Mission impossible

Mission impossible

It’s another unenviable milestone in India’s journey of learning and doing.

Around 4pm on Saturday, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)-F06, which was carrying a communications satellite, GSAT-5P, had to be destroyed soon after its launch from Sriharikota. The command centre lost control of the rocket 47 seconds after its launch and 16 seconds later, visuals of its breaking up could be seen clearly.

It marks the third failure of GSLV launch vehicles by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)—the GSLV-F02 failed on 10 July 2006; GSLV-D3 met the same fate on 15 April 2010. In two cases, GSLV-F02 and the launch on Saturday, the rocket was fitted with a Russian cryogenic engine—a proven technology in comparison to the indigenously developed cryogenic upper stage that did not work in GSLV-D3. It is this aspect of the failure, the use of established technology, in this case Russian, to carry out a “routine" launch that is troubling.

Isro chief K. Radhakrishnan put a brave face and said that “we learn from failures and such failures lead to success".

What Radhakrishnan said is largely true: Isro’s efforts have been immense and its successes, when seen against the light of technology denial regimes by advanced industrial countries, formidable. But it is time to move on and take a critical look at its failures and what they mean. It is also time that we compared ourselves with the best—for we imagine ourselves to be a Great Power in the making—and not merely celebrate our second-best achievements.

To raise one uncomfortable question: How does our space programme fare when seen against what the Russians, the Americans and the Chinese achieved at a comparable stage of national development? The answer, it must be admitted, is not a happy one.

Isro’s failures in this case have to do largely with managing complex technologies that have a large number of moving parts. For example, in the failed April launch, the rocket failed to develop adequate thrust due to the failure of the fuel booster turbo pump that stopped seconds after launch. That analysis of failure is fine and Isro may have learnt not to repeat that mistake, but the failure lies elsewhere: Its inability to check such repeated failures in systems that are complex and have a huge number of parts. Managing complex technologies is key to the success of ambitious programmes such as the Chandrayaan mission and other equally adventurous space missions. That remains Isro’s weak spot.

What should Isro focus on? Tell us at views@livemint.com