'An exciting mission, a cost-effective project'

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram is the key centre for building the Indian Space Research Organisation's satellite launch vehicles. Its director G. Madhavan Nair, the "father of the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) programme", described the successful flight of the Geo-synchro-nous Satellite Launch Vehicle as "the tapasya we have been doing for the past ten years" and as "two missions in one". The successful GSLV flight and its aborted attempt on March 28 showed how "we can trouble-shoot within the shortest possible time, re-set the engine and get going with the mission", he said. He also revealed that the indigenous cryogenic engine, which "is in the conceptual stage", would be ready in less than three years.

Excerpts from the interview he gave T.S. Subramanian:

S. MAHINSHA

How do you sum up the GSLV mission?

It was really exciting. In fact, it was two missions in one. The first mission (when the flight was aborted on March 18 and the vehicle was saved) demonstrated our capability to manage a difficult situation on the ground and put a launch on hold 200 milliseconds before lift-off. The entire computer division worked precisely (in aborting the flight). Also, we have demonstrated how we can trouble-shoot within the shortest possible time, re-set with a new engine and get going with the mission.

Of course, the mission is very, very complex. Hundreds of events take place from take-off to the injection of the GSAT in orbit. Every event has to be precise. Otherwise, you don't get the orbit. The orbit we got is really good for the first attempt. We targeted 36,000 km. We got 32,000 km plus. That is slightly more than the error-band. Still, for the first attempt, it is a remarkable orbit. It demonstrates that our understanding of the launch vehicle technology is good. We have achieved certain goals in trying to target a zero-defect type situation.

How did the defect in the plumbing of the gas injector, which caused the flight to be aborted, escape attention?

It should be treated as a chance phenomenon. There are hundreds of plumbings in a launch vehicle. There are gas supply lines, cryogenic fluid supply lines and so on. We have a strict protocol for quality assurance. One of the plumbings, which normally would have got rejected, got mixed up. But after detecting it, we went through a series of exercises - doing a radiography examination of each and every joint and plumbing, and making sure that everything functioned normally.

Has the launch campaign for the next flight of the PSLV started?

Yes. We now have to convert the GSLV launch pad for the PSLV's lift-off. This will take a couple of months. The vehicle preparation will start in a parallel manner. We are targeting the PSLV in the middle of this year.

When is the next test of the indigenous cryogenic engine planned?

We made a beginning (in February 2000 when the indigenous cryogenic engine was fired at Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu). The second engine will soon be put on test bed, may be within two to three months. Then we will have a series of engines in the production line. We would like to qualify at least three or four engines on the ground and take up the development of the stage engines simultaneously. Most of the designs here have been completed. Metal cutting has started. We are just completing some of the new technologies for insulation and welding of the alloys. We hope to have our own cryogenic stage in less than three years.

Will it be used in the third GSLV flight? We hope so.

These are engines with a thrust of 7.5 tonnes?

Yes. Once we gain confidence, we will try to uprate it. For example, we are now talking of uprating our Vikas liquid engines by ten per cent. The GSLV can deploy a two-tonne payload. This uprating will give an additional 180 kg to 200 kg payload. Similarly, if we are confident, we can uprate the cryogenic engine by a small fraction. But if you want to have a bigger payload, you should go for a bigger cryogenic engine. That is in the conceptual stage. If we are to be in this business, we should have a much bigger payload capability, at reduced costs.

The entire GSLV project has cost Rs.1,500 crores. Does it include the Rs.450 crores spent on the first three GSLV flights?

It includes the Rs.450 crores for the first three GSLV flights. About Rs.500 crores is meant for acquiring the seven cryogenic stages from Russia. About Rs.200 crores was spent on infrastructure development. The balance would have been spent on technology development. This is a very, very cost-effective project. The cost would have been three to five times higher anywhere else in the world.

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