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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
TVSPOILER ALERT: It's all coming together as series returns to form
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine