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Today’s GSLV launch, a critical test for the Indian space agency

M Ramesh | Updated on December 17, 2014 Published on December 17, 2014

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The Indian space agency’s launch of its GSLV (geostationary launch vehicle) on Thursday will mark a critical turning point in its ambitious plans to launch heavier rockets with bigger payloads.

Steeping stone

In any rocket development, initial failures are inevitable. For instance, the Elon Musk-promoted SpaceX — the poster-boy of the space world today with its celebrated Falcon rockets and multi-billion NASA contracts — suffered three consecutive failures initially. Last year, Russia’s Proton M rocket exploded destroying the three satellites it was carrying. Even NASA, the big dad of the space world, has had to contend with several catastrophic failures — the memory of Kalpana Chawla stands evidence.

Similarly, ISROhas launched eight GSLV rockets so far, some of which have failed; in the process it has used up six Russia-supplied cryogenic engines, leaving it with only one more.

However, while the technical success rate is not so bad, it is the time taken which is of concern. ISRO has taken 15 years to reverse-engineer the product, but is yet to establish its reliability convincingly.

The first GSLV went up on April 18, 2001, powered by a Russian-made cryogenic engine and was termed a success, even though the launch was aborted on the first attempt as one of the strap-on rockets failed to develop sufficient thrust; and the satellite’s placement in orbit was imprecise. In the 13 years since April 2001, there have been just seven more launches and only two of them with Indian-made cryogenic engines. Two successive failures, in April and December 2010, appear to have discouraged ISRO. For three full years after that, there was no GSLV launch and it was only in January 2014 that ISRO launched the GSLV D3 with an Indian-made cryogenic engine.

The launch was only a partial success, because the GSAT-14 satellite it carried to the Geo-stationary Transfer Orbit — 35,700 km above India — was a play-safe 1,982 kg, not much heavier than 1,950-kg Edusat that was hurled up by another GSLV in 2004.

The GSLV is meant to carry payloads upwards of two tonnes, closer to 2.5 tonnes. The GSLV programme delay has cost the nation dear. The government sanctioned ₹3,550 crore for making 16 GSLV rockets, which works out to ₹222 crore apiece.

In contrast, the sanctioned launch cost of the 3.18 tonne GSAT-16 was ₹568 crore (the cost of the satellite was ₹297 crore). The launch costs of the 2.65-tonne GSAT-7 cost ₹479 crore, while the 2-tonne INSAT 3D took ₹477 crore. Clearly, not less than some ₹200 crore per launch could have been saved if the GSLV rockets had been ready earlier.

Out of kilter?

If eight launches in 14 years are disheartening, the immediate future does not appear very bright either.

The 12th Plan target for ISRO is 25 launches; but in the first 33 months of the Plan period, ISRO has completed only eight PSLV (polar satellite launch vehicle) and two GSLV flights.

It is hard to believe the target will be achieved, particularly because there is only one GSLV launch — the D6 — planned for 2015, a year when ISRO will be very busy with five PSLV launches.

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Published on December 17, 2014
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