Column: Finding the right space

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Jan 7 2014, 08:24am hrs
Its madly retro, but self-sufficiency is fashionable again. With the successful launch of the geosynchronous launch vehicle, Indias cryogenic engine, which began as a hardware and technology-transfer project and was almost killed by geopolitical pressures, has grown into a success story of indigenous development. Though the UPA is heading for dishonourable discharge, its tenure did feature giant strides in space and will be remembered as a crucial interval in which India became a serious player in the sector.

Interestingly, even the first widely-used cryogenic engines were children of geopolitics. Saturn V was the workhorse launch vehicle for NASAs prestige projects like Apollo 11. It put men on the moon and shuttled astronauts to Skylab. S-II and S-IVB, its second and third stages, were cryogenic engines, which are essential for reaching higher orbits with heavier payloads.

Like GSLV, Saturn V was a product of technology-transfer, after a fashion. The GSLV project began in 1991 with an agreement with Glavcosmos of the USSR for the transfer of engines and the technology to design and manufacture them. But the USSR unhelpfully degenerated into Russia and the US brandished sanctions to frighten off Glavcosmos. The technology-transfer never happened, but the hardware was available for Indian scientists to tinker with, and eventually build their own.

From experience, the US had reason to fear the development of cryogenic engine technology in a country which was nuclear-capable but remained outside the global nuclear regime. The engine is a dual use technology and though it enabled the Saturn V and brought technological prestige to the US, the Truman administration had invested in it for strategic advantagethe development of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

The cryogenic stages of Saturn V that powered Apollo 11 out of Earths gravity well and into lunar orbit were the finest products of Operation Paperclip, authorised in the summer of 1945 by Harry Truman through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). With the Cold War setting in, and with the realisation that military and strategic power would henceforth be defined by technological prowess, US intelligence agencies were empowered to mop up the scientific and technical human resource of Nazi Germany. The operation was named after the paperclips used to hold together fabricated dossiers on the recruits, which were cleansed of Nazi links to make them eligible for US employment.

The idea was to steal a march on the Soviets and the English, who would compete for the same knowledge base, and to make it impossible for Germany to regain the lead it had taken in military technology, especially missile development. The ballistic missile age was clearly beginning, and the quickest way to get an edge was to poach on the German scientists who had created the flying bombs that hit London. But the real fruit of Operation Paperclip was Saturn V. Developed by a team led by Wernher von Braun, its cryogenic engines would put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, visibly establishing US technical superiority.

GSLV-D5, which was launched on Sunday, is not as dramatic a development in the history of science and technology. It makes India only the sixth nation to have indigenous cryogenic technology. But it brings the same choices before the Indian space industry that the US faced after World War II. With this dual use technology, India can put a citizen on the moon, build ICBMs or embark on a commercial launch vehicle programme, soliciting the worlds space traffic. Though India has expressed an interest in a manned lunar mission, to follow the US and the USSR down the path they took after the war would be rather pointless. Times have changed, power relations have changed and the very idea of geopolitics is wholly altered in the multipolar world of today.

Prestige projects like manned spaceflight get a lot of media attention, but the real value is in remote sensing, communications and enabling services. India has established a strong presence in the community researching the moon and Mars. Its inputs in Chandrayaan-1 helped to settle a question as old as science fictionis there water on the moon

The lunar and Martian projects are small bridgeheads to be developed and exploited laterpossibly decades later. But today, in 2014, the ability to place heavy satellites in geosynchronous orbit opens up huge markets for the Indian space industry. As security concerns develop, nations which cannot dream of spacefaring will perceive the need for satellites of their own. They represent huge potential marketsalmost all of Africa, for instance. They are price-sensitive and India is developing a reputation for cheap but reliable space technology. There is immediate profit to be booked here, which can fund the manned missions of the future.