While ISRO is basking in the well-deserved glory of Chandrayaan-3’s spectacular success, the Indian space agency will have to also contend with the flipside of the story — the flawless execution of the soft-landing has naturally raised expectations of several more encores.

If Chandrayaan-3 was challenging, the upcoming missions are tougher. Aditya L-1, which is to be launched on September 2, is a very complex mission, which requires a space observatory to be taken 1.5 million km between the Earth and the Sun and placed at a ticklish spot called Lagrange-1, where it will be orbiting an invisible centre while all the time facing the sun. All the time it will be subject to pulls by wandering celestial bodies — handling this gravitational perturbation is like keeping a pin stable between two magnets.

The next mission, which is expected to be launched at the end of September is Gaganyaan, when ISRO will test an unmanned ‘crew module’ for its ability to go to space and return in one piece, braving the intense heat it will experience due to friction in the atmosphere on its way back.

Both are very complex missions. While Chandrayaan-3 has enhanced expectations of success, if they fail — that’s okay — ISRO would only be expected to explain why, but not answer for.

But the answer-demanding expectations are around many projects that have been hanging fire for long. ISRO will be expected to bring them to fruition fast.

Take, for instance, the development of a semi-cryogenic engine, or the SCE 200 program, which was approved in 2009 for $230 million. Today, India’s biggest rocket, LVM-3 (formerly, GSLV Mk-III) can carry a 4-tonne payload to geosynchronous transfer orbit, around 37,000 km above the Earth. Even as the rocket was being developed, the need for even bigger rockets was felt. The SCE-200 was meant to fulfil this need. The SCE-200 engine would power the lower stages of the GSLV. In 2017, PV Venkitakrishnan, the then Director of ISRO Propulsion Complex, Mahendragiri, had said that the engine would be ready by 2020.

But the ‘first hot test’ was conducted only on July 1, 2023. ISRO insiders say that the engine was to be tested in Ukraine, but the pandemic and the war made that impossible.

And then the ‘methalox’ engine, which would use liquid methane and liquid oxygen — both kept in cryogenic tanks. This project too has been in the works for too long but in May, ISRO did a cold test of all the engine systems except the thrust chamber, on a technology-demonstrator, 20-tonne engine. The idea is that it will lead on to a 100-tonne engine, which can power a monster rocket that can perhaps carry 10-tonne payload to GTO.

Further, ISRO will need to expedite its ‘docking’ experiment — connecting two objects orbiting in space. In October 2019, the then Chairman, K Sivan, had told this writer that the Space Docking Experiment (SPADEX) campaign would happen the next year. The idea is to mate two satellites in space, a target and a chaser. Both would be injected into different orbits, but would be mated in space, which is a highly complex task.

And then there is this HAVA — Hypersonic Air-breathing Vehicle Assembly — an engine that will use atmospheric oxygen as its fuel during its flight through the atmosphere. A flight demonstration of the ‘scramjet mode of propulsion’ was carried out in a scramjet characterization flight in 2016. But HAVA is yet to be realised.

With Chandrayaan-3 ISRO has demonstrated that if it rolls-up its sleeves and gets to work, it can achieve success. Why, then, are these projects moving at glacial speeds?

Money matters

The answer perhaps lies in one crucial aspect — money.

ISRO has always prided itself over the fact that it achieves things on shoestring budgets. Indeed, it has. But when there is so much to do, why should it have to pull itself up on shoestrings?

Budgetary allocations to the Department of Space have more than doubled in the last 10 years — from ₹5,169 crore in 2013-14 to ₹12,544 crore in 2023-24. The increase works out to 142 per cent. This may sound good, but if you adjust it for inflation, you will find the increase hardly meaningful. Besides, the allocations have stagnated in recent years. The department got ₹11,188 crore (actual) in 2018-19, which increased to ₹13,479 crore (budget estimate) in 2020-21 and to ₹12,473 crore (BE) in 2021-22.

Some insiders say that it is not as though the Ministry of Finance is parsimonious, but ISRO lacks the bandwidth to take on many projects at the same time. But this can be turned around to ask whether the space agency can acquire the bandwidth to spend if given more money.

Apart from the upcoming projects, there are many more planned. These include reusable launch vehicles, a spaceplane, which is a shuttle that can ride piggyback on a rocket to low earth orbit and return to land on a runway like an airplane, radio-isotope thermo-electric generators (RTGs), which are nuclear engines, and many more. These cannot be brought to fruition without adequate flow of funds.

One scientist who works closely with ISRO told this writer that ISRO should not try to increase its budget for its missions like Aditya L-1, Gaganyaan and Sukrayaan; otherwise, it will lose its ability to be frugal.

However, the agency should get more money for futuristic projects, which will not only benefit the country in many ways but also give a career pathway to young space aspirants.

ISRO has many more peaks to climb — Chandrayaan-3 is only one of them. The next climbs will be more arduous. There is no room for cutting corners.