ISRO : Is India The Next Space Superpower?


The whole world knows about NASA. The American space agency was officially formed in 1958, and its long history is undoubtedly littered with iconic, ground breaking moments. But, in the 21st century, is another space agency about to take the spotlight?

Is India the next space superpower?

Today, despite all the much publicized cuts, NASA is the space agency with the biggest budget by far. But it’s certainly not only successful space organization in the world. Russia’s ROSCOMOS has long stood as NASA’s most prominent competitor, followed closely (in more recent years) by the European Space Agency. Close behind and catching up very quickly, though are the final three of the world’s big agencies: The China National Space Administration, The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. Among three ISRO has a smaller budget than five of those six – and is only just ahead of Japan but as it was founded in 1969 it’s also older than most of them, too – except NASA. The Soviet space as program does technically date back further but ROSCOSMOS in its current guise doesn’t; as it was only founded in1992. ISRO was actually formed less than a month after the Apollo 11 moon landing. But according to the agency’s leaders at the time, it didn’t have any intension of directly following America’s footsteps. The scientist and astronomer Vikram Sarabhai is remembered as the driving force who most encouraged India to enter into space exploration. Sarabhai believed that though India couldn’t economically rival the likes of the US and Russia, it needed to develop advanced technology as soon as possible in order to earn a place on the international stage. It shouldn’t be left behind, because if it was it would suffer in the long term.


ISRO Missions

First on the agenda for ISRO, then, was developing satellites. And designing (and building) the launch vehicles needed to send those satellites up. The satellites themselves turned out to be much easier and faster to build than most had anticipated, and in 1975 (just six years after the ISRO was born) the first Indian satellite was sent into orbit. It was called “ARYABHATT” and was launched with the help of USSR. It took another five years for India to develop a launch vehicle of its own, the SLV-3, but that first satellite was certainly remarkable and is today held as a breakthrough moment for India in space. Since then, though, ISRO has enjoyed many red letter days and has broken all kinds of records especially in recent years. In 2014, its “Mangalyan Probe”, a Mars Orbiter Mission successfully reached Martian orbit – making ISRO only fourth agency to put an object into orbit around the Red planet, after NASA, The Soviets and the ESA. More impressively still ISRO is also the only to have managed that feat on the first attempt. China’s CNSA by comparison launched the Yinghuo-1 probe two years before Mangalyan but despite the CNSA’s far larger budget, that probe failed to even get out of the Earth’s orbit, let alone into Mars’. Elsewhere in 2017, ISRO broke the records for the most satellites launched in a single rocket, when it sent 104 satellites into space on PSLV-C37. Again, India has pushed itself to the top table of space. It hasn’t all been unbridled success, however.

Initially, India has a little less luck with its ongoing “Chandrayaan Lunar Program”, for example. The orbiter chandrayaan-1 lasted just half of its intended mission duration and the Vikram lander on Chandrayaan-2 mistakenly crashed into the moon (rather than soft landing on it) to hastily bring that mission to a quick end, as well. Even so, ISRO still has a reputation for achieving a far higher success rate compared to other space agencies. Some of this is by design; some is because it’s attempting things after other organizations have already honed a method. The Soviet Union, for instance didn’t have a successful Mars mission until Mars 3 in 1971. That was eleven years after its first attempt in 1960, but also 43 years before India’s Mangalyaan Orbiter. Neverthless, because ISRO isn’t trying to directly compete with Russia or America, and because its budget is smaller than all other major agencies, it has always prioritizing being cost effective and efficient, moving gently through to ensure as little goes wrong as possible. 

Budget for ISRO

It may seem like trying to save money is at odds with space exploration but the results are beginning to speak for themselves. In recent years, ISRO has opened up to working with private space firms. It offers space start-ups and alternative to the often costly partnership with American or European Agencies. And while some of these start-ups will inevitably fizzle away some will continue to grow and it’s ISRO’s plan to be right at the heart of it. To become a hub for modern space travel, all while staying true to the philosophy set out by Sarabhai in the 1960s, success on a small budget. In 2020, ISRO spent only $1.9 billion US dollars on its various initiatives. By contrast NASA parted with $22 billion dollars, more than eleven times as much which isn’t to say that NASA’s way is the wrong way. It is, after all, still comfortably the world leader when it comes to space travel; But ISRO has still managed to enter the conversation in a big way, even without the big pay out. As Sarabhai had hoped, the Indian space program has earned its place on the international stage. And, as ISRO’s first crewed mission, Gaganyaan in on track to launch in 2022, all eyes are on India to see whether it will again be successful. But, still, there’s arguably some distance to go between where it is now and a potential space superpower status in future. If the “Gaganyaan” mission does go ahead, India will become only the fourth country in the world to send and an astronaut into space on a craft they built themselves – after Russia, US and China. If that’s a measure of becoming a superpower, then India is well on track and looks set to reach that milestone very soon. As of 2020, it also has the fourth highest number of satellites in orbit around the earth and is one of only 4 countries with more than 100 in operation (again alongside with America, Russia and China). On the other hand, while there have been a more than 100 astronauts abroad the International Space Station (ISS). Since it started hosting crewed missions in year 2020, not one of those astronauts has been from India. In some ways, ISRO is becoming more and more a mainstay in space, but there are still ways in which it could improve and ways in which it could increase its off the earth influence. What’s clear is that the foundations for the ISRO are extremely solid. It has a long, busy and mostly successful space travel history. India, as a nation in general, is also a world by various other measures. It’s second most populous nation in the world, with only China ahead of it, and is only one of the two countries with a population of more than a billion people. 


The Race

India is also a nuclear force, with around 150 warheads at its disposal. So, as space travel progress has historically gone hand in hand with weapon development, India is well placed there, as well. Considering too that India only gained independence in 1947, the progress made by ISRO is quite incredible. And it certainly dwarfs the program made by British Space Program. In the time since the British Empire withdrew shortly after WWII. The 21st century has in general seen a renewed interest in space exploration all around the globe but perhaps nowhere more so than in INDIA. ISRO may have been founded too late to compete with Americans, The Soviets in the original race to the moon. But with the Russia, China and US all are planning new lunar missions in the near future, India is clearly and confidently entering the fray as well. ISRO also has its own plans for Mars, as well as an ever-growing list of private companies and initiatives that it is backing, supporting and partnering with. We should expect to hear about that “Vyomnauts” more and more frequently over next few years. “Vyomnauts” is the title given to ISRO astronauts, just as Russia has its cosmonauts.

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