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Column: Finding the right space

Jan 07 2014, 02:54 IST
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SummaryThe question before India’s successful cryogenic engine programme is how can it be put to the best use

It’s madly retro, but self-sufficiency is fashionable again. With the successful launch of the geosynchronous launch vehicle, India’s 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 NASA’s 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 advantage—the development of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

The cryogenic stages of Saturn V that powered Apollo 11 out of Earth’s 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

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