The Indigenous Development of a Launcher

The idea of using a Scout design for India’s first SLV persisted ever since Bhabha and Sarabhai contemplated developing a launch vehicle. Several years of nego­tiation, and the familiarity Indian scientists and engineers gained with Scout during their tenure at Wallops Island and other NASA facilities, played a key role when India opted for a launch vehicle that was at once proven and reli­able and within India’s reach. Gopal Raj also claims that the Scout model was chosen because “Indians did not then have sufficient experience for ab initio design of a launch vehicle.”85 In 1968, aeronautical engineer Y. J. Rao along with electronics engineer Pramod Kale did a detailed study on developing a sat­ellite launch vehicle. The report was in favor of a vehicle configuration based on four-stage solid propellant rocket, modeled on Scout.86 Being all solid propel­lant, a technology easier than complex liquids, this seemed to be a possible route that Indians could attempt and succeed.

In his report Profile for the Decade Sarabhai explicitly spoke of the indigenous building of a satellite launch capability for “many applications of outer space in the fields of communications, meteorology and remote sensing.” He also gave the performance specifications of an all-solid four-stage satellite launch vehicle weighing 20 tons, and capable of launching a satellite weighing 30 kilograms in a 400-kilometer low-earth orbit. According to the report, the flight testing of sensitive instruments, electronics, and instrumentation would be done using sounding rockets. Sarabhai also talks about the follow on program that could launch 1,200-kilogram satellite into a circular geosynchronous orbit at 36,000 kilometers: This was “the type of capability which is needed to fully exploit, on our own, the vast potential arising from the practical applications of space sci­ence and technology.”87

Since SLV-3 was modeled after Scout, two views have dominated the his­toriography of its development: indigenous development and technological diffusion. The first viewpoint was expressed by scientists and engineers who orchestrated the SLV-3 program. The second viewpoint comes from Western policy analysts who have denied that there was any indigenous contribution and basically state that SLV-3 was built using the technological “blueprints” freely given by NASA, albeit without any documentary evidence.88 Granted the dan­gers of sharing sensitive launcher technology with India it is doubtful whether NASA gave Scout “blue prints” to the Indians. However, the declassified docu­ments at NARA and NASA and the oral histories clearly tip the balance toward what Gopal Raj asserted in his book Reach for the Stars on the history of India’s launch vehicles, that is, that SLV-3 was built using freely available unclassified reports and that the incremental development of sounding rockets paved the way for developing SLV-3 after a span of 15 years. Though SLV-3 resembled Scout in its morphology, the subsystems and the fuel assembly showed marked difference from Scout architecture. Though the negotiations on the sharing of Scout technology and critical components did not lead to any tangible results, published articles and government reports indicate the importation of several minor subsystems and components from the United States and Europe that were crucial for the development of SLV-3. With these subsystems the engineers and scientists at ISRO incrementally scaled up their sounding rockets to higher con­figurations. As indicated earlier, an agreement was signed with Sud Aviation of France to produce under license an advanced sounding rocket called Centaure. Working on Centaure helped in building indigenous Rohini sounding rockets, which were advanced further to carry heavier payloads.89 Many of the subsys­tems including the heat shield and guidance were tested using an RH-560 prior to incorporating it in the SLV-3 vehicle. During the development of SLV-3, vari­ous changes were incorporated and the version eventually launched was entirely different from the originally conceived one.

By 1971 the design phase of the launcher was completed and of six designs Sarabhai chose the third, hence the name SLV-3. It was a vehicle measuring 22 meters in length and weighing 17 tons and it could place a 30-kilogram satellite into near-earth orbit. The Indo-Pakistan war and the untimely death of Sarabhai in December 1971 was a setback to the launch vehicle program. A restructuring of space was initiated by Indira Gandhi and the ISRO was split off from the DAE. A separate Department of Space, directly under the Indian government, was cre­ated. Sathish Dhawan, a Caltech graduate and the director of Indian Institute of Science (IISC), situated in Bangalore, became the chairman of ISRO after M. G. K. Menon’s brief stint. To lead the SLV-3 project Sathish Dhawan and Brahma Prakash, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, chose Abdul Kalam. Kalam was one of those who had been handpicked by Sarabhai to get trained at NASA in the earlier 1960s. He had visited the Langley Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center, and the NASA facility at Wallops Island, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. His NASA training facilitated the first sounding rocket launch from TERLS in November 1963.90

On July 18, 1980, India placed its 35-kilogram Rohini (RS – D1) satellite in low-earth orbit, so becoming the sixth nation to accomplish this feat.91 Experience gained in building SLV-3 was built upon to produce heavier rockets. The Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) added two strap-on boosters to the existing SLV-3 configuration and could place a 150 kilogram satellite in low – earth orbit. It was followed by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which can launch 1,600-kilogram satellite into 600-kilometer polar orbit (PSLV-C6 mission in May 2005) and about 1 ton into GTO (PSLV-C4 mission in 2002).

Just as the Pokhran-I nuclear test exhibited the visibility of India’s nuclear program in 1974, the successful launch of the Rohini satellite made the space program visible. The launch attracted global attention. The US State Department expressed grave concern. The tense situation was only exacerbated when the Defense Department of India, seeing the successful satellite launch, enrolled Abdul Kalam, the project manager of SLV-3, to rejuvenate their ailing mis­sile program. He joined DRDO where he orchestrated the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program in 1983, which led to the organized research and development of guided missiles for different strategic military needs. Chief among those missiles was Agni, an IRBM successfully tested in 1989, which was built using the experience gained on SLV-3 and could carry warheads weighing almost 1,000 kilograms to targets deep inside the People’s Republic of China.

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