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Failure Of India's Big Rocket Project Is Symbolic Of Deep Structural Problems
by Sumantra Maitra
New Delhi, India (SPX) Nov 25, 2012


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The ongoing "Asia Pivot" by United States is rapidly changing the regional dynamics of the Indo - Pacific region, and nowhere is it more visible than the sphere of cooperation in defence and space research.

Recently Canadian and Australian defence co-operation and ties with India reached unprecedented highs, a chain of event termed as the "Rise of the Anglosphere" by historian Walter Russell Mead.

However, the successive failure of Indian GSLV missions, combined with India's stubborn secrecy and fierce independence in the space sector is giving rise to doubts about the scope of further future co-operations.

Although the failure of this signature launching vehicle is attributed to technical glitches, it is highly symbolic of the greater lack of clarity, purpose and direction in the Indian space program.

The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) was originally intended to be India's signature launching vehicle, eventually to launch India's INSAT type satellites, and reduce dependence on foreign rockets.

In the early nineties, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, India was forced to develop independent launching vehicles. India originally tried to buy the technology to build a cryogenic upper stage from Russia, but was denied, under pressure from United States and other Western countries.

With the development of indigenous Cryogenic engine, India became the sixth country in the World to posses the technology, which could be potentially used for civilian and military purposes.

Indian GSLV generally uses L40 liquid strap on boosters and old Soviet KVD 1 upper stage. But even though Indian military and ballistic missile programs were successful, as recently evident with the successful launch of Agni V ICBM, its civilian rocket and space program were mediocre at best.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a launcher vehicle used previously to launch civilian satellites was used as a model of GSLV programs, but it was not successful. Multiple versions of GSLV were launched in the last decade, with more than half of them failing due to technical difficulties. A brief stint of success in 2003- 04 was followed by successive failures.

The vehicle failed to reach orbit, lost control of liquid fuel booster, veered of designated trajectory and had to be destroyed over the Bay of Bengal, or failed to deliver payload in the last four missions. With an unprecedented failure rate, GSLV is gradually on its way to be the costliest misadventure of Indian strategic and space sector. The eighth launch is scheduled in 2013.

The causes of these failures are minor, according to the official bureaucratic rhetoric, and were attributed to minor technical malfunctions. There was no clear response to queries as to why five out of seven launches have resulted in total or partial failure.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is also secretive and tightlipped about capability and weight of the satellites and why India is still unsuccessful in launching communication satellites more than 3000 KG, 36 Transponder class, whereas the nearby competitors like Japan and China, not to mention USA, Russia and European Space Agency have already moved on to triple that size.

There is no clarity and accountability when it comes to tax payer's money spent on space research, and no heads roll even when there are repeated failures. The lack of purpose is also evident as India lacks fixed and dedicated plan in the Space sector.

In an interview earlier this year, Dr. K, Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO, stated that India's main concern and thrust is in the area of applications and not manned space flights and space stations, unlike Russia, US or China. India with its massive population and democratic set up needs more communication satellite to cater to domestic needs, unlike China which is heavily centralized and controlled.

However that argument and logic falls flat as India is already planning for its second lunar mission in early 2014, Chandrayaan 2, and possibly a manned space mission by 2017.

In January 2011, the U.S. officially removed export controls on several subsidiaries of India's Defense Research and Development Organization and the ISRO. It was a clear signal that the United States would like to chart a new future of space co-operation with India.

American think tank Heritage Foundation also published a report around same time, calling for enhanced space and missile defence co-operation between India, Australia and United States, including satellite defence and interceptors, theatre based missile defence and most importantly future co-operation and joint space programs. However there seems to be lukewarm response and enthusiasm from the Indian side.

India's notorious reliance on Russian hardware is also a major hindrance when it comes to further cooperation with the West. Only with the benefit of hindsight would we be able to determine the trajectory of India's space co-operation with the West, or whether it takes any specific direction, but at this present point of time, it is safe to assume, that without any clear plan, or white paper, India's current space prospects are quite grim, and will continue in the chaotic and headless way for the near foreseeable future.

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