India's small step into space

While the US burns billions in search of the next giant leap, India has pursued a lower-stakes strategy in space - with remarkable results. Peter Bond reports

Since the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, almost 50 years ago, the era of space exploration has been dominated by two countries, the United States and Russia. But at a time when space budgets in these countries are under pressure, two new competitors are gathering strength in the east. When the history of this century is written, it may well be that India and China will be recognised as the standard-bearers for humankind's ambitions to explore the final frontier.

The space programmes of the Asian giants, the nations with the largest populations on the planet, have taken many years to reach maturity. Today, they represent two of the most rapidly expanding economies in the world. However, their visions for the future could hardly be more different.

China has recently been establishing its credentials as a technological rival to the US by becoming the third country to launch its citizens into orbit and announcing its intention to develop an orbiting space station. Robotic missions to the Moon may one day lead to Chinese taikonauts walking on its dusty plains.

In contrast, India's priorities - at least at the present time - lie closer to home. The country's vision was laid down many years ago by Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian Space Programme. "There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation," he said. "To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."

In accordance with this vision, the country has focused its space activities on achieving the goals of self-sufficiency and economic development. Since 1980, India has made remarkable strides, developing its own satellite launch capability and deploying a flotilla of Earth observation satellites. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is also the proud owner of the largest domestic communications satellite system in the Asia-Pacific region.

By-products of this investment include a telemedicine programme that links remote health centres to specialist hospitals and beams educational programmes to rural schools via a dedicated satellite. In addition to telecommunication and television broadcasts, the home-grown Indian National Satellite System (Insat) series assists in weather forecasting, disaster warning and search and rescue services. "Our programme is always related to national development tasks," said ISRO spokesman Sitaramaya Krishnamurthy. "This approach is unique in the sense that what we do is always tuned to our national requirements. Our intention is to become self-reliant."

This rapid progress has not been without problems, most notably a ban on the transfer of space technology imposed by the US over fears that India's purchase of rocket technology from Russia could be used for military purposes. Even tougher sanctions were imposed by Washington after India conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, recent years have seen a warming of relations, cemented by an agreement to provide US instruments on Chandrayaan-1, India's first spacecraft to explore the Moon.

Another setback occurred on 10 July, when the 2.2-ton Insat-4C, the largest satellite ever placed on board an Indian launch vehicle, was destroyed soon after lift-off when the rocket veered off course and exploded. Although the country's most powerful rocket is unlikely to fly again until late next year, Indian space officials are confident that the problem can be easily solved. A replacement satellite is already under construction.

In the next few years, the ISRO plans to launch an even more powerful version of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket, equipped with a home-grown upper stage that will replace the purchased Russian technology. The capability to carry a 10-ton payload to low Earth orbit, combined with the removal of US sanctions, should place India in a strong position to compete in the global launch market.

"We are now capable of launching satellites at 70 to 80 per cent of international costs, which will come down to 50 per cent once GSLV Mark III is operational," said G Madhavan Nair, the chairman of ISRO. "From one satellite a year, if we could launch two or three satellites every year it would mean substantial growth. We are looking at making $60m-$70m [£32m-£37m] a year from satellite launches."

A record 35 per cent increase in ISRO funding for the 2006-2007 fiscal year provides confirmation of the country's ambitious plans for future economic and technological advances.

In recent months, the agency has sought to boost the domestic satellite construction industry by encouraging private companies to enter the field. In the early stages, ISRO foresees selected companies building satellites based on existing designs. It is hoped that this effort will lead to orders for up to 10 Indian-made telecommunications satellites over the next four or five years. At a later date, the entire design and manufacturing process may be handed over to private enterprise, leaving ISRO to concentrate on advanced Research and Development.

Another major initiative involves expenditure of 14.2bn rupees (£163m) to develop an independent regional satellite navigation system that will reduce the nation's dependence on the GPS system operated by the US Department of Defense. The country's determination to become an important player in this hi-tech field is reinforced by its plans to participate in the global satellite navigation systems of Russia and Europe. Looking even further into the future, the ISRO is already seeking to develop a revolutionary air-breathing rocket engine known as a scramjet. This may one day lead to the development of a cheap, reusable, single-stage hypersonic vehicle that uses less fuel than current craft.

Not all programmes have met with universal approval from India's general public and in the media, notably plans to venture beyond near-Earth space with its Chandrayaan lunar orbiter, but the project is stoutly defended by ISRO officials. "Until now, we have used space systems for national development, such as telemedicine, tele-education, and resource monitoring for forestry, fisheries and urban planning," explained Krishnamurthy. "Now these are in place and we need to improve our capabilities. This can only be done if we embark on more advanced missions, like Chandrayaan."

So does this mean that India will join the exclusive family of countries involved in human space flight? "At the moment, manned space flight is not on the agenda," said Krishnamurthy. However, we always keep in mind our possible long-range requirements. By 2008 we may have the capability of delivering a 10-ton payload to low-Earth orbit - a good size for a manned spacecraft. We are also testing a recoverable capsule system. These first steps are under way, but the final decision will have to depend on the outcome of a national debate."

Peter Bond's latest book, Distant Worlds, will be published by Copernicus in the autumn

Six nations shooting for the stars

50 countries are involved to a significant extent space exploration, headed by the USA, Russia, Japan, China and the 17 members of the European Space Agency. Although most of the remainder buy in hardware and services, the development of a domestic space capability has technological and economic advantages.

Argentina Established a space agency in 1992. The Space Plan for 1995-2006 saw $700m (£370m) invested in the development and launch of telecommunications and scientific satellites, and the establishment of a space centre in Cordoba. This plan has been scaled back due to a national economic crisis, and annual expenditure is now about $30m (£16m).

Brazil Brazilian space activities began in 1965. Attempts to commercialise the Alcantara launch site and develop the home-grown VLS launch vehicle have so far met with failure. However, a number of Earth observation satellites have been built and flown. Brazil's annual space budget is about $75m (£40m).

Israel Became the fifth country in the world to place a satellite in orbit in 1988. The country has its own launch site in the Negev Desert, from which the Shavit rocket is used to launch spy satellites. A military radar observation satellite is due for launch on an Indian rocket next year. The national space budget in 2004 was about $4.4m (£2.3m).

North Korea North Korea's space programme is based on the use of the Taepodong missile as a satellite launcher. The country claimed to have launched a microsatellite in 1998. A second launch attempt in July 2006 was a failure.

South Korea South Korea has invested in space activities since 1992. It aims to be among the top 10 countries in space technology by 2015. Its annual space budget is more than $120m (£63m).

Taiwan A relative newcomer, Taiwan is investing $500m (£264m) a year in its space industry. Since 1999, it has successfully developed two Earth observation satellites and six microsatellites.

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