With Chandrayaan 3 mission under progress and success of the Mars mission in 2013-14 injecting a new confidence in its ability, ISRO has achieved a phenomenal progress in the space sector since the launch of the first satellite, Aryabhata in 1975
On 23 August 1947, barely a week after taking over as Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru called for an inter-ministerial meeting on science and it was decided that India needs to establish a major science and technology (S & T) programme.

Some Indian scientists, who had studied abroad and worked there, decided to come back and join the independent India’s quest for S & T, one amongst them was Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who eventually fathered India’s space programme.

Rocket science was not new to India. The work on rocketry could be said to have started in ancient times, when fireworks were first used in the country. In 1957, the first satellite called Sputnik was launched by the erstwhile Soviet Union and India was quick to realise the potential relevance of space technologies for social development.

During the early 1960s, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, a cosmic ray physicist was pushing for the need to start making investments in space technologies and was fully supported by Jawaharlal Nehru. India established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with Dr. Sarabhai as its Chairman in 1962.

India’s space program began with undertaking Sounding Rocket experiments during the early 1960s. India established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in 1963 at Thumba in Kerala. Finally, on August 15, 1969 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was created and the Department of Space got established in June of 1972.

It was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who gave vision to India’s space program. However, on December 30, 1971 Dr. Sarabhai died at the age of 52. Subsequently, it was Prof Satish Dhawan, who very ably led ISRO during 1972–1984 and was instrumental in giving the foundation to India’s space dream.

India’s progress in the domain of space had major learnings from some of the initial failures. In 1980, India was able to successfully put a satellite into the low earth orbit (LEO) by using its own indigenously developed launch vehicle and thus joining the coveted club of the spacefaring nations. This mission was headed by a scientist named Abdul Kalam who eventually became the President of India.

Any space program can only flourish if the space agency has reliable launch vehicles. India could be said to have ‘struck gold’ with its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which is meant for carrying two-ton category of satellites to LEO.

Till date, PSLV has undertaken 58 launches with only two failures. ISRO has used this vehicle in various combinations innovatively to undertake different categories of launches including the Moon mission. For launching heavy satellites to geo-stationary orbit (GEO, 36, 000 km above the earth’s surface) ISRO has a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-Mk III).

The basic limitation over here is that India is still not able to launch satellites more than 4-tons of weight. GSLV gets used for launching heavy satellites into LEO and this category of vehicle is called LMV-3. Recently, ISRO has developed a small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) for launching small satellites (500 kg variety) to LEO.

India has made phenomenal progress in the domain of space during the last two to three decades. India’s space program needs to be investigated at different levels like its importance for the social sector, scientific sector, commercial sector, and strategic sector.

In 1975, India launched its first satellite, Aryabhata, with Soviet assistance and thus entered the space age. Over the years, India has launched various satellites in low, medium, and geostationary orbits.

India has difficult geography and climatic conditions to deal with. India is an agricultural economy. Hence, the focus of ISRO has been towards having various types of remote-sensing (earth observation) and weather satellites.

Today, India has one of the biggest networks of remote-sensing satellites in the world. Such systems are used for studying the national economy in areas of agriculture, assistance in management of land-water-jungle resources.

They are useful in forestry, ecology, geology, watersheds, marine fisheries, and coastal management. For defence, such satellites can provide very high-resolution imagery. India views all these satellite systems as dual-use. Some satellites belonging to the Cartosat series come with 25 cm of resolution, which matches with the best in the world.

Owing to financial limitations, ISRO started its journey during the 1980s by developing a multipurpose satellite system called the INSAT, where a single satellite was catering for commutations, earth observation and meteorological requirements.

Today, ISRO has a range of communications and weather satellites, which provides services to telecommunications, television broadcasting, satellite newsgathering, societal applications, weather forecasting, disaster warning and Search and Rescue operations.

In 2013, India launched the first communications satellite for the Indian Navy. Presently, a separate satellite has also been launched for the Indian Air Force. There are very few countries in the world to have a navigation system like the GPS of the United States. ISRO has developed a regional navigational system called NAVIC, which has both commercial and military utility.

To attract the young talent, ISRO also encourages students from different universities to design and develop satellites. Till date, ISRO has launched more than ten student’s satellites. India has the unique distinction of successfully reaching the Lunar and Martian orbit in the first attempt. India’s first mission Chandrayaan 1 (2008) was able to find water on the Moon.

Presently, Chandrayaan 3 mission is under progress. ISRO had a successful mission to Mars in 2013-2014. India has gained global recognition for undertaking planetary missions in a cost-effective fashion.

Currently, India is preparing to undertake its human mission to space under the Gaganyaan program. India has also launched an astronomical satellite and would be shortly launching a satellite to study the Sun. In the strategic domain, as a part of its deterrence strategy, India has undertaken an anti-satellite test (ASAT) during 2019 (Mission Shakthi).

In 2020, the government of India has unleashed reforms in the space sector and has also announced its space policy in April 2023. At present, there are around 150 startups, which are pushing India’s commercial space sector reforms. India is expected to have a mature space economy in the coming few years.

The government is also found using its space program as a tool for foreign policy and in 2017, the South Asia Satellite was launched to assist various states in the neighbourhood.

Today, ISRO’s achievements with a great success rate within a shoestring budget, are laudable. For India, the space domain has emerged as a crucial instrument towards enhancing the country’s Soft Power status.

***The writer is a consultant at MP-IDSA, New Delhi; views expressed here are his own