Last week, Iran announced that it had sent a monkey into space and it would be but a mere prelude to launching an Iranian into space. Some years ago, the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) said it would take preliminary steps into space flight by sending astronauts into space by 2016. That was, of course, before the controversy surrounding former chief Madhavan Nair and the Devas debacle, and such lofty ambitions have quietly been put paid to. The agency’s focus is now on more practical concerns such as improving its satellite-launch record, its second moon mission called Chandrayaan-2 and the Mars Mission.
There are significant lessons that India may glean from Iran’s announcement, even though many countries publicly disbelieve Iran’s claims. While it could be argued that Iran’s move only suggests a certain military prowess; of being able to launch a nuclear warhead farther than what intelligence agencies of other countries think it can do now, the more useful lesson for India is that it’s possible for any country to rapidly acquire a certain amount of technological prowess even in fields as rarefied as space science. What India may claim to have indigenously developed over years, several small countries can acquire in a jiffy.
In spite of several years’ labour, the organization is yet to master the art of developing a stable cryogenic engine and this, in turn, has hampered development of the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III. A space carrier that can haul satellites heavier than 4,000kg and the development of such an engine is essential if at all India is to realize its ambitions of human space flight. The grandeur of space exploration apart, such an engine that can power the GSLV Mk III is also necessary if India has to make a mark in the lucrative but extremely competitive commercial satellite launch vehicle market.
It is high time that instead of the several futuristic missions it proposes, Isro ought to do a more convincing job of identifying key obstacles in its future launch vehicle development and involve a greater range of technical expertise—from its IITs, IISc and other specialized universities—to accelerate technological development. The US, which is cutting down on its expenditure on NASA, can afford to do this as it has private entrepreneurs with sufficient expertise and money to develop the space industry. Unless India takes similar lessons, its space programme stares at obsolescence.
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