SITE to INSAT: How India got the best support from both the US and the USSR in space programme

As the United Nations was observing the World Space Week from October 4-10, with the motto “Space Unites the World,” the one space programme that immediately comes to mind for being the hallmark of peaceful usage of outer space for civilian purposes has been the Indian space programme.


As the United Nations was observing the World Space Week from October 4-10, with the motto “Space Unites the World,” the one space programme that immediately comes to mind for being the hallmark of peaceful usage of outer space for civilian purposes has been the Indian space programme. This year, coincidentally, marks the completion of five-and-a-half-decade long India’s journey as a space power. Therefore, it is necessary to look back at the early years of India’s space mission.

The origin and the evolution the Indian space programme is one of the most inspiring stories of the country since Independence. The reason behind this is the context in which the country’s space programme developed. India featured very low in almost all socio-economic indicators when the launch of Sputnik 1 by the USSR in 1957 took the world by storm. The first two decades after Independence were devoted to nation-building.

India was struggling as a third-world country with a barrage of problems. To think of having a space programme of its own at that time was, in itself, a very ‘idealistic’ idea. Many believed that India was not in a position to spend on something that ‘elite nations’ would do. The reference was towards the Cold War space race in which both the US and the Soviet Union were spending heavily.

From the outset, the policymakers in India were clear that the country’s space programme would be a ‘civilian one’. This was because the potential of outer space for the benefit of civilians was realised once the space race between the superpowers kicked off. It was realised by pioneers like Vikram Sarabhai (the father of the Indian space programme) that the agenda of national development and nation-building could be ‘leapfrogged’ through the usage of space technology.

Leapfrogging in this context meant that space technology would help India skip a few stages of development, which it otherwise had to cross. As a result, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was constituted in 1962 by the government of India.

The developments in the field of Indian space programme were happening against the backdrop of an intense Cold War space rivalry. Being a non-aligned power, India was observing the space race very carefully. Space was seen as the future of mankind and India didn’t want to fall behind other countries that had started taking practical steps in this direction. Both the superpowers saw a big potential in the Indian space programme. Right from the outset, India was engaged in dealing with both the US and Soviet Russia. The Indian side was particularly keen on using space technology for telecommunication purposes.

The idea was to educate lakhs of people through the usage of satellite communication. This was the time when the sources of communication in India were very limited. NASA’s Applications Technology Satellite (ATS) programme in the 1960s became very handy for India’s purposes. While NASA wanted to field test the direct broadcast of television programmes to terrestrial receivers via satellite and chose India as a potential site for this test, India, on the other hand, was already interested in using communication satellites for educational purposes.

An expert mission was sent by UNESCO to India to test the feasibility study for a project in satellite for communications. After conducting the feasibility study from November 18 to December 8, 1967, UNESCO passed India as a feasible test site for this project. Meanwhile, the government of India set up a body called the National Satellite Communications Group in 1968, which consisted of Cabinet ministers, representatives of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the All India Radio. It recommended using ATS-6 satellite for communication purposes.

In 1975, the landmark Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was conducted over an year. It covered more than 2,400 villages in 20 districts of six states (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan). SITE was extremely successful and very popular among the masses. This paved the way for the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT). SITE was a result of long-term collaboration between India and the US.

India balanced its cooperation with the US in the field of outer space by approaching the Soviets as well. Many of the facilities at TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station) were built in collaboration with the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. India’s first significant collaboration with the Soviets happened in the 1970 when India agreed to launch M-100 rockets of the Soviet Union from Thumba every week.

These launches happened in synchronisation with other Russian sites so that an accurate and simultaneous data on meteorological forecasts could be obtained. But the biggest collaboration with the USSR was through the Aryabhata in 1975, which was India’s first indigenously built satellite launched with the help of the Soviets.

India, therefore, managed to gain the best from both the US and the USSR in terms of getting support for its own space programme. The impact of Cold War space rivalry on the genesis of the Indian space programme has not been assessed completely yet.

The programme was a result of sheer dedication of Indian engineers and scientists. Today, when India is planning to send its astronauts to outer space for the first time, a large credit goes to the generations of engineers who laid a solid foundation for the next generation of scientists to work towards greater things.

Martand Jha
(Junior Research Fellow, School of International Studies, JNU, Delhi)

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