Challenges, frustrations and the future

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with Dr. K. Kasturirangan, ISRO Chairman.

"We have a heavy agenda ahead," says Dr. K. Kasturirangan, Chairman of both the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Space Commission. He is also Secretary, Department of Space. Before he took over as ISRO Chairman on March 31, 1994, he was Director, ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC), Bangalore. He oversaw the development of the new generation INSAT-2 satellites, the Indian Remote-sensing Satellites (IRS-1A and 1B) and scientific satellites. He was the Project Director for India's first two experimental earth observation satellites, Bhaskara I and II.

In an interview he gave T.S. Subramanian on July 2 at his office in the ISRO headquarters, Bangalore, Dr. Kasturirangan spoke about the "eventful" 40 years of rocketry in ISRO, which have been "full of challenges". There were frustrations and failures. "But ISRO men knew precisely what its objectives were": to apply space science for the benefit of the people. Excerpts from the interview:

In November 1963, India launched its first rocket, from Thumba. Since then ISRO has launched 37 satellites, and 17 of its launch vehicles have lifted off from Sriharikota. What lies ahead for ISRO?

As of now, ISRO has stabilised in providing operational services in broadcasting, telecommunications, meteorology and earth resources survey. We have the capability to put into orbit our remote-sensing satellites with our own Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Today, the PSLV has the capability to put a 1,350-kg satellite into a polar sun-synchronous orbit. After one or two launches, we may take it up to 1,500 kg. We have the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which can deploy a communications or broadcasting satellite weighing up to two tonnes in the geo-synchronous transfer orbit (GTO). We are working on strategies to improve the GSLV's capability through successive phases. We shall target 2,200 kg, 2,300 kg and finally 2,450 kg. We should be able to put a 2.5-tonne satellite in the GTO with the present generation of GSLVs and their modified versions in the next three to four years.

We are building new-generation remote sensing satellites. The one round the corner is RESOURCESAT, that is, IRS-P6. This is an improved version of the currently operating IRS 1C and 1D.

We are also building CARTOSAT-1, the first in the CARTOSAT series, primarily for mapping. We hope to launch CARTOSAT-1 by the end of next year. CARTOSAT-2 will have a one-metre resolution, again with stereoscopic capability. So we will get into the domain of creating maps with a 1:8000 scale or even better with the CARTOSAT series. This will be a path-breaking capability for India, and will be shared commercially with other countries.

We are designing a remote-sensing satellite called RISAT, which is a radar mission. Most important, it will have a continuous capability for imaging; the capability to look through the clouds, and for day and night imaging.

We need to continue our meteorological missions in geo-synchronous altitudes. This will constitute a separate series of satellites, starting with the already launched KALPANA-1.

We are building a series of communications satellites. Currently, we have in space 120 transponders, distributed over the C-band, the extended C-band and the Ku-band frequencies. These are fully used by the government and the private sectors' service providers for broadcasting and communication. We want to increase this infrastructure because the demand will go up to 200 transponders in the next three to five years. So we are in the process of building fourth-generation communications satellites - INSAT-4 A and 4B. These will be high-power satellites in the Ku-band and can be used for direct-to-home (DTH) broadcasting. Right now we have INSAT-3E, which is ready for launch. We plan for its launch towards the end of August.

The PSLV launch is also coming up in September/October from Sriharikota.

On the launch vehicle side, we are preparing our PSLV, which will put our RESOURCESAT into orbit, may be in September or October. We are building GSAT-3, which is primarily meant for (broadcasting) educational programmes. It is a dedicated satellite for education, called EDUSAT, and will be launched by the next GSLV flight, which will be an operational flight.

Work is in progress on GSLV Mark III, which can put a four-tonne satellite into the GTO or a nearly 10-tonne satellite into a near-earth orbit. It is an elegant vehicle, consisting of three stages.

On the application side, we are moving strongly in two areas. One is telemedicine. There is a need to bring a unique and innovative healthcare system to all the citizens of the country. It is in this context that a satellite-based telemedicine approach can be an effective solution. We have already tested it between different hospitals in the rural areas and the urban centres. It seems to be working well. Significantly, the State governments are recognising the importance of telemedicine and equipping many district hospitals and training people. ISRO, as a policy, has decided to give the spectrum free initially. ISRO is currently planning for all 72 districts in northeastern India to be connected to specialist hospitals in different parts of the country. We want to do it in the next six to eight months. This is an ambitious target and we are working on this with the Northeastern Council.

Another important development will be to spread education through EDUSAT. For this, we have to perform a number of conceptual experiments and pilot projects. We are teaming up with Maharashtra, Karnataka and some Central universities that are interested in providing primary, secondary and higher education in engineering and medical sciences, professional orientation courses, enrichment courses for students, training and so on.

The core issue we are addressing here is that we have only a limited number of good teachers. How do you make use of these quality teachers in an optimal way? That is where EDUSAT comes in.

You bring them to the (radio and television) studios to deliver lectures, which will be telecast to various centres in the country. Students can see them and hear them, and can interact with them because this is an interactive system. So you will have virtual classrooms all over the country. EDUSAT will be a path-breaking effort and I am happy to say that the Human Resource Development Ministry and Union Minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi are keen to have this system immediately launched so that they can use it to introduce innovative efforts in the country's educational efforts.

One nice thing is that many of my colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service - Additional Secretary, Department of Space (DoS), S.K. Das; Joint Secretary, DoS, V.V. Bhat and Joint Secretary (Finance), DoS, S.V. Ranganath - are enthusiastic about creating this system in the country, and they have people in the States, who run the administration.

Will our plan to send a probe to study the moon pave the way for an inter-planetary mission?

We are evolving a strategy for planetary exploration in the coming decades. We are one of the select countries that have the capability to build launch vehicles and spacecraft, and with our capability to send spacecraft that can go to the moon, we cannot be left behind. Besides, we have a community of committed scientists who want to use these opportunities to understand the origin and evolution of planets, for which the moon holds the key. It is in this context that we have taken a modest step in planning our first mission to the moon - an orbiter mission, which will go around the moon at an altitude of 100 km, and have a typical lifespan of two years.

Technologically, my engineers feel that this kind of mission can pose interesting challenges in the areas of miniaturisation, weight optimisation, control guidance and navigation, in computing the orbits that will take you to the moon and so on. Scientifically, it will be worthwhile. The European Space Agency and Canada have shown an interest in this kind of mission.

ISRO has had a string of successful flights of the PSLV and the GSLV. When you look back on the setbacks ISRO suffered, do you think the two consecutive failures of the ASLV transformed ISRO?

No. We should not talk like that on individual successes and failures. When you have a failure, you go into its reasons, whether it is in the satellite or in the launch vehicle. You try to unearth several things because successes can sometimes camouflage weaknesses in the system. When that camouflaging cannot be tolerated beyond a limit, it becomes a failure. And the failure reveals the weaknesses in the system. These weaknesses could be in the design of the launch vehicle or the satellite; it could be a problem related to the quality of hardware; or it could be something we do not understand and so was not adequately taken care of in the design and development of the launch vehicle or the satellite; or, it could be a managerial oversight. It could be any one of such possibilities or a combination of them.

So, you don't single out a specific failure either in the launch vehicle or in the satellite to say that it transformed ISRO. ISRO cannot be transformed by failures but it has been made wiser by failures. You are, therefore, creating a robust system, which is less susceptible to failures.

ISRO has productionised the PSLV and the GSLV. It can launch a PSLV every nine months, and a GSLV every year. So will you hand over the production of launch vehicles to private industries and concentrate on research and development, pure science, and the application side of space technology?

In my outlook on how space science should grow in the country, we would like to leave as much routine production as possible in the hands of industry. The meaning of "routine" here is not what it is in the conventional sense, because space systems being a speciality, you need expertise, quality, process control, precision and so on. There will be challenges in engineering, choice of materials, assembly, testing and the like. Many of these can be done by industry. We have, over the years, gradually increased the participation of industry in the realisation of the space systems. For example, 85 per cent of the launch vehicle budget goes to industry today. It means they are in a position virtually to supply the rocket stages to ISRO. They need not supply any longer only a part of an engine, a nozzle or a tank. That is not the objective today, but a fully assembled rocket stage.

Similarly, in satellites, we are now asking industry to fabricate heat pipes, panels, subsystems such as telemetry command and so on. Here, there are process controls, which are stringent. You have to work on them for more than 10 years. But they have been successful, trying to do this.

Take the recent example of the second launch pad at Sriharikota. It cost about Rs.400 crores to build. We had more than 100 industries participating in it. We fully handed this over to a public sector company called MECON. It was a full turn-key project. From the engineering point of view, the second launch pad is a big challenge because it involves structural engineering, civil engineering, control engineering, cryo engineering, propellant engineering, instrumentation and so on. Besides, it has to be made earthquake proof. It has to withstand cyclones.

I am happy to say that six to eight industries in the country qualified to do this kind of job. The second launch-pad is almost complete now. It speaks volumes about the capability of Indian industry to undertake such efforts. In the years to come, they may build satellites and launch vehicles. They may use ISRO's facilities to launch them. We shall support them in critical areas. In the whole process, we can concentrate more and more on areas of new developments, new concepts, newer systems and innovative applications, which can be demonstrated at the experimental level before the country adopts them.

How do you look back on 40 years of ISRO?

They were eventful years. They were full of challenges. It is not that we did not have frustration and failures. But ISRO men knew precisely what its objectives were. The dreams of our pioneers such as Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who gave a direction to our programme, Prof. Satish Dhawan, Prof. U.R. Rao, Dr. Brahm Prakash and Abdul Kalam, all of whom gave a momentum to ISRO's programme, are central to the culture of ISRO, which is still the basis of our working together for a common goal.

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