India at 75, Major Milestones India Achieved in Space: There was a time when the United States and Soviet Union were the front runners, in fact, the only runners, in the race of space exploration. For Indians, the thought of just inventing space technology was far-fetched and nearly impossible. But that changed when the visionary, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai formed the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962. With Dr. Sarabhai leading the charge, INCOSPAR set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Thiruvananthapuram for upper atmospheric research. Fun fact, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who later became the President of India, was among the initial team of rocket engineers who formed the INCOSPAR.
In his autobiography Wings of Fire, Kalam wrote that the site selected at Thumba lay between the railway line and the sea coast. A large Church stood within this area whose site had to be acquired. This church became the first unit of the TERLS and was later named as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. The first rocket was launched from here on Nov 21st, 1963. It was a sounding rocket that was made at NASA and was called Nike-Apache. Kalam in his book said that the rocket was assembled in the church building. The launch was a miracle for many and marked the historical beginning of the Indian Space Programme.
INCOSPAR then grew and became the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on August 15th, 1969. It was the perfect day as India was also celebrating its 22nd Independence Day. ISRO’s mission was to harness space technology with the aim of national development while pursuing space and planetary exploration. Needless to say, ISRO has over the years maintained its goal of using space tech for the service of the nation. It has gradually become one of the six largest space agencies in the world. India has one of the largest fleets of communication satellites (INSAT) and remote sensing (IRS) satellites. These satellites cater to the increasing demand for fast and reliable communication and earth observation respectively. With India’s 75th Independence day round the corner, let’s go back in history and take a look at the key discoveries that put India on the global map for its space journey.
Named after the noted Indian astronomer, Aryabhata was India’s first satellite which was launched on April 19th, 1975 from Kapustin Yar, a Soviet rocket launch and development site in Astrakhan Oblast using a Kosmos-3M launch vehicle. It was built by the ISRO, and launched by the Soviet Union as a part of the Soviet Interkosmos programme. This was an iconic moment in the history of India. In fact, to mark the occasion, the satellite’s image was printed on the reverse of Indian two rupee banknotes between 1976 and 1997.
The Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) was India’s first experimental satellite launch vehicle, which was a four-stage vehicle. It was capable of placing 40 kg class payloads in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It was launched on July 18, 1980. As per ISRO’s official website, SLV-3 put Rohini in orbit, and hence made India the sixth member of an exclusive club of space-faring nations. Rohini was a series of satellites launched by the Indian Space Research organization. The Rohini series consisted of four satellites, each of which was launched by the SLV and three of which made it successfully to orbit. The series was mostly experimental satellites. The successful culmination of the SLV-3 project paved the way for advanced launch vehicle projects including the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), and the Geosynchronous satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is India’s third generation launch vehicle, and also the first launch vehicle by India that is equipped with liquid stages. PSLV was launched in October 1994 and has since then emerged as a reliable launch vehicle with 39 consecutively successful missions till June 2017. According to ISRO’s website, the vehicle has launched 48 Indian satellites and 209 satellites for customers from abroad between 1994 and 2017. Not to forget, the vehicle successfully launched two spacecraft – Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and Mars Orbiter Spacecraft in 2013.
Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first moon mission. It was the first unmanned lunar probe under the Chandrayaan programme and was launched in October 2008 by ISRO. The spacecraft consisted of a lunar orbiter and an impactor. It also comprised instruments that were built in foreign countries like the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, and Bulgaria. The spacecraft completed over 3,400 orbits around the moon. Although the mission was concluded after communication was lost with the spacecraft on Aug 29, 2009, it still managed to give India’s space program a major boost.
5. Mars Orbiter Mission
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was India’s first interplanetary mission. India became the fourth space agency in the world to reach Mars orbit, after Roscosmos, NASA, and the European Space Agency. It also made India the first nation in the world to reach the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt. The spacecraft, Mangalyaan, was launched on Nov 5, 2013 and reached Mars’ orbit on September 24, 2014.
Another brilliant innovation by ISRO is the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). GSLV too is a space launch vehicle designed to launch satellites and other space objects into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits. A three stage launcher with strap on motors, GSLV has the capability to put a heavier payload in the orbit than the PSLV. GSLV-D5 was the first successful flight of the GSLV using the indigenous cryogenic engine. The D5 was launched on January 5, 2014.
7. Mission Shakti
In a first-of-its-kind attempt, the Defence Research and Development Organisation managed to successfully neutralise a satellite in space with its anti-satellite (ASAT) missile on March 27 2019. This was one of the most important and complex missions that was undertaken by the DRDO and it was named – Mission Shakti. As you can guess by the name, Mission Shakti demonstrated the organisation’s ability to defend India’s assets, even in space!
8. Rakesh Sharma’s Sare Jahan Se Achcha
Amidst all the innovations and brilliant space techs, how can we forget the one name that proved to be India’s golden ticket to fame in matters of space achievements? The one and only Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space! Sharma, a former Indian Air Force pilot, was selected to become a cosmonaut and go into space as part of a joint programme between the Indian Air Force and the Soviet Interkosmos space programme. He flew aboard the Soyuz T-11 on April 3rd, 1984.