Last fortnight, ISRO completed the historic Chandrayaan 3 mission to the moon, commencing its Aditya L-1 Sun Mission.
Swadesi Space Dreams
It was audacious for a newly independent India to even think of a space program.
For centuries, humankind has been fascinated by what lies beyond the earth’s atmosphere. India was no different.
But India in the 1950s and 60s was far from being able to afford one. It seemed like a risky experiment with no apparent benefit in sight.
Thanks to the vision and resolve of a few brave men, India embarked on an audacious space adventure. A country that was barely beginning to walk was looking to fly.
The visionaries of India’s early space foundation were Homi Baba and Vikram Sarabhai. While both pursued their postgraduate research at universities in London, the outbreak of World War II brought them back to India, where they would meet at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore.
They believed space technology could be harnessed for its communication, remote sensing, agriculture and education applications.
Once the USA and USSR had started the space race, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first ever satellite in space. By 1963, the USA had opened up collaboration with other countries and India’s geographical location near the earth’s magnetic equator made it an ideal candidate to study the upper atmosphere.
Sarabhai jumped at the opportunity.
In the same year, he gathered a team and made it possible for an American sounding rocket to take off from Thumba, a small fishing hamlet in Kerala. These rockets served as prototypes for probing the earth’s atmosphere and test components for space vehicles.
Establishing the rocket launching station at Thumba was a quantum leap for atmospheric sciences and turned into the first lab for rocket systems in India.
Thumba turned into a hectic activity centre for rocket launches – between 1963 and 1975, nearly 800 rockets flew into the skies from here.
The location was like a studio where scientists from all over the world came to launch their rockets and conduct experiments, providing huge exposure to the people who worked there.
Sarabhai gathered engineers and scientists from across the country and beyond to study rocket launches and eventually master building them.
By 1969, the space program led by Sarabhai had started to gain the stature of a government department – all the operational work of building and launching rockets, satellites and their launch vehicles came under one roof called the Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO.
After Sarabhai’s demise, the reins of India’s space program at ISRO were handed over to mathematician Satish Dhawan in 1972. He was a former professor at IISc and was convinced to take over the chairmanship by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Like his predecessor, Dhawan wanted the space program to have an economic or developmental agenda for India. ISRO’s headquarters were moved to Bangalore. He got cracking right away on ambitious tasks such as building India’s satellite launch vehicles and developing India’s first indigenous satellite.
From just building rockets, ISRO was now developing a full-fledged space program.
Satellite Se Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham
One of Sarabhai’s ambitions was for India to have its satellites.
These were the proverbial ‘eyes in the sky’ that helped gather data and conduct experiments.
The satellite program would be headed by ‘satellite man’ U.R. Rao, one of Sarabhai’s earliest students. With a team of 20 engineers, he began designing India’s first satellite. However, at this time, they weren’t even sure how they would launch the satellite into orbit.
For any satellite to go to space, it needed a powerful rocket to escape Earth’s gravity. So far, India was only launching sounding rockets that went up to 55kms and fell back on the earth.
India had not yet mastered the art of launching a rocket into space.
Thanks to the Cold War complexities at that time, help to launch the satellite came from the Soviets. Post initial discussions, they decided the satellite would weigh 360 kilograms, and carry payloads to conduct experiments in X-ray astronomy, gamma rays and aeronomy of the study of the upper regions of the earth’s atmosphere.
The budget? 3 crores rupees or USD 363,000. Frugality and innovation were part of ISRO’s core from the beginning.
India’s first satellite would be built out of make-shift sheds in the Peenya industrial area in Bangalore, with materials coming in from across and outside the country. The USSR would only provide the launch vehicle and some basic technology – everything else would be learnt locally in India and ‘figured out.’
The satellite would be called Aryabhata, after the great Indian mathematician. On 19 April 1975, around 30 Indian scientists traveled to Russia for the launch.
Additionally, Indian scientists huddled at a monitoring station in Sriharikota. Incredibly, two toilets behind the Peenya sheds had been converted into another ground station to track the satellite
Few minutes after the launch, the first telemetry signals were received by the Indian stations from Aryabhata. ISRO had sent a spherical emissary into space, something that was deemed impossible a few years ago.
Four days after the launch, the satellite faced an electrical failure, halting the experiments it was to conduct.
Sarabhai had made bouncing back from failure and learning from mistakes part of the culture at ISRO. The event only increased the odds of success in the future and did nothing to dent the scientist’s pride in putting a satellite into orbit.
My Name is ISRO and I am Not a Fluke
A year after India’s first satellite launch, the sheds in Peenya were converted into the U.R.Rao Satellite Center and became a hub of activity for future launches.
The next step for ISRO was to design and build a satellite launch vehicle or SLV. They could no longer depend on the Soviets or the US each time a satellite was to be launched. Sarabhai had first voiced plans for a launch vehicle in the mid-1960s.
Compared to a sounding rocket that only needs to go up, a launch vehicle needs to put a satellite into orbit by injecting it at a very precise angle and velocity. It accelerates through the atmosphere, escaping gravity, sheds parts and then orients itself to place the satellite in orbit.
Sarabhai had chosen the third on the list of the six configurations suggested for the SLV, thus the name SLV-3 for ISRO’s first launch vehicle. It was a four-stage launch vehicle, with one scientist in charge of each stage and Dr. Abdul Kalam as the Project director.
This time around, the launch site for India was planned on the east coast because launching a rocket eastwards, in the direction of the earth’s rotation, helps it gather more momentum. The search led them to Sriharikota, a small land of the Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh.
After almost a decade of work and about a million components put together, the SLV-3 was planned for launch in 1979. The vehicle would carry a 40 kg Rohini satellite and place it in an orbit 300 kms from the earth.
Just months before the launch, six engineers suffered acid burns from an explosion during the flight tests. After a few months’ delay due to the incident, the SLV was ready for takeoff in August 1979.
Standing 22m above ground, it was the most giant rocket to leave Indian soil. Five minutes after it took flight, the SLV-3 crashed into the Bay of Bengal.
It was ISRO and Kalam’s first major failure.
Despite the profound disappointment and frustration from years of work going up in flames, they persevered. Once again, Satish Dhawan’s message to the team was to learn from mistakes and return stronger. Undeterred, Kalam continued on the project.
The government had spent 80 crore rupees on the SLV program. While by no means a hefty sum for a rocket launch, the stakes were high for an India still finding its feet.
In July 1980, SLV-3 was launched successfully, putting the Rohini-1 satellite in orbit. The moment marked the birth of a self-reliant Indian space program, only the sixth country to launch its satellite.
Abdul Kalam was the hero of the mission.
By 1983, ISRO conducted two more launches of the SLV-3, gaining attention from international press and space agencies. This was followed by the Bhaskara series of satellites that focused on remote sensing with applications in Earth observation and agricultural planning.
A true underdog with limited resources was feeding off the hunger of a passionate, driven scientific community to deliver stellar outcomes for the country.
ISRO had put India in an elite club of countries with its space program.
Space Ke Liye Main Hoon Na
ISRO’s initial satellites in 1970s and 1980s focused on gaining operational experience and insights for future missions.
ISRO also established the National Remote Sensing Program (NRSP) that focused on using satellite information for applications in forestry, water management and urban planning.
With a focus on commercialization, satellites were developed during this time for communication and meteorology to improve teleconnection across the country and weather detection.
By 1988, ISRO launched the INSAT-1C, a communications satellite designed to meet specific communications needs of the Indian Navy. This expanded the horizons for the space sector
After a few attempts, India launched the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in 1993.
The first launch failed due to an altitude control problem resulting from an oversight in the software implementation. With learnings from SLV-3, ALSV and PSLV, the first successful launch occurred in 1994.
PSLV allowed India to launch its Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites into sun-synchronous orbits, a service only commercially available from Russia then.
Since its launch, the PSLV became the workhorse launch vehicle – placing both remote sensing and communications satellites into orbit, creating the largest cluster in the world, and providing unique data to Indian industry and agriculture.
It also marked India’s entry into the Big Rockets league, as it could carry a payload of up to 1,000 kg.
ISRO received funding from the Department of Space budget, over INR 4,000 crore before 1990. With the challenging economic conditions in the 1990s, the budget dropped to a little over INR 3,200 crore in 1991-92.
To generate a secondary source of income utilising the success of previous missions, ISRO, in September 1992, incorporated Antrix (a variation of the Hindi word Antariksh, meaning space).
The aim was to maximise the commercial value of the Indian space program by creating a robust ecosystem using ISRO’s capabilities.
The first commercial foreign satellite launch occurred in May 1999, when ISRO launched satellites for Germany and South Korea and India’s OceanSat, a satellite for ocean applications.
South Korea paid US$1 million to launch the 110 kg satellite when it cost the US more than US$2 million to launch a satellite of similar weight.
Antrix, with the success of PSLV, has enabled India to become a prominent space player worldwide. Many space centres worldwide have relied on India to launch their satellites because lower costs cut them down by as much as 66%.
ISRO could do this because of the lower salaries of engineers, local manufacturing, the ability to work with fewer resources, and a clear focus on maximising outputs.
The establishment of Antrix, the evolution of IT services in India, and liberalisation in the 1990s paved the way for an increasing belief in the privatisation of the space sector. The Department of Space promoted this growth and outsourced manufacturing to private players.
ISRO was beginning to become the Indian platform to give wings to private players and other countries
Chand Par Le Jayenge
In early 2001, the words of APJ Abdul Kalam echoed: the Space Industrial Revolution was on the horizon, poised to mark mankind’s next giant leap.
The decade’s inception witnessed the inaugural flight of GSLV, India’s largest launch vehicle, carrying the experimental communication satellite GSAT-1. While not meeting its intended orbit, GSLV’s affordability as a satellite launcher put India on the commercial map.
PSLV was designed for polar orbit satellite launches, whereas GSLV was intended for geostationary orbit satellite launches. GSLV could also carry bigger payloads and used three-stage liquid fuel with a cryogenic engine, making it more cost-effective.
Notably, ISRO lacked an official logo until 2002. The chosen emblem featured an ascending orange arrow tethered to blue satellite panels, bearing ISRO’s name in two text variants – orange Devanagari and blue Prakrta typeface.
2002 saw the launch of Kalpana-1, India’s first dedicated meteorological satellite, via the PSLV.
Meanwhile, China’s human spaceflight prompted PM AB Vajpayee to set eyes on the Moon, he pushed ISRO to develop technologies to land humans on the Moon and plan planetary crewed missions.
It was the beginning of the Chandrayan dream.
By 2003, GSAT-2, a 2000 kg experimental communication satellite, made its mark aboard GSLV-D2’s second developmental test flight.
Over time, India’s space program forged a self-reliant and cost-effective space infrastructure, yielding substantial economic and societal benefits.
EDUSAT, or GSAT-3, was India’s inaugural “Educational Satellite,” empowering distant classroom education.
By 2005, Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm, continued to secure international contracts for satellite launches, showcasing India’s prowess.
ISRO’s satellite manufacturing prowess shone, delivering satellites in approximately 28 months at $40-60 million for a 2-ton satellite. Lower-orbit launch by PSLV cost under $20 million whereas a Delta II launch in USA costed approximately $60 million for a similar payload
India displayed fiscal efficiency.
In innovation, the AVATAR Scramjet project aimed to birth a cost-effective, reusable launch vehicle tailored for small satellites, fostering commercial viability.
The era witnessed monumental achievements like the successful launches of GSLV-D1, D2, GSLV-F02, and F04, carrying crucial payloads like INSAT-4C and INSAT-4CR. The pioneering CARTOSAT-1 joined the fray, providing in-orbit stereo images.
ISRO’s success was backed by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, solid and continued political support from the Indian Government and a high-calibre technical workforce, 40% of whom are doctorates, post-graduates and graduates.
Venturing beyond space, ISRO’s cryogenic technology expertise fueled collaboration with Tata Motors, birthing a hydrogen fuel cell prototype car for the Indian market.
The journey wasn’t without its challenges. GSLV-F02, carrying INSAT-4C, faced setbacks in 2006. Nevertheless, PSLV triumphed in commercial missions.
Notable among these were the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite launch in April 2007 and the Israeli satellite TECSAR’s deployment in January 2008. April 2008 showcased ISRO’s prowess, launching ten satellites in a single mission.
The stage was now set for India’s foray into lunar exploration.
Space Race Ka Badshaah
The moon has always held strategic importance in space.
Its relative proximity, scope for further research, considerable resource potential and the glimmer of life support.
With the launch of Chandrayaan-1 on 22 October 2008, ISRO entered a rarefied circle of national agencies – only the fifth – to reach the lunar surface.
The project’s broader purpose was to survey the lunar surface over two years, particularly the chemical composition at the surface and the three-dimensional topography. However, the mission’s most significant achievement was discovering the widespread presence of water molecules in the lunar soil.
The landmark achievement raised ISRO’s stature and the scale of India’s space ambitions.
What escaped attention at that time was a module within the mission called the Moon Impact Probe (MIP), which had the national flag inscribed on it. On entering the lunar orbit, the probe was programmed to drop near the south pole, serving as symbolic evidence of India’s arrival on the moon and a precursor to soft landings in the years to come.
ISRO then championed utility projects to improve telecommunications and broadcasting (GSAT series), facilitate disaster management (RISAT-2), urban planning & infrastructure development (Cartosat series), monitor coastal zones (Oceansat-2) and further forestry and agriculture applications in general.
In November 2013, ISRO launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or the Mangalyaan, the country’s first interplanetary mission, cementing India’s status as a space superpower.
India was the first Asian nation to achieve the feat and the first in the world to do so in its maiden attempt.
The historic mission cost just $73 million, showcasing ISRO’s well-chronicled frugality. ISRO attributed it to a modular approach, judicious ground tests and 18+ hour working days for scientists.
The broader objective included exploring Mars’ surface and atmosphere using indigenous scientific instruments.
By this time, ISRO had also mastered the playbook of building technologies with comprehensive use cases and added application layers to disseminate them at scale. It quietly developed the world’s largest constellation of remote-sensing satellites.
In 2018 it went live with Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) or the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). It could provide accurate real-time positioning and timing services in India and up to 1,500 kilometres beyond borders. This alternative to GPS no less could soon make its way into smartphones.
ISRO was truly becoming the champion in the space race and the collective pride of India
Baki Desho Ke Sath Bana Di Jodi
By 2018, the space industry was opening up.
It had once served as an exclusive platform for global governments to showcase their soft power. The industry was increasingly moving towards a free market and, thus, higher competition.
Despite ISRO’s reputation of getting things right at scale, a market share based on cost advantage alone was unlikely to be enduring.
Private companies like SpaceX successfully tested reusable rocket technology. New upstarts included the Dutch space solutions provider ISI Space and USA’s Made in Space, which offered 3D printers for space.
There was also significant regulatory risk, with several ‘America-first’ companies actively lobbying for rules to prevent USA’s satellites from being launched by ISRO.
Like the USA, Japan shifted to the private sector to boost growth and competitiveness. China had also conditionally opened its space industry to entrepreneurs and private investors. The Chinese National Space Agency held part ownership in all space startups while allowing them autonomy in research and development.
India’s NIAS also highlighted the importance of developing the private sector’s capabilities.
Even in the changing landscape, ISRO continued to be in good stead, for it had mastered the fundamental first principle in space missions – that the cost to launch a vehicle off the ground is directly related to its weight on the ground.
This explains ISRO’s reliance on its storied workhorse – the PSLV.
While it appears oversimplistic, ISRO’s ostensible advantage resulted from making a virtue out of economic necessities and prioritising ruthlessly.
For instance, the Apollo 11 mission took just 4 days for astronauts to reach the moon in 1969. It used a powerful Saturn V rocket to push the spacecraft in record time.
On the other hand, ISRO’s Chandrayaan missions used much smaller rockets and instead relied on continued orbiting to build up the spacecraft’s velocity. The process took longer while cutting down the project expenditure to a fraction.
ISRO has also been helped in no small part by the good old jugaad of its vendors and contractors. Its suppliers commonly procure satellite patches from abroad and re-engineer them in bulk at a significantly lower cost while maintaining a tight grip on quality.
Similarly, ISRO’s standard mission timelines appear substantially crunched compared to other national agencies. That requires close collaboration, precise planning & resource allocation and very limited experimentation.
This drives a culture of efficiency across the organization.
ISRO’s stellar track record and autonomy from the Indian state has allowed it to become a preferred partner for satellite launches (400+) and spacecraft missions (100+) for other nations.
It entered MoUs or Framework Agreements with China, Japan, UAE and UK.
Domain excellence works best in an environment of mutual dependence. Space exploration continues to be marked by soft alliances and convenient partnerships rather than a head-on turf war. As it was one of the few nations in the world to go to space, it became an attractive partner for countless nations and private players.
The Space Agency had truly become a space platform from India to the world. It was about to explode.
Phir Bhi Space Hai Hindustani
The Government of India liberalised the space sector in 2020, marking a huge step.
One of the key guiding principles behind this move was to democratise access to not only space, but also ISRO’s facilities, guidance and mentorship. India’s space tech stack would no longer be limited to ISRO’s vendor ecosystem of 400-500 companies.
ISRO had become the India stack for Space Tech in all ways.
The rationale behind this was obvious. Despite ISRO’s technical prowess, it was competing on the global scale with a blunt edge.
Its budget of $1.7 billion in 2022 was minuscule compared to US $30 billion and China’s $14 billion. India’s share in the $440 billion global space market amounted to just 2%.
ISRO needed money to flow in.
Action followed quickly. NSIL, ISRO’s commercial arm, was leveraged to identify and execute opportunities for technology transfers to the private sector. In FY22, 69 technologies were transferred from ISRO to NSIL, allowing the latter to achieve a turnover of ₹1,675 crore.
The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) was formed to promote and supervise the private space sector, including enabling access to ISRO’s resources.
Through IN-Space 2021, startups like Agnikul Cosmos and Skyroot Aerospace obtained access to ISRO facilities and vehicle testing expertise
On 18 November 2022, Skyroot Aerospace launched India’s first privately manufactured rocket, Vikram-S, from ISRO’s facilities in Sriharikota. Seven days later, Agnikul Cosmos formally established India’s first private launchpad and mission control centre in Sriharikota.
As one would have guessed, money quickly followed too. In 2023, India’s space tech sector ranked seventh globally in funding. It was about to do the impossible.
On 23 August 2023, India became the first to soft land on the moon’s south pole. It was an incredible feat, but along with liberalization, it was India’s second big step.
The objective was not easy. Visualise remotely landing a spaceship travelling at a speed 10x faster than an aeroplane on a hazardous, cratered surface, while operating in a reduced gravity & no-atmosphere environment!
Of all the lunar missions launched in the past six decades, almost half have failed. Only 37% soft landings have been successful. These challenges had overwhelmed ISRO’s previous attempt with Chandraayan-2 to soft-land on the moon.
Dauntless, ISRO returned to the drawing board and developed a ‘failure-based design’ for Chandraayan-3, focusing on protecting against all potential adverse scenarios. These included strengthening the lander’s legs for faster landings, adding more solar panels for increased power generation, and increasing the target landing area by 40 times.
Chandrayaan-3’s mission profile was also simplified. Chandrayaan-3 did not carry an orbiter as Chandrayaan-2 had and carried 6 payloads vis-à-vis the latter’s 14.
With Chandrayaan-3’s success, ISRO put India’s space program on the global map, spotlighting the young and ambitious space tech sector of India
Akin to the Mangalyan Mission, the cost frugality of the entire mission again came to the spotlight. The mission cost only ₹600 crore ($74m) – half of what it cost to produce Interstellar.
Exactly like the India stack for fintech, ISRO had platformed into a tech stack for space. The flood of entrepreneurs to build on top of it were coming.
Chak De India
Regulatory ambiguity in space has now turned into full-blown encouragement.
The Indian Space Policy 2023 seeks to institutionalise the role of ISRO, IN-SPACe and NSIL in promoting the growth of the private space sector.
As of February 2023, IN-SPACe received applications from over 160 private entities to utilise ISRO’s facilities. In collaboration with Social Alpha, ISRO has also launched the SpaceTech Innovation Network to promote venture development in the sector.
The global space exploration market is predicted to reach USD 1,879 billion by 2032, and the government has declared its aspirations for the Indian space sector to account for 9% of the market, suggesting continued support in the future. .
Smaller satellites use Small Satellite Launch Vehicles (SSLVs), which can cost almost one-fourth of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs), used for larger payloads. 20 companies expressed interest in building SSLVs for ISRO under the technology transfer scheme in August 2023.
Companies like Agnikul Cosmos and Skyroot Aerospace, which utilise technologies like 3D printing, bring down the costs even further to range of INR 20 crore per SSLV.
Reaching space is just one of the problems being solved by spacetech ventures.
Bellatrix Aerospace is busy testing multiple propulsion technologies to be used by satellites once they are in space. Pixxel, Kawa Space and GalaxEye Space are emerging as pioneers for imaging technologies to be equipped on satellites. Astrogate Labs is building ground-to-space optical high-speed communication technologies.
InspeCity is positioning itself as a satellite repair and servicing provider, aiming to enhance the life of satellites. Perhaps one of the most ambitious Indian startups, it eventually seeks to build O’Neill cylinders for human habitation in space.
Yes, human settlements in cylinders. The lines between fiction and reality are blurring.
Digantara is working on developing solutions dealing with detection & mapping of space debris. SatSure hopes to gather, refine and sell satellite-based data & analytics services across multiple sectors.
While enabling the little guys to grow up, the big daddy of all ISRO continues to hone its platform.
With private pioneers ready to exploit the available space-based commercial opportunities, ISRO focuses its resources on strategic and exploratory missions that could unlock further opportunities.
ISRO’s current pipeline of projects draws a promising picture.
The Aditya L1, ISRO’s first mission to the sun, launched on 2nd September this year, with aim of analysing the surface of the sun, including phenomena like coronal ejection and flare activities. It will be placed on a LaGrange point, wherein the sun and Earth’s gravitational forces negate entirely each other.
The Mangalyaan 2, ISRO’s second unmanned mission to Mars, will take place in 2024, consisting of an orbital probe to assess the planet’s geological cycles.
In the pipeline is Gaganyaan-1 (est. 2024.), which will be ISRO’s first step towards the pinnacle of space exploration, with three astronauts being sent to space for three days, on indigenously built spacecraft.
This could be a precursor for launching sub-orbital space tourism missions, for which feasibility studies are currently being conducted.
Other missions include a trip to Venus (est. December 2024) and an unmanned return mission from the Moon (est. 2026-2028).
ISRO today stands as a beacon of unity for the nation, transcending its diverse demography in pursuit of the cosmos. It serves as a reminder for every Indian, that in the grand tapestry of the universe, we are but one, bound by shared dreams and aspirations- Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
As Sagan said, the cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.
Embodying these ideals, ISRO symbolises India’s commitment towards humanity’s most extraordinary quest – exploration of space, the final frontier.
Writing: Keshav, Nikhil, Priyanshu, Rajiv, Shreyas, Tanish and Aviral Design: Omkar and Saumya