The latest successful launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III (GSLV Mark III) by Isro is momentous for many reasons. Billed as India’s most powerful rocket—GSLV Mark III is 43.43 metres tall and weighs 640 tonnes—it has put many heavy payloads in orbit before. This time around, it carried its heaviest ever payload, a communications satellite named GSAT-19 that weighs over 3,100 kg. While this should be reason enough to celebrate, the clincher is that the technology behind the launcher and its ability to carry such a heavy payload has been perfected at home nearly 13-14 years after the country could have first launched it had it not been for the US-led sanctions in May 1992. India was looking to collaborate with Russia on cryogenic engine technology for launch vehicles—GSLV Mark III is propelled by burning liquid hydrogen with liquid oxygen as oxidiser at temperatures a couple of hundred degrees below 0oC. But, sanctions hit, and the collaboration was shelved, and with that, the then targeted launch of a cryogenic-powered rocket in 2003-2004 never came to fruition. Now, with such demonstration of indigenously developed cryogenic technology, India is not just decisively in the big league of space exploration, but also arguably its brightest star if one were to take into consideration all the recent achievements of Isro. A vindication of the Indian space agency’s prowess is the fact that the US, which had once hobbled the Indian cryogenic programme, will be using GSLV to put the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite that will power the world’s most extensive earth-imaging system.
While India flexes its pace muscles with GSLV Mark III’s launch, it is the enormity of the launcher’s—or rather the launch technology’s—potential that should excite more. The three-stage, heavy lift launcher, Isro says, is crucial to India’s more ambitious space exploration plans, from its Moon mission (Chandrayaan-2) to even a manned mission. A manned mission would require a launcher that can carry a six-eight tonne pay load—almost two to two-and-a-half times heavier than GSAT-19. One of India’s foremost space scientists, UR Rao, says that while the Mark III can carry eight tonnes, a long-period manned mission would require even larger launchers. The next generation of GSLV Mark, Rao reckons, may be help India achieve, say, a manned mission to Mars which would require, apart from the lander and the astronauts, supplies to sustain the mission. While this vision may take some time to materialise, what Rao told Factor Daily, a web magazine, perhaps explains GSLV Mark III, and Isro’s success, best—“When we developed the space programme, we had a lot of international embargos put on us. I used to be happy every time we had a new embargo as it forced us to invent a way out and develop our own solutions.”