the table."

The corporations are ready to cooperate, but so far the cooperation between the state and the private sector is still underdeveloped. Taneja Aerospace & Aviation Ltd. the only private company in India that builds planes, drones and helicopters. A large part of the production is of a military nature, Taneja Aerospace works closely with the Ministry of Defense. The company has a good reputation. Taneja has been manufacturing the giant rings of the first rocket propulsion stage for ISRO for a decade.

"The industry can do a lot more for the space program than it does today," says Managing Director S. M. Kapoor. He would be ready to take over the quality control from ISRO at any time. India's government could best help industry if it cracked down on protectionism in developed countries. “We are internationally competitive and could also manufacture various elements for NASA and ESA - at significantly lower costs. But these set up innumerable barriers to protect the national industry. "

There are many indications that the government in Delhi is serious about its plans. "In 20 years' time, when space travel will be as normal as airplane travel is today, we don't want to have to buy tickets for other people's space fliers," says Madhavan Nair, the ex-head of ISRO. In recent years, the second launch pad has already been built at the Satish Dhawan spaceport, on which one rocket launch per month is possible. The facility, located on an offshore island in the Bay of Bengal, is connected to the mainland by a dike. There, the villagers can look forward to significantly more start-ups in the future.

But for the ambitious program to succeed, the government must break the socialist mindset of the bureaucracy, which was used to having the last word. “Change will cause problems for a lot of people,” says Susmita Mohanty. “They don't understand that India can make money from the satellite launches. We are sitting on a gold vein and are doing too little to mine the gold. ”---