ISRO’s 100th mission: It is not a century

The Indian Space Research Organisation carried out its 100th space mission with the successful launch of the PSLV-C21 rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikotta on September 9, 2012. The description ‘100th mission’ may be a misnomer as the count is a total of 62 satellite missions and 37 launch vehicle missions plus a space capsule recovery experiment. (The launching of the vehicle and placing of a satellite in orbit are treated as separate missions by ISRO.) The launch vehicles sometimes carried more than one satellite, as was the case on Sunday when PSLV-C12 carried Japanese as well as a French satellite.

Launchpad at Sriharikotta

Rocket Launchpad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikotta, India

For the French, there may be some irony. They have turned to India for launch of their 712-kg earth observation satellite SPOT-6 using a launch vehicle, the technology for which was originally developed by France. India had obtained the liquid propulsion technology used in French ‘Viking’ engine as per an agreement in the seventies. The crucial second and fourth stages of PSLV are powered by modified engines using the French technology.

ISRO’s achievement was in fabricating many of the components indigenously over the years and developing a few hundred technologies that could add value. This helped to bring down the costs, finally attracting the French to use India’s launch vehicle for its satellite. It is the first time that a French satellite is being launched from India while several Indian satellites have been launched from French Guiana (where European Space Agency’s primary launch site is located).

ISRO has been taking the beaten path in the development of rocket technology instead of looking for innovative technology. The decision to borrow cryogenic technology, instead of developing it on its own, turned out to be disastrous as the indigenous version of the Russian cryogenic technology is yet to take off. The aim was to develop indigenous cryogenic engine modeled on the Russian cryogenic module with similar performance parameters.

The full technology transfer did not take place due to American pressure on Russia and ISRO’s attempt to fabricate it based on the design it had obtained from the Russian space agency ran into problems and repeated test failures. It would now be an uphill task for ISRO to complete the development and modify it for future needs.

As such, the 100th mission marks stagnation in space technology development rather than a great achievement. India may have to revamp its technology development plans if it is to keep pace.