History of India’s Space Industry

Space Industry

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”. This could have easily been the moto of prehistoric Indian astronomers. The Indian obsession with space dates back to over thousands of years before Christ. The oldest known documentary evidence is a book called Vedanga Jyotisha. There is considerable controversy around the dating of this text; some believe it to be between 1370 and 1150 BCE, while others follow an estimate of 1400-1200 BCE. However, the point of importance here isn’t the exact date but the antiquity of India’s space-obsession.

India’s modern space research efforts can be traced to the works of S. K. Mitra in the 1920s in Calcutta. Subsequently, other Indian scientists such C.V. Raman and Meghnad Saha contributed to scientific principles applicable in space sciences. It wasn’t until 1945 that a coordinated space research effort in India emerged. These efforts were spearheaded by two scientists- Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. Homi Bhabha. These initial experiments in space sciences explored cosmic radiation, high altitude and airborne testing of instruments, deep underground experimentation at the Kolar mines—one of the deepest mining sites in the world – and studies of the upper atmosphere. In the 1950s, many observatories were set up across the country.

With the United States and Russia in loggerheads with each other in the space race, Indian politicians and scientists realized the importance of such an endeavor and moved towards conceiving a space program. They had an able scientist to lead the way, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of the Indian space program and one of the brightest scientific minds the country has ever produced. The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was very supportive of scientific endeavors and considered than as a vital part of India’s future, placed the space research program under the Department of Atomic Energy in 1961. The then DAE director, Dr. Homi Bhabha (the father of India’s atomic programme) created the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962 with Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Ramanathan leading the way.

The Committee moved quickly. By 1963, the first sounding rocket, a rocket that assesses the physical parameters of the upper atmosphere, was procured from the US and launched from Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). During this time, there was a lot of interaction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In fact, Former President APJ Abdul Kalam was one of the people who was part of the many exchange programs with NASA. He was a part of the Committee and later transferred ISRO.

By 1967, Indian launched its own indigenous sounding rocket, the RH-75. As the complexities and the scope of the program started reaching its potential, the organization grew significantly. They realized the need for an independent organization to focus on space. Thus in 1969, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was formed with a vision to “harness space technology for national development while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration”.

In 1971, the space program had its first major setback with the mysterious death of Dr. Sarabhai. Dr. Sarabhai was found dead in his hotel room in Kovalam. Many have eluded to the possibility of ‘international foul play’. This wasn’t the first time a scientific mind was lost under mysterious circumstance. Seven years earlier, Dr. Homi Bhaha also died under mysterious circumstances.

In 1975, the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, was launched from the former Soviet Union. The learnings from the project about the basis of learning satellite technology and designing provided a platform for future space exploration. In the 70s, the focus continued to be on developing India’s capacity. There were projects with NASA focusing on communication, but a large part of the focus was on developing the technology and infrastructure for Satellite Launch Vehicles (SLVs). After a failure in 1979, in 1980 the first indigenous satellite called Rohini-1 was launched. Based on the success of Rohini-1, ISRO focused on putting ‘truly useful’ satellites into orbit. This was the period which witnessed operationalization of the research that was done till now. After this, there was no looking back.

ISRO steadily evolved over time and expanded to many fields. A visit to the ISRO website shows an interest timeline of India’s space efforts. Due to the dedication of numerous scientists who helped build India’s indigenous capabilities, India has emerged as one of the leading countries in the area of space. Earlier this year, India launched a record-breaking 104 satellites from single rocket breaking the Russian record of 37 in 2014.

This is the first article in a two-part series on Space. The second article focuses on the rise of the private sector in Indian space efforts.

– Contributed by Bhargav Dhakappa

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