Bullock cart obscures Indian quest for space: A sophisticated programme is under threat from the US. Tim McGirk reports from Bangalore

INDIAN space officials are still trying to live down the photograph of their satellite being wheeled out of its gleaming, hi-tech hangar on a bullock cart.

For critics of the Indian space programme, that 1979 picture seemed to symbolise a colossal waste by India, one of the world's poorest nations, just to prove it can fling a piece of metal into the sky. Others saw it as a different kind of symbol, one representing the sacrifices that India has made to keep its independence in scientific discovery and space research.

'We didn't realise what a fuss that photo would make,' said S Krishnamurthi, the press spokesman at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), at their futuristic, moon-grey headquarters in Bangalore, south India. 'Of course, we didn't need to use a bullock cart. We have padded, air-conditioned transport lorries, but the metal was throwing off reflections which were affecting the satellite's antenna. Then somebody hit on the idea of a bullock cart, which is made of wood. It worked perfectly.'

Relying on such ingenuity, the Indians have built five satellites, hitching rides into orbit on French and Soviet rockets. In May they launched their first successful rocket, the Agni - which means fire in Sanskrit - and are planning to shoot 10 more satellites into space before the year 2000.

Now, however, India's space programme faces the biggest threat in its 20-year existence - from the United States. The Bush administration recently slapped a two-year embargo on selling materials to India's space agency. The US fears the Indians might be developing a new, low-temperature liquid fuel, which could be used to hurl nuclear warheads over great distances. India already has the capability and the materials for making an atomic warhead.

The Agni and another missile under development, the Prithvi, can easily be tooled for military purposes, and the US is worried that India might be building up a missile arsenal to rattle at its two neighbouring enemies, China and Pakistan. India perceives Pakistan to be the bigger threat, and the large cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi are all within striking distance of the new Agni missile. Rockets with the new cryogenic technology, American experts claim, could lengthen the range of India's blow even further.

Professor U R Rao, the space agency director, claimed that this cryogenic technology had only been used on space rockets before, not missiles. The Indians insist that the US is using this as an excuse to cripple their space programme for commercial reasons.

'In the US, I think they're saying: 'Here comes another competitor, let's try to stop them,' Mr Krishamurthi said. The trade ban has also strained relations between the US and Russia, which is helping India develop the low-temperature propellant.

With the new fuel, India can start firing its own - and other clients' - satellites into space by 1995. 'Once we can launch our own rockets, we'll be able to build state-of-the-art communications satellites and put them in orbit for one-third of the cost (charged by the Americans or the French),' Mr Krishnamurthi said.

The home-made satellites in orbit allow the Indians to broadcast television to all but 10 per cent of this vast country, plot the trajectory of cyclones and beneficial monsoon rains, measure snowfall in the Himalayas, and tap subterranean water reservoirs in drought-stricken areas.

The Isro chief told the Indian press soon after the US embargo that necessary components could be obtained through 'alternative sources'. However, some experts claim that the embargo could harm India's space industry, which employs 17,000 people and gives work, through private companies, to more than 100,000.

Many Indian scientists are based in Bangalore, a lush, modern city. There are bold concrete buildings bearing titles such as The Centre for Artifical Intelligence and Robots. Scores of multinational companies have opened offices here, filled with brainstorming Indian scientists and computer experts.

At the Bangalore planetarium, spectators are shown slides of yogis meditating at sunrise followed by a lecture on the discoveries of ancient Indian astronomers. The Indians have their own way of looking at the universe.

When the lights dimmed, an old, turbaned farmer clapped in awe at the galaxies that suddenly burst out of the planetarium dome, while sitting next to him, there was a seven-year old girl in a pink dress who was able to recite the names of Jupiter's moons. The younger generation of Indians are not strangers to outer space.