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India launches 101st space mission, and looks to Mars

The mission will be carried out without international help, highlighting the growth and ambition of India’s home-grown space program, which plans to launch a mission to Mars.

India marked its 101st space mission today with the launch of its heaviest communications satellite, GSAT-10, from French Guyana.

The satellite, carrying 30 communication transponders and a navigation payload, is the first of 10 missions slated for the coming year, a hectic schedule that theIndian Space Research Organization (ISRO) hopes will have glorious finale in November 2013 with the launch of an orbiter to Mars.

India’s Red Planet mission is to be carried out without international help, highlighting the growth of the agency.

“At the moment, we plan to do it on our own,” said ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan at the agency’s headquarters here last week.

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After 50 years and 100 missions, the Indian space program is growing faster than ever. India’s scientists, some NASA-trained, assembled the country’s first rocket in a village church in the 1960s. Today, India’s home-grown space program is considered one of the top six in the world.

In recent years, the mission has expanded its original development agenda to embrace more commercial and exploratory interests — though to what extent remains to be seen.

Budget parallels India’s economic growth

The government has increased budgets, accelerating the pace of missions and moving toward more prestigious — and sometimes controversial — projects throughout the past decade.

“The first 50 missions took 27 years, the next 50 took place in the last 10 years and the next 58 missions will happen in the next five years,” said Mr. Radhakrishnan, whle emphasizing the agency’s “success on a shoestring” story.  

ISRO’s budget is barely 7.5 percent the size of NASA, but it has been growing every year since the early 2000s, jumping from $591 million in 2004-05 to $1.3 billion in 2012-2013.

“I can think of no other major space program in the world that has enjoyed such a level of sustained annual budgetary growth,” says Asif Siddiqi, an associate professor of history atFordham University, who is working on a book on the Indian space program.

The budget expansion parallels India’s economic growth in the past decade, notes Mr. Siddiqi. And high-profile successes have also helped boost government support for ISRO, he says.

Shift in mission

For five decades, ISRO stuck close to founder Vikram Sarabhai’s vision to reject “the fantasy of competing with economically advanced countries” to explore the moon and instead use space technology to improve the lives of ordinary people.

The result: India has built one of the largest communication satellite systems —  used to support telemedicine and tele-education programs for rural areas — and one of the world’s best remote sensing systems, which helps with forecasting the weather and monitoring natural resources, including locating water sources.

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But the agency’s recent forays into space exploration — including the 2008 Chandrayan 1 lunar probe and proposed missions to the sun — and reconnaissance satellites is a “fundamental shift” from Sarabhai’s “space for development” agenda, says Siddiqi. 

India’s uncertainty about that shift was evident last month with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement of the Mars mission, called Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for “To Mars”), which was met with mixed response. The mission, timed to coincide with the next window when the planet is closest to earth, is intended to help collect data on methane sources.

Skeptics question not only the tough deadline, but whether India should be spending almost $90 million on a scientific mission that comes amid economic slowdown in India and after the US has already undertaken a similar mission.

Not everyone has been critical, however. “India is a country which works on different levels,” says Krishan Lal, president of the Indian National Science Academy. “On the one hand, we have a space mission, on the other hand a large number of bullock carts. You can’t, say, remove all the bullock carts, then move into space. You have to move forward in all directions.”            

No space race

Officials have defended their program: ISRO chief Radhakrishnan pointed out that of this year’s budget, 55 percent was allocated to space applications like communication, navigation, and remote sensing, 36 percent to launch vehicles and just 9 percent to science and exploration missions including Chandrayan 2 and the Mars orbiter.

Many observers agree that prestige is partly behind the Mars mission (the announcement was made when it became clear that the second Moon mission would not keep its 2013 date and even took the scientific community by surprise). But they also say there is little evidence India is engaged in a real space race. China’s space exploration program is far ahead of India’s, especially in manned spaceflight.

“India’s space program will be driven by its budgets, not by a race with competitors,” said Dinshaw Mistry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati specializing in nuclear, missile, and space technology, in an e-mail. The Mars mission is “relatively cheap,” he notes, “costing no more than launching a satellite, while a manned mission is an order of magnitude more expensive and far more risky.”

Less controversial has been ISRO’s entry into the multibillion dollar international commercial launch market via Antrix, its commercial arm. India has launched 29 foreign satellites during the past decade, including the simultaneous launch of the French SPOT 6 and a Japanese microsatellite in September.

But “India has barely begun to scratch the surface” of the market, says Susmita Mohanty, founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up.

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ISRO is still perfecting its Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle,which is meant for launching telecommunications satellites, but it has a robust Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle for launching earth observation satellites, Dr. Mohanty notes. Theoretically ISRO is capable of building and launching five to six Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles a year but for the past few years, has launched about two a year, she says, “most likely because our national priorities precede any commercial intent.”

To grab a greater chunk of the market, says Mohanty, who has previously worked in the aerospace industry in US and Europe, ISRO would have to “develop a more international outlook” and privatize routine rocket manufacturing.

There are signs that this is already happening. At the recent close of Bangalore‘s Space Expo, Radhakrishnan said that ISRO plans to encourage private participation so that it can focus on research and development. He suggested that what India needs is a consortium of big space contracting companies similar to the US. 

“We can learn from Europe and America though their situation is different,” he said.