In 1981, when India’s space scientists grappled with the challenge of finding a metal-free transportable platform for its new satellite, they turned to an improbable frugal innovation. As the world watched amazed, Indian scientists wheeled out their gleaming, new satellite on a creaking, old bullock cart.
More than three decades on, as Indian scientists successfully launched more than 100 nano satellites on a single rocket, creating what they said was a record, it was still, in part, the same amazing story of endless tweaking and recycling of delicate equipment to keep costs down and tide over technology constraints.
To many, Wednesday’s triumph once again underlined the credibility of India’s space technology, despite the country’s antiquated industrial processes and manufacturing record, and the brilliance of its poorly paid scientists whose only reward, perhaps, is the collective national pride their work generates.
“This is a great moment for each and every one of us. Today we have created history,” said project director B Jayakumar.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also tweeted his congratulations on the launch by the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
“This remarkable feat by Isro is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation,” he said. “India salutes our scientists.”
Congratulations to @isro for the successful launch of PSLV-C37 and CARTOSAT satellite together with 103 nano satellites!— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 15, 2017
This remarkable feat by @isro is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation. India salutes our scientists.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 15, 2017
For Wednesday’s launch, ISRO’s scientists had to ensure the 104 satellites – most of them under 10 kgs each, did not collide.
“But our teams came up with very good solutions. The integration part was also done very well by our team,” said Jayakumar.
For a national space programme that saw its first scientists functioning out of an abandoned church, much of the workaround at ISRO is out of sheer necessity.
After India carried out nuclear-weapons tests in 1974, its access to technical know-how and sophisticated technology was limited.
As for money, there was never enough. India currently spends a little over $1 billion a year on its space programme. In comparison, US space agency NASA had a budget of about $19.3 billion for 2017.
To Mars on a shoestring
In September 2014, India successfully guided a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, becoming the only country to do so after the United States, the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency.
To keep costs down for its first inter-planetary mission, affectionately nicknamed MOM, scientists relied on technologies they had used before and kept the size of the payload small, at 15 kg. They saved on fuel by using a smaller rocket that was adapted from a launch vehicle that first flew in 1993. Only one physical model of the Mangalyaan was built.
ISRO engineers employed an unusual “slingshot” method for Mangalyaan’s interplanetary journey.
Lacking enough rocket power to blast directly out of Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, it orbited the Earth for several weeks while building up enough velocity to break free. That helped avoid using a more expensive more expensive heavy launch vehicle.
Two-thirds of the craft’s parts were made by Indian companies such as Larsen & Toubro and Godrej & Boyce.
The Mars mission was delivered on a shoestring budget of $74 million, less than the price of the cheapest passenger jet from Boeing. Or the cost of making the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Gravity’ on which about $100 million was spent.
(This is an updated article first published in September, 2014)