India at 75, India’s major milestones in space: There was a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were the first, indeed the only runners, in the race for space exploration. For the Indians, the idea of simply inventing space technology was far-fetched and nearly impossible. But that changed when the visionary, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai formed the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962. With Dr. Sarabhai leading the charge, INCOSPAR set up the launch station of Thumba Equatorial Rockets (TERLS) at Thiruvananthapuram for upper atmosphere research. Fun fact, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, who later became the President of India, was part of the initial team of rocket engineers that formed INCOSPAR.
In his autobiography Wings of Fire, Kalam wrote that the site chosen at Thumba was between the railway line and the sea coast. A large church stood in this area whose site was to be acquired. This church became the first unit of TERLS and was later named Vikram Sarabhai Space Center. The first rocket was launched from here on November 21, 1963. It was a NASA-made sounding rocket called the Nike-Apache. Kalam in his book says the rocket was assembled in the church building. The launch was a miracle for many and marked the historic start of India’s space program.
INCOSPAR then grew and became the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on August 15, 1969. It was the perfect day as India was also celebrating its 22nd Independence Day. ISRO’s mission was to harness space technology for the purpose of national development while pursuing space and planetary exploration. Needless to say, ISRO has over the years maintained its goal of using space technology in the service of the nation. It gradually became one of the six largest space agencies in the world. India has one of the largest fleets of communication satellites (INSAT) and remote sensing satellites (IRS). These satellites meet the growing demand for fast and reliable communications and Earth observation respectively. As India’s 75th Independence Day approaches, let’s step back into history and take a look at the key discoveries that put India on the world map for its journey into space.
Named after the famous Indian astronomer, Aryabhata was India’s first satellite launched on April 19, 1975 from Kapustin Yar, a Soviet rocket launch and development site in Astrakhan Oblast using a launcher Kosmos-3M. It was built by ISRO and launched by the Soviet Union under the Soviet Interkosmos program. It was an iconic moment in Indian history. In fact, to mark the occasion, the image of the satellite was printed on the back of Indian two rupee notes between 1976 and 1997.
The Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) was India’s first experimental satellite launch vehicle, which was a four-stage vehicle. It was capable of placing 40 kg class payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It was launched on July 18, 1980. According to the official ISRO website, SLV-3 put Rohini into orbit and thus made India the sixth member of an exclusive club of space nations. Rohini was a series of satellites launched by the Indian Space Research organization. The Rohini series consisted of four satellites, each of which was launched by the SLV and three of which successfully entered orbit. The series consisted mainly of experimental satellites. The successful completion of the SLV-3 project paved the way for advanced launcher projects including the Augmented Satellite Launcher (ASLV), Polar Satellite Launcher (PSLV), and Geosynchronous Satellite Launcher (GSLV).
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is India’s third-generation launcher, as well as India’s first launcher equipped with liquid stages. The PSLV was launched in October 1994 and has since become a reliable launch vehicle with 39 successful consecutive missions till June 2017. According to ISRO website, the vehicle has launched 48 Indian satellites and 209 satellites for overseas customers between 1994 and 2017. Not to forget, the vehicle successfully launched two spacecraft – Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and Mars Orbiter Spacecraft in 2013.
Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first lunar mission. It was the first unmanned lunar probe under the Chandrayaan program and was launched in October 2008 by ISRO. The spacecraft consisted of a lunar orbiter and an impactor. It also included instruments that were built in foreign countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and Bulgaria. The spacecraft completed more than 3,400 orbits around the moon. Although the mission was concluded after the loss of communication with the spacecraft on August 29, 2009, it still managed to give a major boost to the Indian space program.
5. Mars Orbiter Mission
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was India’s first interplanetary mission. India has become the fourth space agency in the world to reach Mars orbit, after Roscosmos, NASA and the European Space Agency. It also made India the first nation in the world to reach Mars orbit on its first attempt. The spacecraft, Mangalyaan, was launched on November 5, 2013 and reached Mars orbit on September 24, 2014.
Another brilliant innovation from ISRO is the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). GSLV is also a space launch vehicle designed to launch satellites and other space objects into geosynchronous transfer orbits. A three-stage launch vehicle with belt-driven engines, GSLV has the capability to put a heavier payload into orbit than the PSLV. GSLV-D5 was the first successful GSLV flight using the native cryogenic engine. The D5 was launched on January 5, 2014.
7. Shakti Mission
In a first-of-its-kind attempt, the Defense Research and Development Organization successfully took down a satellite in space with its Anti-Satellite Missile (ASAT) on March 27, 2019. It was the one of the most important and complex missions that was undertaken by the DRDO and it was named – Mission Shakti. As its name suggests, Mission Shakti has demonstrated the organization’s ability to defend India’s strengths, even in space!
8. Chez Rakesh Sharma Sare Jahan Se Achcha
Amidst all the innovations and brilliant space technologies, how can we forget the one name that has proven to be India’s golden ticket to glory in space achievements? The one and only Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space! Sharma, a former Indian Air Force pilot, has been selected to become a cosmonaut and go into space under a joint program between the Indian Air Force and the Soviet space program Interkosmos . He flew aboard the Soyuz T-11 on April 3, 1984.