ISRO is an excellent example of how a potent mixture of freedom and funding can energise departments attached to the Indian government, an institution notoriously prone to excessive control.
Over the past decade, ISRO’s projects have been getting bigger and more ambitious, and it has begun to shrug off the shroud of secrecy that covers other government science institutes.
The GSLV-D5 launch comes a month after the organisation sent up a rocket to orbit Mars. The rocket is scheduled to reach the red planet towards the end of 2014 and is intended to test the country's design and planning capabilities for interplanterary missions.
GSLV, however, is more practical. It is among a series of launchers developed by ISRO that can put satellites into orbit almost 36,000 km above the planet. There have been nine GSLV launchers so far, of which only four, including GSLV-D5, have been successful.
The first, a Mk-1 launcher, was deployed in 2001. In April and December 2010, ISRO unsuccessfully experimented with Mk-2 launchers that could carry heavier payloads. GSLV-D5 is the third in this category and is the only one to have worked.
The GSLV-D5 can only carry satellites weighing a maximum of 2,500 kg, unlike other rockets, such as France’s Ariane satellite launcher, which can carry up to 10,000 kg. Nonetheless, yesterday’s launch is important for two reasons.
First, ISRO has managed to develop a cryogenic engine from scratch. Cryogenic engines are capable of storing fuel at extremely low temperatures, which increases the amount a launcher can carry.
In addition, now that ISRO knows that its cryogenic technology is effective, it can begin to develop the next generation of GSLVs, which can carry payloads of up to 4,500 kg. This will consolidate India's position in the highly lucrative commercial satellite launch industry.
The PSLV, a lighter weight rocket that launches satellites closer to earth, "is already a highly reliable launch vehicle in its class and offers for other countries' satellites, several advantages, that include cost, schedule and technical maturity," says Susmita Mohanty, CEO of India’s first private space start-up Earth2Orbit. "It is only natural that similar advantages will accrue from the GSLV in due course.”
Cryogenic technology is also vital to larger projects such as launching an Indian space station or conducting a manned mission to space. ISRO was established in 1962 on the urging of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who wanted to build India’s communication network and link it directly to development.
“In early days, it was a modest, though ambitious, programme," said Amrita Shah, author of the only biography of Sarabhai. ISRO "was very careful about how it spent money. It was not wasteful and it had very clear developmental goals. At the same time it was ambitious -- for a poor country to be even thinking about a space programme would have seemed absurd at the time.”
Shah said that the Indian space programme has been successful for a very long time, but now the scale has become larger. "There is now a certain element of flamboyance in the representation of the programme, not the programme itself, that Sarabhai would have been categorically against,” she noted.
ISRO, under the department of space, is one of the few government-funded institutions to have consistently delivered positive results. What is different is the unswerving backing it gets from the political class.
While the technical capabilities of ISRO’s scientists and engineers are among the best in the world, it would not be able to go far without funding and support from politicians.
In the past few years, its budget has increased by 25-30% per year, with no questions asked. Politicians have always been enthusiastic in their support of India’s space programmes.
There has been only one financial scandal at ISRO in 50 years, and the government dealt with it decisively. In 2011, reports emerged that ISRO had made a deal with private multimedia company Devas Multimedia Private Limited, to launch satellites that would give away 70 MHz of the S-band spectrum for a throwaway price.
The chairman at the time, G Madhavan Nair, was removed and informed that he could never hold a government position again. This decision is currently under review.
Despite its occasional failures, an acceptable hazard in any scientific field, ISRO remains one of the most open technical departments funded by the government.
Science has always been the golden child of the government. As with ISRO, the government does not publicly inquire into the doings of other research departments such as the Defence and Research Development Organisation or the Atomic Energy Centre. However, neither is as open to the public as ISRO.
While the ISRO model of funding might not be replicable in other more mundane areas such as the public works department, it does give a glimpse at how an organisation can flourish despite the odds.