A brief history of the satellite, launch vehicle and application programs of ISRO to shed some light on the important role played by international entities especially from the Soviet Union, the USA, France and Germany in kickstarting the Indian Space Program.
The success of the satellite programmes Aryabhatta, Bhaskara, Rohini and Apple in the 70s led to the operational programmes INSAT for communication, broadcasting and meteorology and IRS for earth observation in the 80s, which are currently the major programmes of ISRO. The first satellite ‘Aryabhata’ was developed and launched using a Soviet Launcher. Bhaskara-I & II missions pioneered the future remote sensing satellite series. ‘Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE)’ was ISRO’s first indigenous, experimental communication satellite launched by ESA’a Ariane vehicle from Kourou on June 19, 1981
The INSAT-1 was built by the American Ford Aerospace while the INSAT-2 was indigenously developed. The IRS-1A, IRS-1B and IRS 1-C were launched in March 1988, August 1988 and December 1995 respectively using Russian launch vehicles. From IRS-1D onwards, ISRO’s PSLV was used.
Even though ISRO had acquired the baseline technologies before the establishment of the MTCR, technology denial regimes had delayed ISRO’s progress by increasing costs of materials & subsystems and deliberately delaying deliveries. However, these restrictions enabled indigenous developments in the areas of guidance & inertial systems, propellants, materials engineering, manufacture and mechanical & electrical design.
Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) in 1980 was the first experimental satellite launch vehicle. Development of the complex Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) demonstrated newer technologies and paved the way for realisation of operational launch vehicles such as PSLV and GSLV.
In 1967 itself, the first ‘Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES)’ was set up in Ahmedabad that also acted as a training centre for Indian and International scientists and engineers. However, before developing and operating a full-fledged satellite system of its own for national needs, a TV program ‘Krishi Darshan’ using foreign satellites was started, to provided information on agriculture for farmers of the country, that received a wide response.
After this came ‘the largest sociological experiment in the world’ during 1975-76, that benefitted about 200000 people from 2400 villages across six states. This was the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) that used the American Technology Satellite (ATS-6) to transmit development oriented programs. For this purpose, fifty thousand science teachers from primary schools were trained in a surprisingly short period of one year, by the SITE team.
Following SITE was the joint project of ISRO-and Post and Telegraphs Department (P&T) known as the Satellite Telecommunication Experiments Project (STEP), during 1977-79. This used the Franco-German Symphonie satellite, and focused on telecommunication experiments with the objectives of – testing the use of geosynchronous satellites for domestic communication; enhancing capabilities and experience in various ground segment facilities including their design, manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance; building up of indigenous competence for the proposed INSAT domestic satellite system. Then came the ‘Kheda Communications Project (KCP)’ for testing need-based and locale specific programme transmission, which was awarded the UNESCO-IPDC (International Programme for the Development of Communication) award for rural communication efficiency in the 1984.
Now, nearly six decades after its inception, ISRO has drawn global attention by the thrifty innovations of its Moon and Mars missions. Unlike in other major space faring countries, ISRO is the major space manufacturer in India. The 500 small, medium and large scale domestic industries that participate in the space program have only been supplying satellite and launch vehicle components and ground equipment to ISRO since the 1970s, while ISRO was solely responsible for the sub-system assembly and integration and launch activities. Its commercial arm Antrix has been responsible for the sale of remote sensing data, ground station services, satellite launches, transponder leases and export of satellite components. However, with the global demand for PSLV launches surpassing ISRO’s current production capacity and to nurture the domestic industrial capabilities, ISRO has announced plans towards privatisation of its workhorse PSLV and transfer of the AIT (Assembly, Integration and Testing) activities of its satellites to the domestic private players. Moreover, the Indian space industry is getting an additional boost from the handful of newspace startups that are eager to experiment with the downstream as well as upstream space activities, such as Astrome Technologies, SatSure, Bellatrix aerospace, among others.