Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence at the successful launch of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s latest rocket last week, his words of praise for ISRO and the suggestion that the organisation work towards building a “Saarc satellite” may have given the impression that something special had been achieved. Certainly, ISRO deserves praise for its continued ability to compete in the international satellite-launch market. ISRO has launched, so far, 35 satellites from 19 countries. Last week, the backbone of ISRO’s commercial capability, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C23, put five satellites from France, Germany, Canada and Singapore into orbit in less than 20 minutes. It was a textbook mission, something the ISRO has achieved many times before.
But that itself is the problem. What the prime minister did not say is that ISRO is not exactly stretching its capabilities. The total payload of this mission was well below 1,000 kilogrammes – as has been the case with most Indian satellite launches. Yet even the French satellite launched by PSLV C-23, which weighed 713 kilogrammes, is classified as a “small” satellite. Mr Modi stressed in his speech the fact that ISRO’s Mars mission is cheaper than the Hollywood movie Gravity. But cost effectiveness is not enough. In fact, cost is only one of the important criteria for success in the multi-billion dollar international commercial space market. The more crucial ingredient required for a sustainable presence in that market is the ability to build a launcher that is capable of handling satellites much heavier than the ones launched last week. ISRO is able to do well on the low end of the market because other countries’ satellite launching vehicles carry loads of several tonnes.
Thus, ISRO and its backers in government should not become complacent about its achievements riding on the cost advantage – an advantage that may not sustain for long unless ISRO also increases its load-carrying capacity several times. But, for that, PSLV technology is not enough. What ISRO will need is to get its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) operational. GSLVs can put satellites with a mass of more than two tonnes into orbit. However, ISRO has repeatedly failed with the GSLV. In fact, some of its launches with indigenous engines – as opposed to Russian-made ones – have been outright failures. It is sobering to remember that, although ISRO has been in space for 50 years, a Chinese space programme that began much more recently has long outstripped it. Partly that is because of ISRO’s insulation from criticism, its closed-off institutional structure and the government’s lack of desire to push it.
There is no doubt, of course, that ISRO has taken on some major challenges. The Chandrayaan expedition to lunar orbit, for example, first showed that ISRO could escape Earth’s gravity and cross over into the influence of another celestial body. This ability is now being built upon by the Mars mission, which is a tremendously complex achievement. It is worth noting, however, that getting the Mars mission safely on its way to the red planet was particularly difficult because ISRO did not have anything but a PSLV to use. Had the GSLV been operational, then the various complicated slingshot manoeuvres necessary to escape Earth orbit and start the 300-day journey would not have been needed. Still, the moon missions are not quite complete, and the Mars mission is still on its way. The truth is that ISRO’s primary focus should remain the attempt to stabilise an indigenous cryogenic engine, and thus to get a GSLV working. Things such as a “Saarc satellite” will be but a distraction till that gets done. After all, if the attempt is to compete with China in offering India’s neighbours, such as Bangladesh, the benefits of modern space technology, then that competition will be stillborn if ISRO is stuck with PSLVs and sub-2,000 kg payloads.