It was a dream come true for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), when its geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV-D5), powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine, put the GSAT-14 communication satellite into orbit, on Sunday.

The taming of the ‘naughty boy’ and converting him into an ‘obedient one’ has taken two decades. Joy was written all over the faces of the space scientists; the GSLV saga has been one of extreme hard work, technology denials and controversies.

A couple of more successes and in two or three years the space agency can look forward to breaking into the commercial heavy payload launch business. With GSLV capability, India can eye an estimated global market of 1,000 satellite launches by 2020 in both the near orbit and the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) space.

The operationalisation of GSLV is crucial to power India’s Chandrayan-II. The future satellite network, and the telemedicine, tele-education and communication and meteorology projects , can be implemented without further delay or spending huge forex. At present, India’s role in the global space business is limited to polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) launches and selling of remote sensing data products. It has made a mark here because of the stupendous success of the PSLV and its cost effectiveness. India has managed to grab a slice of the market in the low earth orbiting satellites with payloads of less than 1.5 tonne.

The US, Russia, European Space Agency, Japan and China dominate the multi-billion dollar space market.

Without a GSLV, India has had to spend crores to launch its own Insat series of communication satellites using French or Russian players’ launch services. Further, it limited the country’s capabilities to take up missions to land man or land rover-type vehicles on the moon or Mars.

Technology leap

The delay in GSLV has been essentially due to the challenge of developing a mastery over cryogenic technologies (extreme low temperatures). With liquefied oxygen and hydrogen as fuel, the cryogenic engine can carry heavier payloads across the gravity barrier. The task was to develop an engine that could use liquid oxygen at minus 253 degrees centigrade and liquid hydrogen at minus 183 degrees centigrade to provide a thrust in the final stage of the rocket for ejecting the satellite into the GTO. The ISRO has, in GSLV-D5, demonstrated this expertise.

The immediate challenge for it will be to test-fly the Mark-III engine, which is heavier at 600 kg and has powerful engines. It will ensure that ISRO can place payloads of 3.5 to 4 tonnes into the GTO. Sunday’s success has given confidence to scientists to accelerate the project. CHEQUERED PAST

The early GSLV launches in the 1990s used imported cryogenic upper stages. India tried to obtain the technology to build an indigenous version from the willing Russians. However, the US forced Russia to deny India the technology. Given the long-standing partnership, the Russians did manage to provide seven ready-to-use cryogenic engines under a deal.

The programme also got mired in an espionage controversy involving scientist Nambi Narayanan. This unsavoury turn of events turned the clock back on indigenous efforts, impacting the morale of the scientists. However, ISRO persisted with the programme based on Russian cryogenic stages. It attempted seven launches since 2001.

Two have been successful, one partially so, while the rest have failed. In April 2010, ISRO took up the GSLV-D3 mission. But the maiden flight ended up as a disappointment as the engine failed to rev up after lift-off.

The next attempt of GSLV-D5 in August 2013 had to be aborted minutes before the launch as a fuel leak was observed. It was to place the 1,982 kg GSAT-14 satellite in GTO. The January 5 launch has overcome these challenges and placed GSAT-14 in orbit.

Commercial potential

Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm, has been offering PSLV services and has a turnover of roughly Rs 1,300 crore. It has put into orbit around 35 small satellites and has contracts from Germany, the UK, Japan, etc., to launch small satellites. There is a big incentive for the ISRO to step on the accelerator to master the GSLV and pitch for a slice of this lucrative business.

To drive its own programme of launching at least three more of the G-SAT versions, Insat and interplanetary ambitions, ISRO needs the GSLV at the earliest. There is no dearth of trained manpower, funds and Government backing.


The public and private sector have contributed in good measure to the rapid strides in space programmes and applications. For example, in the GSLV programme, the public sector HAL is an important contributor.

It has provided structural assemblies, welded propellant tankages, which include the cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks and cryogenic stage structures. It has integrated and delivered all the four L40 booster rockets and provided the bare structure of the communication satellite (GSAT-14).

Similarly, Hyderabad-based Midhani has supplied a range of special materials that go into the making of assemblies and systems, which can withstand difficult conditions. In the private sector, the MTAR Industries, Godrej & Boyce, Andhra Sugars (liquid propellants), Ananth Technologies, to name a few, have been associated over a long term.