The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has yet again shown the country and the world, at large, that India is a major player in the field of outer space. On January 12, 2018, ISRO launched weather observation satellite Cartosat 2 Series and 29 other spacecraft onboard its dependable Polar rocket from Sriharikota. What made this launch special was that it was ISRO’s 100th satellite launch. Technicalities and details apart, the question is whether the 100th satellite launch should be considered a milestone in India’s space journey, which started with the launch of Nike-Apache Sounding rockets from Thumba way back in 1963, or is this just another feather in ISRO’s hat? To critically assess what this 100th launch means for ISRO and India, one needs to go back into history to get a context and perspective. The genesis of the Indian space programme had very humble beginnings. Back in the late 1950s, the launch of Sputnik-1 by the Soviets had created news headlines all over the world, which led to a cold war of space rivalry between the Americans and the Soviets.
When these two superpowers were in a race to outdo each other and make outer space a battleground, India was just trying to stand on its feet as a newly independent nation, facing a huge resource scarcity at that time. To think of having an indigenous space programme at that time was like a dream, a distant reality for Indian scientists. It took a great visionary like Vikram Sarabhai (father of Indian space programme) who saw a great “potential” in the field of outer space. According to him, space technology could help India “leapfrog” in its development. Leapfrog, loosely means progressing at a fast rate. The “leapfrogging” in this context came with the famous SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment), which was an experimental satellite communication project designed to provide educational television programmes to the farmers about issues related to agriculture and farming. Jointly developed by ISRO and NASA’s cooperation, the project helped both farmers and Indian space scientists to gain technical expertise in arena of space communication, making it a very successful experiment.
Unlike US and Soviets, India never saw outer space as a battleground for supremacy, since the primary idea was to use space technology for developmental purposes. The Indian space programme, since its inception, has been primarily a “civilian” space programme. The famous quote of Vikram Sarabhai beautifully summarises the intent and purpose behind it: “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight”. As much as it was a vision of visionaries like Sarabhai and hard work of ISRO scientists, ISRO was also a product of the political will of the ruling dispensation back in the 1960s, when critics were arguing against spending on “elite” things like outer space when millions were toiling hard under poverty.
The Indian National Committee on Space Research was constituted by the Indian government in 1962, with Sarabhai as its chairman, to look into the possibility of having a national space programme. One should remember that 1962 was the same year when India lost a costly war to China and India’s financial strength as a nation was nowhere near where it stands today. As a result, engineers and scientists working in Indian space programme were always under a burden of lot of expectations to deliver soon, which they eventually did. After a few decades of settling down as an institution, ISRO started delivering successfully almost every time. Though, our space programme started in 1963 in Thumba, ISRO as an institution started functioning from August 15, 1969 (on India’s 22nd Independence day).
The other noteworthy thing is that ISRO has always believed in the “homegrown” talent and has provided them chances and platform to prove their mettle. Most of its engineers and scientists haven’t come from any Ivy league universities or elite engineering colleges like IITs. They come from from departments of basic sciences from our universities. The tremendous success and growth of ISRO proves the age-old proverb in international relations that “institution building is a key to great power making”. Though India is not a great power yet, it is certainly a major power in the international system. Much of the success of ISRO over the years has left the Indian masses in awe and admiration of ISRO as an institution. During its journey of nearly five decades, ISRO has seen many “ups” and “downs”.
But, after every failure, be it the SLV-3 (India’s first space rocket), which plunged into the Bay of Bengal just after its launch in 1979, or its most recent failure when PSLV rocket failed to launch navigation satellite back into the orbit last year, ISRO has come out stronger every time. The 100th satellite launch is, therefore, not just a number when one looks back into the humble origins of Indian space programme. That’s why histories are important as they are best seen in a rear view mirror. Still working within very low budgets, as compared to the huge budgets of NASA and other space programmes, this is time for everyone to sit back and celebrate.
Junior research fellow at School of International Studies, JNU