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A spaced-out cooperation

Indians are impassive over the ?headway? in space portrayed in the Indo-US joint statement, writes BR Srikanth.

india Updated: Mar 05, 2006 03:29 IST
BR Srikanth
BR Srikanth

In June 2004, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam rolled out his wish-list of the Indo-US space partnership to a gathering of American and Indian space scientists in Bangalore. As one of the front-line rocket engineers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and one with an insight into the NASA’s prowess, he was best qualified to envision the goals of collaboration between the two nations. His vision:

* Bring down the cost-per-kg launch of payload. Such a reduction will facilitate cheaper access to space and in turn, enhance exploration of the universe.

* Bring down the weight of the spacecraft substantially, using nanotechnology in composite structures, electronics, computing and protective coating.

* Intensive partnership between the two countries for the generation of power using Space Power Systems (SPS) and space exploration, particularly mining on the moon and asteroids and establishing the first habitats on Mars.

* The collaboration of space scientists and technologists of NASA and ISRO with geologists over a 10-year period in order to predict earthquakes at least a week ahead.

*The benefits of space research reach a population of six billion by providing them with the unhindered supply of safe drinking water, shelter, food, healthcare and education.

But the steps forward in the realm of space, described in the India-US Joint Statement released in New Delhi on March 2nd, fall woefully short of Dr. Kalam’s suggestions. His former colleagues in the space research organisation are impassive rather than celebratory over the ‘headway’ portrayed in that statement.

Though the statement offers a whiff of mega-buck contracts, the arduous journey ahead to the first big money deal seems speckled with a variety of problems and political intrigues, and therefore has none smiling in the space community. “The most important breakthrough is the agreement to carry two payloads of the US onboard Chandrayaan-I (India’s lunar orbiter scheduled for launch in 2007-08). Some topics are about future cooperation. Discussions are on about the manufacture and launch of satellites and we need some time to work out the terms. At this point, it is difficult to hazard a guess on the potential,” was how Mr. Madhavan Nair, Chairman, ISRO, summed up the “new high” in Indo-US space relations.

Mr Nair and his colleagues are weighed down by a slew of factors — from long-drawn procedures of approval by the US administration to the absence of a level playing field in the global market, besides power games and manoeuvres of leading names.

For instance, two years ago, Mr. Kenneth Juster, the US Under Secretary of Commerce, announced the US administration’s approval of a license authorising Boeing Satellite Systems to initiate a dialogue with ISRO for the joint manufacture and marketing of communication satellites. The progress so far: zilch. The hitch: a tedious procedure as part of the Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA). “The Technical Assistance Agreement is a fairly complicated procedure that requires approvals of the Department of Commerce, the State Department and Pentagon and other agencies, before one could launch a US satellite. We had to sign the TAA even to accept their payloads onboard the Chandrayaan-I,” Dr. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, MP, and former Chairman, ISRO, explained.

That’s not all. One ought to factor in a shrinking market, not only in the United States, but elsewhere as well because the present generation satellites have enhanced longevity and more services built in. Second, as a policy, satellites of the US administration are launched by indigenous rockets and not from foreign soil. Third, some of the satellite manufacturers in the United States have also developed rockets of their own. As for the cash-rich private satellite market, a variety of proven launch vehicles are on hand. As Prof. U R Rao, former Chairman of ISRO, puts it, “I doubt whether we will get a US satellite for launch. Of course, the others could turn to us because our rockets are ideal to put satellites weighing two to two-and-half tonnes into orbit.”

In the recent past, America has been lobbying against any support to ISRO’s attempt to secure at least a toehold in the global satellite launch market. “They did not want to encourage us because every successful launch means a crucial step ahead in the learning curve and a better image in the market. A few even went to the extent of suggesting that India will divert funds earned from satellite launches to the missiles’ program, though these two are separate projects,” Prof. Roddam Narasimha, Member of the Indian Space Commission, said.

In 1992, the Indian space agency was at the receiving end, thanks to one such proclamation that cryogenic engines of erstwhile Soviet Union could power missiles. The US administration invoked the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to force ISRO and Glavcosmos (the Soviet space agency) to back out from transfer of technology. For two years, the United States slapped a technology embargo and thus prevented the import of critical components and systems by ISRO.

The silver lining this time, however, is America’s decision to scrap its control over the launch of foreign satellites with components imported from the US. “It’s a very big step forward because we had been negotiating with the US for a long time to allow us to launch satellites with its components. We can procure these components from the US because they are reliable, cost-effective and favoured by customers (user agencies),” says Dr. Kasturirangan.

For ISRO’s corporate arm, Antrix Corporation, its virtue of patience and perseverance could yield results. The love-hate relationships not withstanding, Antrix, in collaboration with SpaceImaging Inc. (USA), has garnered 20 per cent of the global market for images beamed by remote sensing satellites. “The outcome of these decisions in Delhi will help us work our way into the US market (for the joint manufacture and launch of satellites),” maintains Mr. K.R. Sridhara Murthy, Executive Director, Antrix Corporation.

Interestingly, China endured similar problems set off by the US-restrictions on launching satellites with its components, a cap on the tariff for launching satellites etc. But with India’s arrival in the global market, it could well mark the start of a trade war in the region. “That will be interesting to watch (the trade war) and how our colleagues overcome the ruthlessness in the global market. I think from a battle of desire and denial, our space scientists could face one of ruthless competition,” says Dr. V S Arunachalam, former scientific advisor to the defence minister.

Certainly, the battles do not seem to end for Indian space scientists.

First Published: Mar 05, 2006 03:12 IST