ISRO’s space missions have been low-cost, indigenous and reliable. These qualities are reminiscent of the principles Mahatma Gandhi espoused during his lifetime.
During 11-13 May 1998, India conducted underground nuclear tests at the Pokhran Test Range, Rajasthan. Since then, India has been fighting fit against the sanctions once imposed on it by the United States (US).
The technological apartheid against India has been an issue for the country’s science and technology establishment from the Cold War period. During 1992-94, the US had threatened sanctions against Russian supply of cryogenic engines for Indian Space Research Organisation’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). At the time, ISRO had to go it alone and develop its own cryogenic engines.
Even after Pokhran-II, ISRO was among the institutions hit by the US-imposed technology apartheid. ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network, Inertial Systems Unit, Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant, Space Applications Centre, Satish Dhawan Space Centre and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre – all were placed under the US’ technological inquisition.
Then, a year after Pokhran-II, on 26 May 1999 at 11.52am, ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-C2, lifted off towards the sky. This time its payload included, besides the Indian remote sensing satellite, Korean and German satellites. The announcement made by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sparkled with pride. “In future”, the poet-statesman predicted, “many more foreign-owned satellites will be launched on Indian rockets.” He added that the launch had commenced the planting of “India's flag not just in space, but also in this global market place”.
The Indian space programme had then entered a new phase. The hallmark of Indian rocket systems started to be identified with frugality – as well as reliability. As an ISRO communication pointed out, a launch on India's GSLV Mark III costs only about half the price charged by other players in the market, namely France, the US and Russia. There has been no turning back ever since. ISRO then went on to launch its unmanned Moon mission and became the world’s first nation to reach the Martian orbit successfully in the first attempt.
Whenever India achieves a scientific feat that has a global impact, the characteristic reaction of the West is to remind India of its large-scale poverty. Here, it should be recalled that the Indian space programme is perhaps the largest people-oriented one in the world. This time even China’s Marxist regime has joined this chorus, reminding India that it still lags behind China, and that “as a hierarchical society, India has both world-class elite and a largest number of poor people”. It is interesting how the Marxist response to India’s technological advancement closely imitates the colonialist mindset of the West.
There are other reasons, too, for this kind of reaction by the Chinese. ISRO’s ambitious plans with respect to the international satellite launch market means an emerging competition with China. The larger neighbour has, over the years, developed its rocket technology ruthlessly. But often its ‘Long March’ series of rockets have failed, exploding over towns and villages and resulting in massive loss of human life. With no accountability to its citizens and a large slave labour at its command, the Marxist regime has emerged as a tough competitor to ISRO, which happens to be slower on the development front on account of all the hurdles it faces as a scientific institution in a democracy.
On 19 September 2015, China launched the Long March 6 with a launch capacity of 1,500kg into the low Earth orbit (LEO). The same year India's PSLV was launched successfully for the thirty-first time with a payload capacity of 3,700kg into the LEO. Long March 7, which performed successfully in 2016 and was expected to take up 70 per cent of all launches, can take a payload of 13,500kg into LEO and a payload of 5,500kg into the Sun-synchronous orbit. And then there are its launch vehicles, which China says are eco-friendly, reliable and safe. If, purely in terms of payload capacity, the Chinese launch vehicles are monstrous, the development of small and nano satellites, on the other hand, can tilt the market in India’s favour.
Nano satellites, usually weighing from one to 10 kilogram, can be used for a variety of purposes. One of the 104 satellites ISRO launched yesterday (15 February) belongs to Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. According to The Times of Israel, the satellite, “a little larger than a milk carton”, is interestingly the first Israeli nano satellite which will also allow “for the first time any Israeli university to have access to data from an Israeli nanosatellite for research purposes”. Apart from the Israeli satellite and one by the United Arab Emirates, most of the satellites are from the US. ISRO also has three satellites of its own as part of the mission, one weighing 730kg and the other two weighing 19kg each. The rest of the 600kg capacity has been shared by 101 satellites, allowing ISRO to recover half of the cost of the launch.
Clearly, this is a significant development for India, especially in terms of expanding the satellite launch market. India, with its soft and digital skills, can add great value to its launch vehicle services while keeping intact its unique selling point – reliability with cost-effectiveness. Come to think of it, these are the values Mahatma Gandhi would have cherished in a technology. ISRO’s success, therefore, appropriately reflects the Gandhian ideals.