After the flawless launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) on Sunday, which came after a series of frustrating failures, India’s space research community was at once relieved and triumphant. Team ISRO has made India the sixth member of an elite club of nations that have mastered cryogenic technology, the centrepiece of the GSLV. The chairman of ISRO, K. Radhakrishnan, underlined the extraordinary dedication and determination that went into making the GSLV programme a success. Until Sunday, only two of the seven launches of the GSLV had been successful. Last year, ISRO had aborted the GSLV launch at the last minute because of leaking fuel. There was much riding, therefore, on Sunday’s launch.
The Indian Space Research Organisation had great success with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which emerged as a reliable workhorse for accessing space after 20 successful launches in a row since the late 1990s. The development of a heavier and more capable GSLV had became a major challenge for India thanks to the difficulties with the cryogenic engine. When India decided to develop this technology in the early 1990s, it confronted a hostile political environment and an ever-expanding regime of technology denial in the name of nonproliferation. The US put pressure on Russia to stop the transfer of cryogenic technology to India and Delhi had to settle for the purchase of seven engines from Russia and the development of the cryogenic technology at home. It has taken ISRO two decades of painful effort to tame the GSLV.
While ISRO has made the nation proud, it is not clear if the political class in Delhi is aware of its role and responsibility in shaping India’s space strategy. The development of a heavy launch vehicle was critical for the realisation of India’s aspirations to put bigger satellites in orbit, advance its human flight programme, boost its capacity for inter-planetary exploration, and above all, to contribute more effectively to India’s national development. The big missing link, however, is a broader political vision for India’s role in outer space that must necessarily come from Delhi. It is a pity that the UPA government, while supportive of the space programme over the last decade, had shown no political will or strategic inclination to articulate a set of national goals in outer space and a credible strategy to achieve them.