NASA and an Indian Launcher
The sounding rocket program in India provided an important stimulus to the development of an indigenous capability in rocketry from as early as 1961. In that year G. B. Pant, a scientist based in the Birla Institute of Technology, expressed a desire for assistance in establishing a Department of Rocketry at the university level in India. His request was refused citing the potential strategic military implications.61 The United States had no security agreement with India under which assurances were given for the protection of sensitive information.62 However, in 1964, Professor Pant again approached NASA with the “endorsement” of Sarabhai seeking NASA support for the assignment of an American academic expert in solid rocket propulsion theory to spend a year initiating a research program at the Birla Institute. The US Department of State gave a favorable response and NASA arranged with Princeton University to send Maurice Webb to work on the theoretical aspects of rocket propulsion. After the completion of Webb’s “tour-of duty” Pant again asked for two experts in the field of propulsion and aerodynamics. By this time Sarabhai was also planning to come over to the United States to recruit fifteen people for a solid rocket development program in India under the auspices of INCOSPAR. India was building French Centaure rockets under license with Sud-Aviation and Hideo Itokawa at Tokyo University (see chapter 9) was providing consulting assistance.63 Situating Pant’s request in this broader context (and aware of even greater Indian ambitions, to be discussed in a moment), Frutkin sent a cautionary confidential memo on August 25, 1965, to J. Wallace Joyce, acting director, International Scientific and Technology Affairs in the Department of State about the risk of supporting such an academic endeavor. As he explained, NASA had “so far carefully avoided contributing to rocket development programs abroad.” Several other Asian countries, including Pakistan and Indonesia, were interested in developing rockets and once the agency had helped one it would necessarily become embroiled in helping the others. Frutkin concluded by remarking that while NASA wanted to accommodate the State Department’s wishes, it was concerned that “assistance in the Birla program as now understood might compromise NASA’s international space responsibilities, involve NASA in a difficult precedent with regard to other countries, and might contribute to nationalistic competition with military implications,” most obviously as regards India and Pakistan.64
The Chinese nuclear test in October 1964 triggered greater ambitions. Both Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai discussed the possibility of cooperating with NASA in building a launch vehicle as one response to the loss of prestige to their communist rival. The discussions centered on procuring the technology of the all-solid four-stage Scout rocket. Commonly called the “poor man’s rocket,” it was capable of launching satellites weighing close to 100 pounds into low – earth orbit. In February 1965, Bhabha asked Frutkin about the cost and time factors for the development of a small satellite booster system. The results were predictable. Frutkin reminded him that whereas the Scout had been approved by the Department of State as available in principle for purchase by other countries in connection with scientific research, the transfer of this technology as such posed a quite different problem. Granted the security aspects, this was “a matter for determination by the Department of State under Munitions Control procedures.”65
Bhabha’s visit to inquire into the possibilities of acquiring Scout rockets triggered a major exchange between Frutkin and Robert F. Packard in the State Department, who was interested in finding ways to assist India regain regional influence without developing nuclear weapons. He sought detailed advice on India’s ability to engage in a range of programs, from launching its own satellite outside India with foreign assistance using a foreign launch vehicle to launching an Indian satellite as a solely national enterprise, as France would do in November 1965 with its Diamant/Asterix (launcher/satellite) combination.66
Frutkin responded in detail to the queries and did not think that India could do too much in the short term. Regarding the time frame, he pointed out that even if India made fundamental progress in major areas in the development of a booster within five years, US, Japanese, and French experience suggested that India could not complete a total booster system in this time. Comparing the Indian case with France and Japan he noted that the Japanese had been working on solid propellant technology for close to ten years with a fairly large industrial base without any concrete results. Similarly, the French had been working for at least six or seven years toward building a satellite launch vehicle without reaching their objective. Frutkin noted that India might also have difficulty with respect to several systems that go with the launcher—telemetry, command, guidance, test, and check out systems. He categorically stated that such an extensive program would “preempt all of the known Indian competence in the necessary areas for a period of years roughly related to the period of time used by France and Japan.” As regards cost, this was likely to be $55-65 million—$ 45 million for building a launcher. Add another $11-15 million for launch facilities: Frutkin pointed out that Thumba was small and not a conducive location for satellite launching, so a launch site on the East coast was needed.67
Of course cost and schedule could be reduced with foreign assistance. Sarabhai had apparently already done a cost analysis of a “partially independent Indian booster development program for a Scout type vehicle at $ 25 million using French and Japanese technology.”68 He added that an “indigenous” satellite would cost around “2-4 million and would take the Indians three years with foreign assistance.” If India sought the help of Japan and France, the country “could probably produce a satellite launch vehicle in 8-10 years.” Sarabhai estimated that if US assistance was forthcoming this could be reduced to seven – eight years.69
Should the United States help speed up the “Indian National” booster program the time required could be reduced substantially. Frutkin noted that Scout guidance, for example, was not classified and could very likely be made available to India under existing policy (this system is essentially an attitude reference system with limited value for strategic purposes). Nevertheless, substantial numbers of personnel would be required to work in India, with inevitable publicity and high costs.70 In short, if the United States agreed to cooperate, it would be only “partially an indigenous development” and the whole process would “involve highly visible foreign assistance” so defeating the purpose of boosting India’s prestige in the subcontinent using space technology.
There was an alternative: cost and time could be significantly reduced if the Indians were to use a Scout in America. If, as in the case of the Italian San Marco project (see chapter 2), the arrangement were to be a cooperative one between NASA and the Indians, NASA could provide the launch vehicles at a cost of about $3 million to the United States. This latter alternative assumed that the project would be of sufficient scientific or political value to America to justify direct US involvement and expenditure, of course.
Nothing came of these initial approaches. While work at TERLS engaged Indian energies in the latter half of the 1960s, Sarabhai promoted the indigenous production of launch vehicles through the incremental development of sounding rockets. This is evident from his address at the UN conference in Vienna and the institutional developments directed toward the needs of a budding launch vehicle program.
At the UN Conference in Vienna in 1968 Sarabhai spoke about the importance of an indigenous capability, fully aware of the difficulty of getting foreign assistance: “[T]he military overtones of a launcher development program of course complicate the free transmittal of technology involved in these applications.”71 By 1968 he had already done a cost analysis of building a launch vehicle program and the required ground systems, including a launch pad on the eastern sea coast. He factored in the costs of a scientific pool for supporting a fully fledged program.72 Reports and published sources indicate that at this time India made its first-ever study for developing its own Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV).
The Chinese launched Long March I (CZ-1) on April 24, 1970, placing the Dong Fang Hong (the East is Red) DFH-1 satellite in low-earth orbit. Though launched a few months after the Japanese launch of the Osumi satellite in February 1970 using the Japanese Lambda rocket, the Chinese launch triggered an outcry in India. The debate in India, soon after launch, centered on whether the country should develop a nuclear deterrent against China—India had refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) brokered by the United States, the USSR, and the United Kingdom in 1968—and the resultant opinion was highly in favor of one. The then defense minister Swaran Singh “reaffirmed” before the Indian parliament that he would “review the possibilities for an accelerated space program.”73 This triggered another effort by Sarabhai to obtain US cooperation in building an Indian launching capability including guidance and control technology.
An April 1970 memo from the American Embassy in Delhi to the State Department, after detailing the situation in India, warned that “US denial would generate serious irritation in Indo-US relations, would turn Indians to other suppliers and would inhibit our capacity to monitor Indian space research developments, and our ability to influence developments toward peaceful rather than military applications.”74 Another such dispatch a few months later reiterated these points.75 However, here the negative arguments far outweighed the pro arguments for any meaningful cooperation. “India’s overall economic development could be imprudently retarded by major expenditures in atomic and rocket fields”: something else was needed to contain hunger in the rural areas. Helping India would also send the wrong signals to China and Pakistan concerning American policy on international military applications of science and technology. If the United States provided technology to India and not to other interested countries it would have “corrosive effects” on US relations elsewhere. A “premature US commitment” could also “inadvertently nudge Government of India’s program into direction Indians might later find fruitless, with possible consequent recriminations against U. S.” The US government was also aware of the rhetoric of the Indian political elite that “only a nuclear equipped India can win a rightful place in counsels of major powers.” US support would “stimulate advanced rocket development” and enhance the early development of “Indian nuclear weapons system.” The United States, as the architect of NPT and an opponent of Indian nuclear weapons development, would not even indirectly wish to facilitate such an Indian decision. In light of these considerations, the embassy recommended a flexible long-range policy of selective cooperation and restraint whereby the United States could provide India unclassified technology and other types of assistance directed toward India’s peaceful economic and social development.76
The State Department looked into these possibilities from various angles bearing in mind the agreement being reached with Japan over the provision of unclassified Thor-Delta technology (chapter 10). Anthony C. E. Quainton, senior political officer for India in the department, discussed possibilities with U. Alexis Johnson who struck the deal with Tokyo. He favored a joint collaboration with the Indians up through the Scout level in unclassified technology on propulsion systems without financial support and with suitable assurances about peaceful use.77 In December 1970 Joseph T. Kendrick sent a proposal to Robert A. Clark of Munitions Control (MC) asking him to agree to assist India on similar terms as agreed between the United States and Japan. Clark’s reply indicated that he had no policy objection to the substance of the proposal. However, he expressed reservations about sending the proposal to Johnson for approval as it had not been discussed with NASA and the DOD who had been unhappy with the Japanese arrangement. Clark drew attention to the vagueness of the offer to cooperate in the development of a limited space program “up to and including the general level of Scout Rocket Technology.” Clark said that he knew “from personal experience that Indian officials are aggressive and persistent individuals who might be more likely to cry foul whenever they believe correctly or incorrectly that their understandings differ from someone else’s understandings.” Thus, wrote Clark, “the USG position on what Scout technology means should be prepared in advance and not left to chance as has been done with the Japanese and Thor-Delta technology”78—a nice example of bureaucratic learning.
Three years later we find that, though critical elements of launch vehicle technology were denied, the declassified State Department papers indicate the approval of some “hardware” related to sounding rockets and satellites, which were “unsophisticated in character.” However, the Indian space program was still closely watched for potential ballistic missile activities. As the memo put it, “So far, the Indian program appears peaceful in character—as the Indians claim— but it is developing the technological capability for a missile system should the Government of India opt for this course.”79
The last available discussion on the subject was in a confidential memo from John Sipes to Joseph Scisco on June 27, 1973, requesting the formulation of a departmental position on whether it would be in the overall interest of the United States to assist India in the development of its space program. The question was prompted because the Office of Munitions Control had received a number of requests from industry for Department of State approval to export space hardware and technology for India’s space program. The hardware included components such as gyros and accelerometers, which were essential for the guidance and control of launch vehicles and missiles.80 Sipes brought up the Japanese case of Thor-Delta technology transfer for comparison and explained how the Japanese had undertaken to use the launch vehicle and satellites developed with US assistance on condition that they would be used for peaceful purposes only and in line with the Intelsat agreements. This was not the case with India. In fact in April the Indian government announced that it was developing missiles for its armed services. Sipes asked rhetorically whether US help to India with satellite and launcher development would further “world peace and the security and the foreign policy of the United States.” He concluded that it was not “prudent to permit the release of space hardware and technology” especially gyros and accelerometers, which were critical for inertial navigation systems.81
A Scout license production agreement never made its way into India. The Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, Sarabhai’s sudden demise in December 1971, and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) by India in 1974 all undermined the possibilities of cooperation between NASA and India in sensitive technologies.82 To make matters worse from Washington’s point of view, in the light of the alienation with the United States the-then prime minister Indira Gandhi sought increased friendship with Moscow, which led eventually to the successful launch of three Indian satellites by the Soviet Union.83 This is not to say that NASA had no regrets. A recent interview with Arnold Frutkin captures the dilemma that NASA and the State Department faced when it came to sharing launch vehicle technology. The issue, as he stressed, “was slanted by the fear that India would be using it as a delivery weapon for—a delivery vehicle for a weapon.” Frutkin was discussing the acquisition of a Scout with India at the time, and was convinced that “in the long run India would have what it wanted by way of a delivery vehicle or a space vehicle, and either they would have it with our goodwill and friendship or they would have it over our dead bodies.” His preference was plainly for some kind of collaborative arrangement, and he personally regretted that the United States had not been more forthcoming, leading to Indian resentment and a decline in relations, all of which, in Frutkin’s view, “could have been sidestepped by working with India to arrive at just where they are today.”84