The little village that served as ground zero for India’s space program is now a tourist attraction. The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) located a short drive from Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, is where rockets were famously carried on bullock carts and assembled by hand.
It’s a charming, idyllic village. But as the centre of India’s space program, it is also the pinnacle of scientific study in the subcontinent. That’s why it’s no coincidence that the station is the farthest point from both Pakistan and China in mainland India. The research that took place here led to advancements in everything from geo-stationary satellites, interplanetary missions and, of course, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), ostensibly a scientific organ of the Department of Space, has been a world player from its very inception.
The first rocket to shoot off from TERLS was an American sounding rocket named Nike-Apache, on November 21, 1963. Sounding rockets are basic technology, and no small feat for either of the world’s then superpowers, the USA and USSR. But launching them from developing countries across the world strengthened scientific and military cooperation. TERL’s scientifically advantageous location saw many nations participate in experiments from its base. But the USSR emerged as an early ally, reflecting India’s subtle tilt from its policy of non-alignment.
Between 1968 and 1993, the Soviet Union launched an M-100 rocket every week from the spaceport at TERLS. The 1970 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Hydrometeorological Services (HMS) of the USSR and India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), details everything from accommodation for scientific instruments to the type of computers to be used (Minsk II) and passage of USSR equipment from the port of Cochin to TERLS.
In 1968, TERLS was dedicated to the United Nations by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. It had become a global research centre, featuring American, French, Russian and of course, Indian scientists.
The United States, who had taken the lead in the space race by putting men on the moon, was not to be left behind on the Indian subcontinent either. In 1975, a collaboration between ISRO and NASA saw the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) set up. The aim was to provide educational broadcasting to a set of villages using satellite technology. 150 villages across the country were electrified with solar cells, and received broadcasts made by the All India Radio. Much of the programming had to do with agriculture, health and family planning.
The British science writer and inventor, Arthur C. Clarke, who was in Sri Lanka on a personal scuba diving mission, called it the “greatest communication experiment in history”. It was the early birth of satellite education in India. But perhaps, researchers learned more from it than the villagers.
The outcome was a greater understanding of television viewership patterns, the impact of space-research on the socioeconomic sphere and the technical expertise that led ISRO to develop the INSAT series of communications satellites. In 1977, SITE was followed by STEP (Satellite Telecommunication Experiements Project), an Indian experiment using a Franco-German satellite to test the use of satellites for domestic communications.
It effectively answered the question as to whether developing nations should invest in the incredible amounts of time and energy that space research demanded. In 1979, the Vikram Sarabhai Symposium on Space and Development was held in Bangalore by cosmic ray scientist, Yash Pal. The discussions there raised poignant questions about development that ring true even today.
There were clear gains to be made in space research. It was time for India to explore bigger rockets and payloads. On April 25, 1975, India’s first satellite – Aryabhata – was launched on the Soviet rocket C-1 Intercosmos. Eight years later, INSAT-1B was built by Ford Aerospace for ISRO, and launched from the Challenger space shuttle.
Shaking off foreign dependence
Over the decades, the Indian space program achieved what the rest of the country’s industrial complexes could not – technological self-reliance. For a while, India relied on Soviet rockets to reach outer space – the first Indian satellite and astronaut were both sent to the skies on Soviet rockets.
But cooperation between the two nations was marred by eventual geopolitics. With the United States opposing the transfer of cryogenic engine technology to India in 1993, a new deal was made where Russia could sell the engines to India, but not the expertise to make them.
The successful GSLV Mk-III launch that took place on June 5 this week is the result of ISRO’s two decades worth of effort to make their own engines. A cryogenic upper stage is a key technology in building interplanetary rockets. And now, ISRO hopes to rely only on Indian rockets for its future launches, as the GSLV Mk-III allows for payloads up to four tonnes to be sent into geostationary orbit. ISRO’s ambition is to be a major player in commercial space – having already launched 180 foreign satellites in total.
Managing the landmine of geopolitics has become an added responsibility for India’s space policymakers. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to smaller states, with inherited scientific expertise and military-industrial complexes.
Ukraine was one key player. In 2005, India and Ukraine signed a framework agreement on “Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.” Peaceful on the surface, a WikiLeaks document revealed it had more to do with sharing blueprints of semi-cryogenic rocket technology.
Soon after the GSLV test, Kazakhstan approached India for a pact in space collaboration. They’ll join a long list of countries cooperating with India on multiple counts in space. But collaboration with two of the biggest players in Asia, China and Japan, remains dull.
The three countries have largely built indigenous space programs, each adopting a distinct tone.
When they choose to share expertise, it’s either with smaller nations or in transnational projects like the International Space Station (from which India is absent, largely for financial reasons). As Brigadier Rajat Jairat asks in “The Question for Space: The Indian Connect“, could this be a harbinger of an Asian space race soon to come?
If there is a space race in Asia, India is playing it for hearts and minds. At the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Nepal, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a communication satellite to serve the needs of all the South Asian countries – particularly in telemedicine and tele-education. But later offers for financial and technical help from Pakistan were turned down – as India asserted that the satellite was to be a gift, and didn’t need to be a SAARC project that would involve “deliberations and opinions”.
When the satellite was launched on May 5, 2017, Pakistan had withdrawn from the idea of utilizing it at all. The response in South Asia has been lukewarm, with Nepal unsure of what to do with the satellite. Sri Lanka and China, however, responded positively.
The next step would be contributing to the planned BRICS remote sensing satellite constellation – an expected agenda point at this year’s BRICS summit in September.
India is mandated to a humanitarian role in space. As a member of the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, India keeps two Local User Terminals and two satellites, INSAT-3A and INSAT-3D, to monitor distress alerts from the Indian ocean area. The countries that could benefit from satellite-aided search and rescue operations include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
Outside of Asia, India has ties with the European Space Agency (whose Ariane-V rockets were earlier used to transport heavy satellites to orbit) and NASA. NASA’s ties with ISRO are old, strengthened by ever-more-ambitious missions like the 2008 Chandrayaan-I, where an Indian probe discovered water on the moon using NASA instruments.
This year, ISRO set a world record with the number of satellites launched in a single mission. It sparked hopes that India could effectively compete in the low-cost space launch market with emerging private players like Space X. But even with the GSLV Mk-III, ISRO has a long way to go to be a world-leader.
A stellar record in the stars notwithstanding, ISRO needs to consider greater collaboration in space in order to become a truly competitive player. The space agency, renowned for what it can do with a shoestring budget, needs to be given the chance to pull off missions on billion-dollar projects.
Ambition and collaboration will take India to the stars. Every decade, ISRO has eclipsed its efforts in the previous ones. The race to the moon and Mars is the next big milestone for the world’s largest democracy in space.
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