NASA and the Origins of the Indian Space (Science) Program

The United States’ relations with India in the civilian aspects of space dates back to 1957 when the Uttar Pradesh State Observatory at Nainital, situated in Northern India, began the optical tracking of satellites in collaboration with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO).15 This was initiated in the framework of the Indian IGY program. The technical equipment provided was the highly specialized Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera and a quartz clock. It was one of twelve in the world that filled an important gap between Iran and Japan in the global network of tracking stations. Through these stations, the approximate positions of satellites (both Soviet and American) were obtained.

Following the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 the United States, through the newly formed NASA, made several overtures to emerging “third world” countries, inviting them to participate in the space program by experimenting with sounding rockets. Some countries, seeing the prestige asso­ciated with modern space technologies, immediately responded to the offers made by NASA to establish sounding rocket bases and develop nascent space programs at home. Working on space sciences offered the newly decolonized states and developing countries the promise of a march toward modernity—the native elite viewed experimenting with rockets as a source of pride, prestige, and a visibility among nation-states. However, very few countries that accepted the offers (tracking stations and sounding rocket facilities) actually sustained and built their own space programs for socioeconomic and strategic needs.

India’s first encounter with NASA came in the form of tracking stations. These became the channel through which the agency began to extend its reach to include other nations in a worldwide data acquisition system for satellites launched by the United States. By 1963, 28 such stations in 16 countries were established.16 They not only functioned as scientific instruments for dissemi­nating data for the United States but also served as conduits for host countries to begin their own space programs. Milton C. Rewinkel, the US consul gen­eral, remarked that “[i]t is a matter of some pride to us, too, that by making America’s space knowledge experience and facilities available to foreign scien­tists, the United States has enabled several other countries to initiate their own space program and develop their own space technology.”17

The initial motivation for NASA to cooperate in a sounding rocket program with India was the perceived benefit of getting scientific data on the tropical atmosphere. These ambitions neatly merged with India’s long scientific tradition of studying cosmic rays and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. This work had been started by physicists such as Megnad Saha, who was later followed by scientists such as K. R. Ramanathan,18 Raman Pisharoty, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, and others.19 The early space science experiments using balloons and miniature rock­ets during the 1950s and 1960s were gradually nurtured into a space program by Sarabhai. The implementation of his ambitions was possible thanks to NASA’s help, gifted scientists, the Cold War, India’s geographic location close to the magnetic equator, and the political will of the Indian leaders.

The first recorded mention of Vikram Sarabhai expressing an interest in NASA’s international cooperative programs was in the spring of 1961, while he was enrolled as a visiting professor at MIT. Following his previous discussions with world-renowned physicists such as Bruno Rossi at MIT, James Van Allen at Iowa, and J. A. Simpson and P. Mayer at Chicago, Sarabhai told NASA of India’s plans to start a space science research program at select facilities: the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad; the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay; and the Tata Institute of Nuclear Physics (TINP), Calcutta. He also described his plans to recruit trained Indian physicists in European countries and the United States.

During the meeting with NASA officials Sarabhai explored possible coop­erative endeavors that could be mutually beneficial to both NASA and India, including magnetic fields, solar radio astronomy, geomagnetism, atmospheric studies from 30 to 150 kilometers, trapped particles in radiation belts and elec­tro jet studies. In furthering these fields of research he discussed the possibility of a cooperative sounding rocket program between India and NASA and also a telemetry receiving facility at the PRL, Ahmedabad. It was also in this meeting that Sarabhai learned about the work of atmospheric scientist Lawrence Cahill of the University of New Hampshire. Cahill would later visit India to conduct a number of sounding rocket experiments. This included launching an experiment to study the equatorial electro-jet by flying a magnetometer to an altitude of approximately 200 kilometers.20 Encouraged by this account, in July Frutkin sent a memorandum to Sarabhai proposing a working arrangement with his PRL to record data from the Explorer Number XI Gamma Ray astronomy satellite using telemetry-receiving equipment loaned from the United States. This arrived on September 6, 1961, and was the first instrument from NASA to enter India.21

Frutkin hoped that this ad hoc arrangement could stimulate a more durable and centrally coordinated collaborative program between NASA and a gov­ernment-sponsored Indian space research committee that Sarabhai spoke of.22 Homi Bhabha, who combined nuclear matters with space science and technol­ogy topics during his periodic visits to the United States, confirmed that such a committee was being formed when he visited NASA Headquarters between

November 9 and 15, 1961. He stated that the committee would be responsible for selecting appropriate programs for India, and for training young people in the field of space sciences and technology. It would also send representatives to participate in meetings organized by COSPAR. Bhabha suggested that the “committee” would become the principal point of contact with NASA.

Frutkin’s reply to Bhabha after his visit suggested possible areas of coopera­tion. He saw the establishment of a sounding rocket range close to the geomag­netic equator to be “most desirable” for launching scientific payloads prepared by PRL and TIFR for detecting high-energy neutrons emitted from the sun during periods of significant solar activity. Second, he suggested the launching of Indian sodium vapor payloads to investigate various properties of the upper atmosphere near the geomagnetic equator and the possible launchings of rockets during the International Quiet Sun Year (IQSY) as part of a proposed large-scale effort to make meteorological and ionospheric soundings on a synoptic basis. Third, he stressed the importance of participation in low-altitude meteoro­logical rocket observations in conjunction with the International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE). After stating the possible avenues of cooperative endeavors, Frutkin drafted a memorandum of understanding (MOU), between India and NASA outlining the broad areas of mutual program interest and indicating the general guidelines for the conduct of the program.23

The body mentioned to Frutkin by Sarabhai and Bhabha, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), met for the first time on February 22, 1962. It was formed within the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) under the chairmanship of Sarabhai and was composed of eminent scientists who were instructed to manage all aspects of space research in the country.24 The establish­ment of this institution brought organization and coordination to isolated space activities that were carried out in different regions across the country. It dealt with both national and international affairs, until a separate Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was formed in 1969. In 1972 ISRO was separated from the DAE and was constituted under the newly created Department of Space (DOS). INCOSPAR, however, did not cease to exist; it was reconstituted under the Indian National Academy of Science (INAS) and retained responsibility for the promotion of international cooperation in space research and exploration and peaceful uses of outer space, and liaison with the UN Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

A memorandum of understanding was signed between NASA and the DAE on October 11, 1962.25 It provided for collaborative research on the upper atmosphere using sounding rockets. Under the agreement, NASA provided nine Nike Apache launchers, a trailer-mounted telemetry receiving station, a trailer – mounted DOVAP tracking system, a trailer-mounted MPS-19 radar with 016 computer and 70 KVA diesel generators, a Judi-Dart launcher insert, K-24 cam­eras for vapor cloud photography, and tracking and telemetry equipment and ground instrumentation on a loan basis.26 These were to be used for joint scien­tific experiments to explore the equatorial electro-jet27 and upper atmosphere28 winds from the geomagnetic equator. Considering that India was pursuing a policy of nonalignment at the height of Cold War rivalry, NASA was also eager to enter into cooperative arrangements with Delhi to “maximize the orientation of Indian scientists towards the US and away from the Soviets in the advanced application of science.”29

While the INCOSPAR was being constituted the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) passed a resolution recommending and sponsoring the creation and use of sounding rocket launching facilities, especially in the equatorial regions in the southern hemisphere. Taking the cue from the United Nations, a possible site in Southern India was discussed by the Indian scientists along with NASA. To help choose the most appropri­ate location, NASA forwarded volumes of the Wallops Island handbooks, and Frutkin communicated to Bhabha his willingness to host Indian representatives at Wallops for additional discussions and/or to send NASA representatives to India for “possible assistance there in problems relating to site selection and instrumentation.”30 The role played by the Indian pioneers in the selection of this site is often stressed but the extent to which scientists and officials from NASA were also involved has been ignored.31 Reports indicate the active par­ticipation of scientists R. G. Bivin, Jr., Robert Duffy, and Lawrence Cahill of NASA, and of their close relationship with Vikram Sarabhai.32

The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established in 1963 at the coastal village of Thumba, in the state of Kerala. Its southern loca­tion (8° 33’ N, 76° 56’E) close to the magnetic equator (0° 24’S) proved an ideal location for launching sounding rockets to undertake geophysical investigations, particularly those dealing with the interaction of neutral and charged particles in the earth’s magnetic field.33 The advantages of such a site were pointed out by Frutkin. As he noted, the “true potential of sounding rockets as a scien­tific tool can be realized only if many vertical profiles are obtained—in a wide range of localities and epochs—with correlation of the results. International cooperation is obviously an essential ingredient for sounding rocket work.”34 Cooperative launchings of sounding rockets took place in many countries with shared responsibility from the host countries, mainly ground instrumentation and data analysis.35 Sarabhai saw the importance of sounding rockets for upper atmospheric studies but also recognized the importance of ground facilities such as those at Thumba. “The study of this region in the equatorial areas is one of the major gaps in the study of our environment today,” he wrote, adding that “as far as India is concerned with the facilities that have grown up, we have fantastic opportunities in the years to come to understand many complex phe­nomena involving the interaction of the ionosphere with the geomagnetic field, problems of the neutral and the ionized atmosphere and the interaction of these two.” Consistent with his stress on the significance of basic research for applied and socially relevant problems, Sarabhai went on to emphasize that “these sub­jects are of importance not only for the understanding of radio propagation, but also from the point of view of meteorology and basic problems of energy and momentum transport into the lower atmosphere where climate is made.”36 These were persuasive claims for an agricultural economy that depended cru­cially on the weather to feed millions of rural families.

Scholarly research on the origins of the Indian space program often mention the launch from Thumba of a Nike Apache sounding rocket donated by NASA on November 21, 1963, as the starting point of the Indian space program—truly a historic moment for the country. Apart from making scientific measurements in the southern region of India, it was also a visual manifestation of modernity in the tropical skies. When the rocket lit up the twilight sky with an orange trail left by sodium vapor experiments, there was real excitement and jubilation in the subcon­tinent (see also the section on France in chapter 2). The Legislative assembly of Kerala, a communist-led government,37 where Thumba is located, was adjourned for a few minutes so that the members could watch the magnificent display left behind in the western sky by the Nike Apache rocket and the sodium vapor trail.38 This spectacle, displayed thanks to the joint collaboration between NASA and INCOSPAR, was translated into a great achievement for the early Indian scientists and national leaders, who saw space research as a harbinger of modernity in the newly decolonized state and as a symbol of prestige and development.39

Site selection was just the first step, of course. Beyond this there were various technological hurdles to establishing a sounding rocket range for launching and retrieving data from the sounding rocket payload. To ease the difficulties the MOU between NASA and INCOSPAR included a provision for the recruitment of a small group of young men affiliated with INCOSPAR to visit NASA for training at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, and at the Wallops Island facility, where they would learn about building and launching sounding rockets. This training was in assembling imported sounding rockets and their scientific pay­loads, procedures for the safe launch of these rockets, tracking the flight of the rockets, receiving data radioed down during flight, and collecting other scien­tific information required. Initially, eight Indian representatives appointed by INCOSPAR were trained at NASA field centers for approximately six months in preparation for operations at the Thumba Range. On their return, these men set up the sounding rocket range in Thumba. Subsequently, there was a constant traffic of scientists and engineers, in batches, from India to NASA facilities dur­ing the 1960s.

What began as a “bilateral Indo-American launching facility” at TERLS evolved into an international facility, a productive site where different countries, includ­ing France and the Soviet Union, could join together for promoting the peaceful uses of outer space in spite of their political differences. Frutkin strongly favored Soviet participation, believing that it “might lift some of the veil of secrecy from Soviet space activities.”40

Frutkin suggested to Sarabhai that he offer TERLS to international par­ticipants and to seek UN sponsorship. A resolution was later introduced by the United States into the Technical Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space for UN sponsorship of sounding rocket ranges in “scientifically critical locations,” encouraging other countries to use such facilities.41 COSPAR was also looking for the creation of an equatorial sounding rocket launching facility for two major international programs—the International Indian Ocean Expedition (1962-1967) and the International Quiet Sun Year (1964-1965).42 Sarabhai decided to make TERLS available and told Frutkin that “you will be glad to learn that India has decided to extend an invitation for the location of a U. N. equatorial launching facility in India, on the lines of the recommendations made at the Geneva meetings of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the U. N Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.”43 R. Shroff, deputy secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, govern­ment of India, said that “if the United Nations accepts the offer, it is our inten­tion that the launching facility to be set up in collaboration with NASA should be dovetailed into the international facility.”44

In January 1964 a team of scientists appointed by the UN committee inspected TERLS to determine its compliance with the condition of sponsorship for an international sounding rocket facility, and reported favorably. Sarabhai years later mentioned that “the sponsorship of TERLS by the UN [was] not simply for­mal; it constituted an umbrella under which over 105 rocket experiments were conducted by various nations like France, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, USA and USSR, jointly with India, as an example of active co-operation in space research.”45 An International Advisory Panel was formed comprising two rep­resentatives each from India, the United States, the USSR, and France to con­tinue operations. TERLS was formally dedicated to the United Nations in 1969 in the presence of various dignitaries including, from NASA, Arnold Frutkin and Leonard Jaffe, director of Space Applications programs, Office of Space Science and Applications. The meeting was presided over by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The sounding rockets provided by NASA during the early 1960s were “low – end” declassified scientific instruments. The case of the transfer of Arcas sounding rockets for the International Indian Ocean Experiment (IIOE) throws light on the sensitiveness of donating advanced sounding rockets. IIOE involved multina­tional sounding rocket experiments at various points in the Indian Ocean region for the “intensive and coherent investigation of an ocean atmosphere regimen.” NASA wanted to organize this joint experiment in cooperation with the National Academy of Science, the US Weather Bureau, and the American Coordinator for Meteorology in the IIOE, along with India and Pakistan. Problems soon emerged. The Atlantic Research Corporation manufactured the Arcas rockets for the Navy and they classified the technology as “confidential.” Providing these rockets to Pakistan did not cause any problem because, as was pointed out earlier, Pakistan was a preferred ally of the United States, and a diplomatic framework was in place to enable the transfer with appropriate guarantees. But there was no such framework for dealing with India—and Frutkin felt that it would be “awk­ward to conduct an Indian Ocean program without the participation of India.” He cited the visit of Prime Minister Nehru to the United States in the fall of 1962 and specifically mentioned the joint statement issued by President Kennedy and Prime Minister Nehru, which indicated that space cooperation was among the areas of US/India relationships that were discussed. Frutkin was so determined that this multilateral project should work that he devised alternative arrangements for giving India the Arcas sounding rockets either by “declassification of Arcas or by provision of the classified Arcas under suitable waivers and guarantees.”46

When TERLS became operational with the launching of foreign sounding rockets Sarabhai actively sought to advance the field by nurturing the development of space technology in India incrementally. Needless to say, without external assis­tance and training it would have been extremely difficult for India to have built a sounding rocket program at this early stage. In the early 1960s, when rockets had attained the capability of launching satellites, Sarabhai was still developing small sounding rockets. This effort has to be understood within his larger picture of developing a nucleus of capable scientists and technologists around the essentials of rocketry, which would eventually help India if a path was taken to indigenize launch vehicles. Sarabhai noted that “when a nation succeeds in setting up a sci­entific program with sounding rockets, it develops the nucleus of a new culture where a large group of persons in diverse activities learns to work together for the accomplishment of a single objective.”47 Also, in August 1968, for the first time a concrete effort was made by the United Nations to host an international confer­ence on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna. Leading scientists from around the world attended the conference and reported about the activities carried out during the first decade of the space age and the plans for the future. For many developing countries in Latin America and in the Asian region, the space age dawned at Vienna.48 Founding fathers of many developing countries’ space programs saw the immense promise of space science and technologies for socioeconomic development. Sarabhai was the scientific chairman at the confer­ence and in his presentation he talked of there being a “totality about the process of development which involves not only advanced technology and hardware but imaginative planning of supply and consumption centers, of social organization and management, to leapfrog from a state of backwardness and poverty.”49

The first step in that direction was directed toward the indigenous production of sounding rockets and complementary subsystems—scientific payloads, instru­mentation, telemetry, and ground systems. As a result of this conscious attempt, Thumba during the early 1960s witnessed both the transnational traffic of scien­tific and technological experts and the mushrooming of new firms, facilities, and institutions. A Rocket Propellant Plant (RPP) and Rocket Fabrication Facility (RFP) were established in Thumba. The indigenous production of sounding rockets was gradually scaled up to a satellite launch vehicle that could place a small satellite in low-earth orbit in 1980. Parallel skills were also acquired in sat­ellite technology. A step in the direction of participating in the evolving global satellite communications system was taken through the establishment of the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES) by INCOSPAR in Ahmedabad with assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—the executive agency of the project. The equipment came from National Electronics Corporation (NEC) of Japan. Through an agreement with NASA this earth station participated in the Application Technology Satellite (ATS-2) Test Plan. ESCES was also foreseen by officials at NASA, the UN, and INCOSPAR as a node for training scientists and engineers from several developing countries in the field of satellite communication and related technologies.50 When Sarabhai became the head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, after the tragic death of Homi J. Bhabha in an air crash over Mont Blanc in 1966, he was himself think­ing of how best to use nuclear power for development needs. By associating itself with the tenets of modernization the nascent space group was able to convince the Indian government of the potential of the space program for socioeconomic benefits and thereby extract financial support for their efforts.

ISRO was formed on August 15, 1969. By this time several other institu­tional developments had been initiated by Sarabhai and a concrete ten-year plan for future nuclear and space activities was brought out, entitled the Profile for the Decade. This 40-odd-page booklet was produced by the Department of Atomic Energy—mainly Sarabhai and his cohorts. The Profile stated that

the principal objectives of the space programme in India are to develop indigenous

competence for designing and building sophisticated hardware involved in space

technology including rockets and satellites for scientific research and practical applications, the use of these systems for providing point-to-point communication and a national television hook-up through a direct broadcast synchronous satellite, and the applications of satellites for meteorology and for remote sensing of earth resources.51