The high-security headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, betrays no sign that the institution has just weathered its first big crisis — not over a rocket failing to take off but of credibility.
In the main hall, a giant model of a rocket that heralded India’s coming-of-space-age stands tall. But talk about the Antrix-Devas deal, and some unease begins to show.
Looking to bury the botched deal, India’s national space agency still has big plans. Over three decades, it has pioneered projects that have practical utility on earth over symbolic space outings that are a show of nationalistic might.
Just last year, India successfully launched a rocket into space carrying three satellites. Three years ago, it pulled off a stunning unmanned moon mission that carried not just Indian equipment but also that of the US’s Nasa and Russia. It planted the Indian flag on the moon, the fourth country to do so, took photographs that impressed Nasa’s scientists and investigated the differences between the moon’s near and far sides, relative to the earth. Isro is now working vigorously on the moon mission’s second phase.
“Our goal is total self-reliance in all branches of space science and technology,” says K Radhakrishnan, Isro’s chief.
Last year, the space agency said it would launch its first manned mission to space in 2016. This will require an astronaut-training centre, for which designs are being prepared.
Analysts say India, which is emerging as a key player in the multi-billion dollar space sector, intends to compete hard with an equally ambitious China.
Another one of Isro’s major initiatives involves developing India’s own regional satellite navigation system worth Rs 70,000 crore, an answer to the GPS system operated by the US department of defence, on which India depends.
Aiming even higher, Isro is already pressing its scientists to develop a cutting-edge air-breathing rocket engine known as a scramjet.
This could give India a far more affordable version of the reusable single-stage space vehicle, which is something similar to America’s famous space shuttles.