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The moonshot has paid off, but ISRO still has a long way to go

Ten years ago to the day, on October 22, 2008, India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), shot a rocket into space carrying a satellite, Chandrayaan. The spacecraft, which entered the moon’s orbit 17 days later, provided India a dose of pride— among its many tasks, it also landed the Indian tricolour on the lunar surface.

In the next one year, the Chandrayaan conducted many scientific experiments and significantly established the presence of water on the Moon before it went out of contact on August 29, 2009.

In the last ten years, ISRO has generated a respectable performance record. It has flown the PSLV (the rocket that carried the Chandrayaan) 31 more times, making a total of 42 flights of the rocket, of which only two – the 1st and the 39th were failures.

‘First time right’ ::

It has also flown the rocket GSLV, twelve times successfully, test-flown the bigger version of it, the GSLV Mark III, launched 237 satellites for foreigners, and sent a spacecraft, Mangalyaan, to Mars. It got the ‘first time right’ with the Mars mission and has received due praise.

A second lunar launch, Chandrayaan-2, after a year’s delay, is expected to happen in early January 2019. In future, there will be a Mangalyaan-2, and Prime Minister Modi has promised that ISRO will fly an Indian into space before 2022.

Ten years after a milestone lunar launch and exactly half a century in existence, India’s space has managed to develop a halo around itself, but the mists of admiration mask a few unflattering aspects.

For a 50-year-old, ISRO is still way behind other space faring nations in technology. Writing in Quora, an ISRO scientist, Heman Phinehas admits that the organisation is “25-30 years behind NASA and Russia”.

Conflicted opinions ::

Some scoff at comparisons of ISRO with others. They note that ISRO’s purpose– to serve India’s here-and-now needs are different than other agencies’, which are space research and military might. However, others opine that the 50-year-old organisation should have developed capabilities to launch heavy communications to high altitudes (36,000 km). China launches 30-40 satellites every year; ISRO launches around 3-4. China has mastered the science of sending a man to the space; while India is still 5 years behind, even in its plans.ISRO is the only space agency that does not possess capabilities such as orbital docking (joining two spacecrafts in space) and orbital re-fuelling.

Some say it is due to thin budget. In the four years between 2015-16 and 2018-19, the entire allocation to India’s space programmes has been around ₹22,000 crore. However, there is another view.

“Funding has never been an issue,” said Dr MYS Prasad, a former Director at ISRO’s Sriharikota launch station. “After the mid-1990s, not one programme of ISRO has suffered for want of funds,” said Prasad, who, incidentally, as the ‘range director’ played a key part in Chandrayaan.

Prasad believes that a problem of ‘mindset’ could have slowed things down. He said that there are people who “due to their love for technology” believed that “except them nobody could do it”, which hampered outsourcing.

‘Vertical Integration’ ::

While the private sector has been making parts of rockets and satellites — Godrej makes the Vikas engines for rockets — it has been a jobbing partner. A ‘vertical integration’ has not taken place. In 2016, ISRO tied-up with a consortium of Alpha Design Technologies, Tata Advanced Systems and Bharat Electronics, for making and testing satellites, but there is still no vertical integration for rockets.

Koppillil Radhakrishnan, the Chairman of ISRO for five years till 2014, observed that “vertical integration is a process of learning”. The industry needs “numbers”, and now is the right time to outsource.

ISRO plans 16-18 launches a year and has no option but to outsource. Radhakrishnan said that “meeting the required numbers while taking the organisation to the next level of excellence” is the biggest challenge facing ISRO today. He believes that ISRO is on the cusp of acquiring heavy-launch capabilities, come ‘electric propulsion’, which will enable satellites to do with 2.5 tonnes less of fuel, bringing down the total mass.

Electric propulsion, semi-cryogenic engine, re-usable launch vehicles and a manned mission to space (Gaganyaan) are the next steps that ISRO will be taking into space, but some people, including Prasad, feel that these are just incremental steps.

“I feel there is no long-term programme, things are very ad-hoc,” says Prasad, who wishes to see a strategy for the next 15-20 years, and not “this mission, that mission”. For example, he would like ISRO to work on an Indian Space Station – the existing, four-country International Space Station will be decommissioned in 2028. Working on a space station will force ISRO to strive to higher level of excellence and will keep the organisation learning. “But I am not seeing any clear signals,” he says.

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