ISRO Launches Three Satellites But Uncertainties Remain

There was joy at ISRO this week as the space agency successfully launched a PSLV rocket with satellites aboard. The success relieved some of the gloom that had settled over the Indian space agency after consecutive failures by the larger GSLV rocket last year.

The PSLV vehicle placed three satellites into orbit:

  • RESOURCESAT-2: an ISRO-built advanced remote sensing satellite weighing 1206 kg. that will be used for the study and management of natural resources.
  • YOUTHSAT: a 92 kg. Indo-Russian satellite for stellar and atmospheric studies.
  • X-SAT: a 105 kg. imaging micro-satellite built by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

In related news, a review board has identified a design flaw in the payload shroud caused the loss of the GSLV rocket on Christmas Day. The failure sent a valuable communications satellite into the Bay of Bengal.

The Times of India reports:

The cover at the bottom of the cryogenic stage could not withstand load and pressure distribution that built up as the flight took off and caused the “pulling out” of the connectors between the onboard computer in the equipment bay and four strap-ons on the first stage, aborting a signal to the strap-ons, ultimately leading to altitude dip and crash, failure analysis committee chairman and former Isro chairman G Madhavan Nair told TOI.

ISRO is planning a GSLV test flight in 2012 to test changes in the shroud and Russia-supplied cryogenic third stage. The space agency has only two Russian cryogenic stages left in its inventory. The stage is required to lift payloads into geosynchronous orbit.

Meanwhile, the state of ISRO’s effort to develop an indigenous cryogenic upper stage remains uncertain. The space agency’s first attempt to launch one failed on April 15, 2010 after the turbo pump shut down after only .9 seconds. At the time, ISRO officials said they planned to make a second launch attempt with an indigenous stage within a year. That deadline has come and gone, and there appears to be pessimism within ISRO about the agency’s eventual success in this area. DNA reports:

“It is not that easy to develop a cryogenic engine which uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuel and oxidizer. 17 years of research work into it has proved that we do not have the right kind of people,” a senior ISRO scientist said.

Getting the right people in place is certainly crucial. So is having the right test procedures before lighting up an engine. A report from Forbes India has a startling revelation about the failure of India’s home-built cryogenic stage last year:

The case of the locally made cryogenic engine is more puzzling. To understand and pinpoint the error in the April 2010 experiment, ISRO must adopt a complete mathematical model to simulate the cryogenic system through which it could test the engine under varied, even hypothetical, conditions. For instance, if the booster pump hadn’t worked properly because it was submerged in liquid hydrogen, the test would have revealed it. But ISRO hasn’t done such a test. “Along with empirical understanding [from experiments], you need to have physical understanding [from simulation],” says B.N. Raghunandan, professor of aerospace engineering at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

ISRO is conducting a larger review of the GSLV program, which has been troubled by repeated failures. “The GSLV Review Committee, led by another former ISRO chief K. Kasturirangan, says there is ‘no pattern to failures,’ and points to a lack of rigour and attention to details,” Forbes India reports.

The GSLV rocket is the cornerstone of India’s bold ambitions in space. The nation can’t launch its own large geosynchronous satellites — much less compete in the international launcher market — without making this rocket reliable. The nation’s plans to launch the Chandrayaan-2 lunar probe in 2013 and humans into space around 2017 won’t happen without a working cryogenic upper stage. Without the GSLV, India will fall further behind rival China in the Asian space race.

Assistance may be coming from the Americans. The United States recently lifted trade sanctions against ISRO and other Indian organizations, opening the way for close cooperation in a range of high-tech areas. Boeing is particularly interested in cooperating with ISRO on cryogenic technologies and human spaceflight. ISRO and NASA JPL are also collaborating on a possible moon mission. The influx of foreign expertise could help ISRO to overcome some of its problems. In addition to being highly skilled and experienced, these entities operate in a much more open and accountable manner than does ISRO.

However, it is clear that these efforts must be matched by internal reforms. The Forbes India article paints a picture of a space agency that is in substantial disarray — unable to manage its own programs, set clear priorities, communicate internally, and explain its actions to an increasingly skeptical public. The recent controversy over the ISRO-Devas Multimedia lease deal for broadband spectrum — which was widely seen as more evidence of the rampant corruption presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — further soured the mood both inside and outside the agency.

The opinion in the scientific community is more nuanced but no less critical. They see a huge public organisation that is losing its research edge and slipping into a bureaucracy; a place where communication has broken down with the external world as well as within. They say ISRO is still full of honest people and that the Devas deal was not a scam at all; but they also say the organisation is straying from its core ideals. ISRO officials did not agree to be interviewed and failed to answer a detailed questionnaire from Forbes India on these issues…

Failure is hardly a bad thing. Or uncommon in the world of space research. The fact that India’s space agency is seeing more failures now “shows that ISRO has reached a certain level of maturity which certainly calls for modern governance,” says Steve Bochinger, president of Euroconsult North America. Other space agencies have similarly struggled with launch failures, organisational bottlenecks or confusion about long-term vision that ISRO is experiencing right now.

But then, a culture of openness, leadership and a high standard of accountability are the prescription for cure. And sadly ISRO ranks low in those departments.

India has set a bold path that will have it competing on the international launcher market, sending rovers to the moon, and its own astronauts into space. To be able to play in the major leagues, however, it will need to raises its game to a much higher level. ISRO will need to grow up.