The Origins of the Project

Arthur C. Clarke first conceptualized the idea of a geosynchronous satellite for broadcasting purposes in a trade journal in 1945.7 By the early 1960s com­munication satellites such as Echo, Telstar, Relay, and Syncom were developed to transmit communications to different parts of the world.8 The technologi­cal, cultural, and political possibilities offered by these satellites prompted the US military and private corporations, notably AT&T and Hughes Aircraft Corporation, to develop communications satellites to expand America’s global outreach. They aimed to create a “single global system” benefiting the entire world but also serving the Cold War interest of the United States.9

The idea of a broadcast satellite for India appears in the middle of these devel­opments in the mid-1960s (figure 12.1). The proposal gained momentum soon after the Chinese nuclear test in October 1964. This forced a major revision in US policy toward India, whose policy of nonalignment and hostility to US-ally Pakistan had led Washington until then to keep Delhi at arm’s length.

Communist China’s nuclear ambitions and its growing popularity among Afro – Asian countries in the 1950s and 1960s exerted constant pressure on the United States to seek alternatives that could minimize the Chinese influence in the Asian region. Citing India as the world’s largest democracy, US officials hoped to estab­lish that nation as a showcase for American-backed development in the “third – world” and as an Asian counterweight to the communist model in the People’s Republic of China, PRC.10 In general, there was a pervasive notion that India was a great laboratory that would demonstrate that liberalism and democracy were the way to go, rather than the Chinese model. During 1961, while analysts at the CIA and the other intelligence agencies tried to determine exactly what progress China had made toward an atomic capability, other arms of the administration began to explore the implications of such an eventuality, and what the United States might do to lessen or eliminate its impact. Suggestions from officials in the State Department that the United States should assist India to “beat Communist China to the punch” by helping their nuclear weapons program were immediately vetoed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk who objected that such a step “would start us down a jungle path from which I see no exit.”11 Soon after the Chinese test the United States began to look for alternative programs that it might undertake jointly with India in the fields of science and technology, which could offset the damage done by the Chinese detonation to Indian prestige and self-confidence.

In January 1965 Jerome B. Wiesner, former science advisor to President Kennedy and the dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. J. Wallace Joyce, International Scientific and Technological Affairs, Department of State, agreed to visit India at the request of US ambassador Chester Bowles. A list of possible proposals was formulated in consultation with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and NASA. They grouped all possibilities under three major headings: nuclear energy, space, and general science.12 These moves dovetailed with initiatives being taken by Bhabha and Sarabhai in their periodic visits to Washington. Bhabha explained that India needed to make some dramatic peaceful achievement to counteract the “noise” (his term) of communist China’s nuclear explosion. He noted that the Chinese were greatly indebted to the USSR for help on their weapon program adding that if India went all out, it could produce a nuclear device in eighteen months; with a US blueprint it could do the job in six months.13 Bhabha expressed the view that “if India was to maintain its prestige relative to the Chinese in the field of science and technology two things should be done: (1) ways must be found for it to demonstrate to other Asian and African countries India’s scientific achievements, (2) a greater awareness of Chinese indebt­edness to the Soviet Union for its nuclear achievements must be created.”14

Bhabha also met with NASA administrator James E. Webb, deputy admin­istrator Hugh Dryden, and with Arnold Frutkin. During the meeting Bhabha swiftly moved away from the idea of a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) to dis­cussing the possibility of India developing a satellite orbiting capability. Bhabha stated that if India undertook such a project, it would wish to launch from India and do the largest part of the job itself. Hearing this from Bhabha, NASA pre­sented estimates of cost, technology, and time requirements, all of which sug­gested that this was not a project well adapted to achieve Indian objectives. NASA also pointed out that by the time India orbited a satellite, several other nations would likely have progressed so far in this field that India’s accomplishment

would appear relatively insignificant. Webb’s line of thought differed with that of Bhabha; he said that a major effort should be made to select projects that would have a meaningful impact on Indian technology and industrial growth, not spectaculars that would drain resources to no useful social effect.

Sarabhai also made a visit to the United States seeking scientific and technologi­cal aid in the area of space. As stressed in chapter 11, Sarabhai viewed science and technology predominantly as tools for socioeconomic development. He believed that a poor nation like India could only close the gap with the rich through self­reliance and self-sufficiency: “[W]e do not wish to acquire black boxes from abroad but to grow a national capability.”15 He saw high technologies such as nuclear power and space as crucial to leapfrog into modernity. Sarabhai added that there was some pressure within India to build a nuclear bomb, and to deflect this pressure India needed to do something else to demonstrate an advanced scientific capability.16

It was in this context that NASA administrator James Webb proposed a satel­lite broadcasting initiative to U. Alexis Johnson in May 1966. It was not only a technical experiment in direct broadcasting, but could also serve as a pilot project in the social impact of direct broadcasting and, through suitable program con­tent, it would contribute to the attack upon the food and population problems of India. In the memo Webb stated that the United States would build and position a synchronous satellite near India in such a way that broadcasts from it could be received over the major part of the Indian subcontinent. He went on to point out that India, for its part, could use its nascent electronics capability, now focused at the atomic energy center at Trombay, to develop improved television receivers. These could be established in perhaps a thousand rural population centers. Webb waxed lyrical about the multiple advantages the program would have for the country. Indians could learn new technological and management approaches to education and to the uses of informational media to weld together a nation-state. The government could invest in a modern electronics industry that would “mate­rially raise India’s technological base and contribute thereby to the development of other, similar industries.” Resources would be redirected from nuclear weap­ons to more socially valuable endeavors. The United States for its part “would learn more about the Indians and their most pressing problems,” and improve its global “posture” “through a generous demonstration of its willingness to share the benefit of advanced space technology with underdeveloped nations.”17

Webb’s educational satellite resonated with a scheme that Sarabhai had been playing with for some time. He began to visualize a national satellite program to provide a better way of life to the inhabitants of India’s 63,000 villages. He hoped that, thanks to the research and development activities of the space pro­gram, television would be available to 80 percent of India’s population within ten years. This project was of special significance because by providing enter­tainment and instruction of high quality, it would be possible to bring about a qualitative improvement in the richness of rural life.18