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Space Ambitions

Aim for the moon


Come September and India must prove that its space ambitions are indeed made of sterner stuff. Two recent global developments have contributed to making the next few months crucial for ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), the country's space agency. First, China recently demonstrated its mastery of docking technology (in which one spacecraft docks with another that is already in space) as a precursor to possibly becoming a major player on the International Space Station (ISS) project. And then last month, SpaceX, a private company from the US, successfully launched and docked a heavy cargo vessel at the ISS, presaging perhaps a fundamental shift in the global space industry - government agencies are now no longer the only players in space. In fact NASA, America's space agency, is looking to outsource a fair deal of commercial work to private contractors like SpaceX.

ISRO-watchers, meanwhile, wait with bated breath to see the outcome of a crucial rocket launch this 'September-October', in ISRO parlance. And according to many, including ISRO bosses, this developmental test flight of its flagship Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) will define the contours of India's space plans over the next 25 years.

In the near future, this GSLV mission will determine the fate of two historic space proposals currently penciled in for implementation in the next five years - the second moon mission, Chandrayaan-2 in 2013-14, and India's Human Space Flight (HSF) programme, tentatively proposed for 2016-17. If the GSLV flight fails, as it did when last launched in 2010, the moon mission will be put off or, worse, even get cancelled. And any proposal for human space flight will not even receive consideration, let alone approval from the Central government. This could set India back by more than a decade in the new space race.


The September-October launch is rendered more important by being a completely 'Indian' one - the rocket is of entirely Indian origin, and more importantly, its vital cryogenic third stage and engine are of entirely indigenous design. Two successful flights (the standard global norm) of such an Indian GSLV would establish that India can fly heavy rockets on its own, and not rely on imported (Russian) cryogenic technology (engine and stage), which has been the case so far.

Indigenous cryogenic technology is the only way to get on the high table of space. Most GSLV flights, while successful, have used Russian technology. Two launches with Indian cryogenics (in April and December 2010) failed. "Success is absolutely essential to establish credentials that an Indian rocket is capable of flying on Indian cryogenic technology, " a space official said.

India's second moon mission needs the GSLV, and an Indian GSLV at that. "Only if the moon mission succeeds with an Indian GSLV can it be heralded as a completely Indian one. India could fly its second mission on a foreign rocket but cannot then claim credit that an 'Indian' moon mission had succeeded, " ISRO scientist and Chandrayaan programme director M Annadurai told TOI-Crest. "Plus, the second moon mission requires a GSLV, not a PSLV, which was deployed in the first mission, Chandrayaan-1.

Chandrayaan-2 is flying a rover and a lander to the moon, and also an orbiter or satellite. The distance to the moon, the heaviness and the propellant required to get the lander and rover to the moon's surface require a powerful rocket like the GSLV, " says Annadurai.

A GSLV test failure will mean that the Chandrayaan-2 mission would have to be moved from the 2013-14 timeframe to 2014-15, even if subsequent GSLV flights succeed. Repeated failures would, of course, mean the mission being called off altogether.


The GSLV's success is also essential for ISRO's human space flight (HSF) programme, in which India plans to launch two Indian astronauts into space from Sriharikota. A variant of a heavy lifter like the GSLV is obviously required for such a task. In fact all technologies that would be proven on successful GSLV launches would be transferred to the HSF programme. But such a programme also requires mastery of extremely complex re-entry technology. A space capsule, after travelling in space and Earth orbit, has to re-enter the atmosphere and look to withstand the tremendous heat (up to 5000F) generated during re-entry. But if the GSLV itself remains unproven, would ISRO be able to venture into such complex technological terrain as developing advanced heat shields and retro rocket technology? U R Rao, a former ISRO chairman, is quite categorical, "The material we need to develop for the spacecraft to be able to withstand immense heat during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere has to be the best technology. The Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003 is a reminder that second-best technology will not do. Only the best will do. It's not just the craft, but human beings coming back. NASA is so highly advanced in space and yet it had to confront the Columbia nightmare. You can draw your own conclusions on how good we need to be. "

The Centre has reportedly told ISRO - on account of four GSLV failures - "to focus on proving GSLV technology". Top policy-makers have reportedly told ISRO and the department of space, "Let the success of the GSLV flights be demonstrated first. If we are certain that GSLV stands proven, then we can consider the proposal for human space flight. Until then we have to wait. " The HSF programme will also cost over Rs 12, 000 crore. Based on the success of the space recovery experiment conducted in 2007 (in which a small capsule sent to space was successfully recovered), the HSF proposal was quickly mooted in 2009-10. Other statements from top government officials concerned with space matters also indicate a wary mood in government circles.
Besides, ISRO's very ambitious Mars mission proposal also hinges on the success of the September-October GSLV flight. "If it (GSLV) fails, Mars will not be under consideration at all given that the second moon mission, HSF and manned moon mission will take a hit straightaway, " says a top scientist.

But ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan is confident ISRO will "make the turn". "We have conducted all the ground tests of GSLV. Its functioning has been perfect. All corrections have been incorporated into the systems. We have implemented all recommendations from the review reports. Now it's a question of the flight test. We have also planned the GSLV MK-III test in 2013 - which is heavier than GSLV Mark I and II. As things stand, we are confident we'll make it. Isro has a history of learning rapidly from failures, " he insists.

Rao also says ISRO is confident the indigenous GSLV will not fail again. "All ground tests have been conducted and results are as per expectations. The flights will have to prove this. In case there is a setback, ISRO will have to go back to the drawing board and work out these flights again. Repeat tests are the only way out. We are used to this, and in the past we have succeeded after failures. "


Rao is clear about how important this moment is for his former organisation, which has seen many bends in the road since its rather humble origins launching sounding rockets in the 1950s. "It is no doubt a critical moment. But we have had far more fundamental moments of learning. Learning rocket technology and learning to launch rockets was the most defining moment in ISRO's and Indian space history. We had one failure of the first SLV rocket before its two successes and then two failures of the Augmented SLV (ASLV) rocket before its two successes - this was how we began our rocket development.

"It was the second failure of the ASLV that gave us this rocket technology. The second failure threw up all information on what was to be done in developing and launching a rocket. The earlier failures didn't. After the second ASLV failure, just when it could have been said India would never learn rocket technology and be able to launch its own rockets, we made all corrections and the next rocket launch was successful. We then passed on all the technology developed in ASLV to the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and made the PSLV a rousing success. Today, PSLV born out of SLV and ASLV failures is the most successful rocket in Indian space history and is also the envy of the world, " Rao points out.

G Madhavan Nair, another former ISRO chairman, lists a few other turning points. He points to the building and launching of India's first satellite on Indian rockets;building and launching the first communication and remote sensing satellites;and launching satellites that weigh more than 2 tonnes. "At every turn, we learn and move ahead. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, you examine and review, learn what went wrong, grasp the fallacies, incorporate the corrections and go for a test flight all over again. There is no way other than testing and retesting. That's the only way we succeeded and we'll continue to succeed, " stresses Nair.

The first moon mission, he says, was a transformative moment in India's space history. It was also a demonstration of sharp space acumen. "With Chandrayaan-1, we travelled to the Moon for the first time in October 2008 and please note, without a single orbital accident. That was a first in the world. No developed country had done that. That signaled ISRO's sharp engineering capabilities. We even discovered water, which again on a first moon mission was unprecedented. The mission lasted over nine months and though it faced technical issues later, it generated data that any world-class full-fledged mission would have taken years to do. That we reached and touched the moon for the first time on our own rocket and with our own orbiter made it the first Indian moon mission. Hats off to ISRO scientists all over the country who made that a success. "

Nair, who was asked to submit a report on the reasons for the last GSLV failure, also stresses Isro's knack for bouncing back from failures. "It is true GSLV has not succeeded to the extent that we would have liked it to. But all corrections have been incorporated and I believe the scientific personnel in ISRO will be able to understand parameters necessary to make GSLV a success. "


Launch of India's first satellite, Aryabhata, from Russia in 1975 Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) rockets;four launched during 1979-83, including SLV-3 in 1980. This was India's first satellite launch vehicle effort First communications satellite (INSAT-1 A)
launched in 1982 Two ASLV rocket launch failures in 1987 and 1988 taught ISRO a great deal about making and launching more complex rockets First remote sensing satellite (IRS-1 A) launched in 1988 Two successful ASLV rocket launches in 1992-94 First successful PSLV rocket launch in 1994 First successful GSLV rocket launch in 2001. The rocket used a Russian cryogenic engine and placed an experimental geo-stationary satellite (GSAT-1 ) in orbit. The insertion into orbit turned out to be faulty though First Resourcesat launched in 2003 First Edusat launched in 2004 First Cartosat launched in 2005 Space Capsule Recovery in 2007 First Moon mission, Chandrayaan - 1, launched in 2008 First Oceansat launched in 2009 First Indo-French weather satellite (pictured, right) launched in 2011


Cryogenics is the branch of physics and engineering that involves the study of very low temperatures, how to produce them, and how various materials behave at such temperatures (below -150 ?C, -238 ?F or 123K). Cryogenic rocket engines are advanced engines, typically used in the last stage of a rocket, which use cryogenic fuel. Such fuel (or oxidiser or even both) is actually a gas liquefied and stored at very low temperatures. These engines are the 'highest performing' rocket motors, with very high efficiencies on most parameters, the main reason why they're favoured despite their relative complexity. The Space Shuttle's main engines used for lift-off were cryogenic engines, for instance. They were also among the main factors that determined the success of the US Apollo programme that put men on the moon by using the giant Saturn V rocket (among the largest ever built) in the 1960s and 70s.


The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark I & II are capable of placing the INSAT-II class of satellites (2000 - 2, 500 kg) into what is called a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The GSLV is a threestage vehicle, 49 m tall, with a 414 tonne lift-off weight. Its first stage comprises an S125 solid booster engine (which uses solid fuel) with four liquid (L40) strap-on engines. Its GS2 second stage is a liquid engine and the crucial third stage (GS3) uses the complex cryogenic one.


Seven flights - Four successes, three failures

GSLV-F 06 launched GSAT-5 P on December 25, 2010 (Unsuccessful)

GSLV-D 3 launched GSAT-4 on April 15, 2010 (Unsuccessful)

GSLV-F 04 launched INSAT-4 CR on September 2, 2007 (Successful)

GSLV-F 02 launched INSAT-4 C on July 10, 2006 (Unsuccessful)

GSLV-F 01 launched EDUSAT (GSAT-3 ) on September 20, 2004 (Successful)

GSLV-D 2 launched GSAT-2 on May 8, 2003 (Successful)

GSLV-D 1 launched GSAT-1 on April 18, 2001 (Successful)

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