Over the moon

Print edition : June 02, 2006

G. MADHAVAN NAIR, ISRO Chairman, and Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, addressing the press at the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore after signing an MoU on the inclusion of two U.S. instruments on Chandrayaan-1. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

NASA chief's visit opens a new chapter in India-U.S. space cooperation.

WHEN Michael Griffin, Administrator of the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), spent 10 minutes closely examining the intricacies of an Indian-made cyrogenic engine at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram on May 10, nobody there, especially the top brass of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), would have missed the irony. Thirteen years ago, in July 1993, the U.S. had forced Russia not to sell cryogenic technology to ISRO because, it said, cryogenic engines were used to power missiles.

Under an agreement India and Russia signed in January 1991, Russia was to supply not only cryogenic engines but cryogenic technology for ISRO's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs). But in May 1992 the George Bush Sr administration imposed sanctions on both ISRO and Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency which was to sell it the engines and technology. In early 1993, the U.S. virtually served an ultimatum on the Russian government to renege on the agreement. The Boris Yeltsin administration yielded.

In an interview to Space India (October 1993 - March 1994) just before he laid down office, ISRO Chairman U.R. Rao called the U.S. embargo "uncalled for". Rao said: "Firstly, nobody uses cryogenic engines for missiles and, secondly, if they [the U.S.] had wanted to object, they could have done so earlier and they knew fully well that for the last five years, people have been approaching us... and one and a half years after the contract was signed with the Russians, they [the U.S.] woke up. Anyway, commercial motives are behind all these. But the Russians reneged on the contract invoking the force majeure clause."

ISRO went ahead and developed its own cryogenic engine at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu and tested it successfully on December 5, 2003. A few more engines were tested since then and it was one of these that held Griffin's attention. At lunch on that day, Griffin gave ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair his visiting card after writing his mobile phone number on it and told him that he could call him any time.

The NASA Administrator went round three key ISRO facilities: the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore, the VSSC, and the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

At the VSSC, Griffin was taken around the various facilities, including the simulation laboratory where a launch vehicle in flight is simulated. He then saw a presentation on ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and GSLV programmes, the PSLV variants, how ISRO was able to step up the PSLV's payload capability, the GSLV-Mark III version under development, ISRO's theoretical studies on interplanetary missions to the moon and Jupiter, and so on. VSSC Director B.N. Suresh, who made the presentation, said: "He [Griffin] clearly enjoyed his visit to the VSSC. He felt we have done a very good job in all space segments. He said ISRO was doing remarkable work within the budget available to it."

At the ISRO Satellite Centre, K.N. Shankara, Director, and Madhavan Nair took Griffin around the laboratories, which are among the ISRO facilities that are likely to see more American involvement. Madhavan Nair and Griffin later signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on flying two U.S.-made instruments on board Chandrayaan-1, ISRO's satellite to the moon, opening a new chapter in India-U.S. cooperation. The instruments are a Mini Synthetic Aperture Radar (Mini SAR) developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, and funded by NASA, and the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), jointly built by Brown University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA.

The instruments were selected on merit from 16 firm proposals from all over the world in response to an ISRO announcement. The mini SAR will look for water in the permanently shadowed areas of the polar regions of the moon. The M3 will scan the lunar surface for minerals.

In his speech before the MoU was signed, Griffin said:

"It is fitting for our purposes today to note that 35 years ago this summer, during the Apollo 15 mission to Hadley Rille beneath the moon's towering Apennine mountains, among the special items that our astronauts carried with them was the national flag of India... .

"Today, the Indian people deserve to be tremendously proud that the next time the Indian flag travels to the moon, it will be placed on a very impressive scientific spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1. The mission you will conduct some 40 years after humans saw the moon up close for the first time will greatly advance our understanding of our closest neighbour in space, and represents a very impressive technical achievement. NASA is honoured to be a participant on this mission."

A modified version of the PSLV called PSLV-XL will be launched from Sriharikota sometime in 2007-08 carrying Chandrayaan-1, a spacecraft weighing 1,050 kg. The PSLV will place the satellite in a geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the earth. Subsequently, Chandrayaan-1's own propulsion system will place it in a polar orbit 100 km above the moon. In its lunar orbit, Chandrayaan-1 will weigh 525 kg and have a life of two years. It will have instruments from India, the U.S., the European Space Agency (ESA) and Bulgaria.

According to Dr. J.N. Goswami, Director of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad and principal scientist of Chandrayaan-1, the primary objectives are to investigate the presence of various minerals and chemical elements on the moon and conduct high-resolution three-dimensional mapping of the entire moon surface. The satellite will carry Indian payloads such as the Terrain Mapping Camera, a High Energy X-Ray Spectrometer, a Low Energy X-ray Spectrometer and a Lunar Ranging Instrument. Importantly, Chandrayaan-1 will carry an Indian-made Moon Impact Probe, which is conceived as a forerunner to future landing missions.

At a press conference after the signing ceremony, Griffin said he was sorry about the U.S. sanctions on some ISRO units and that he would use his good offices to lift the sanctions. "I am sorry about the past but I will certainly take back a good word about Indian space capabilities. I am very impressed." He said NASA and ISRO wanted to avoid duplication of work. "We are looking at what are the areas where we can increase cooperation between our countries so that we are both not spending on the same length," Griffin said.

He denied that there was any "self-imposed" ban on NASA Administrators' visits to India. "I think there was a period of time between our countries where, because of nuclear proliferation issues and other factors, the ability to cooperate in technical matters was less strong than it is today," he said.

At the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Griffin was shown around the state-of-the-art Second Launch Pad, its Vehicle Assembly Building, the First Launch Pad, Propellant Servicing Systems, the Satellite Preparation Facility, the Mission Control Centre, the Launch Control Centre and so on. M. Annamalai, Director, SDSC, explained to him how the facilities were realised with technologies developed by ISRO.

The India-U.S. space relationship has been a love-hate one. It began on a promising note, but faltered on the way. The very first rocket ISRO launched, from Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram, on November 21, 1963, was a U.S.-made Nike-Apache sounding rocket for conducting experiments in the ionosphere. The launch, which took place under U.N. auspices, was an international effort: the sodium vapour payload was from France, the range clearance was given by an M1-4 helicopter from the Soviet Union, and the rocket engineers and payload specialists were Indians.

The relationship gained momentum in 1975 with the launch of the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which beamed educational programmes to many Indian villages through the American Applications Technology Satellite (ATS-6). SITE demonstrated the use of satellite technology as an effective tool to educate the masses.

The bonding extended to the establishment of the multi-purpose Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system for telecommunication and weather forecasting, in the 1980s. The first four satellites of the INSAT-1 series were built by Ford Aerospace and Communication Corporation in the U.S. and three of them were put in orbit by U.S. launch vehicles including the space shuttle.

MADHAVAN NAIR AND Michael Griffin signing the MoU. They are flanked by K.N. Shankara, Director, ISAC, and J.N. Goswami, Director, PRL.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The relationship soured in the 1990s with India seeking to build cryogenic engines to power its GSLVs in order to launch INSATs weighing more than two tonnes. In fact, a U.S. company was keen to sell both the cryogenic engine and the technology to ISRO. As U.R. Rao told Space India, "Knowing our interests in this area, not at our initiative but their own initiative, General Dynamics (USA) wanted to sell the cryo engine in the first phase and then talk of the cryo technology transfer in the second phase. But the cost was very prohibitive. So we said we would go on our own."

Later Arianespace offered ISRO cryogenic technology but, again, the cost was prohibitive. "But just before going to the Cabinet for approval of the indigenous development of the cryogenic stage, the Russians approached us with a deal which was very good and the result was that for just Rs.235 crores, we would get the total cryogenic technology and the supply of two engines. We could save at least some two to three years of developmental time."

But the U.S. played spoilsport, pressuring Russia not to sell the technology to India. Following this, the India-U.S. space relationship turned frosty. The Pokhran-II nuclear tests in May 1998 proved the breaking point. Undeterred by U.S. sanctions, ISRO focussed on building launch vehicles and working on other projects. Soon, the PSLV started flying mini-satellites of belonging to other countries, forcing the U.S. to sit up and take notice. It forced Taiwan to cancel a contract with ISRO to fly a satellite on the PSLV.

In an interview to Frontline in Chennai on May 11, Griffin underlined that the differences between the U.S. and India had "more to do with concerns over proliferation than anything else". In his assessment, the U.S. and India had come to terms on nuclear issues after President George W. Bush's visit to India in March 2006 and his discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "It paves the way for the resumption of our normally close relationship in science and technology that has existed for a long period of time," Griffin said. He was confident that flying the two U.S. instruments on Chandrayaan-1 would "certainly help to revitalise the relationship".

On whether the U.S. would be ready to train a corps of Indian astronauts if India decides in a couple of years to send an Indian into space, he said, "In terms of training an Indian astronaut for a home-grown Indian manned flight space capability, again we will be happy to do that. But that will be the choice of the Indian government to ask us to do that because that would have to be done on cost reimbursable basis."

Griffin summed up his impression of his visit to ISRO facilities thus: "ISRO spends about $700 million [a year] on space. Other nations spend more and many nations spend less. But I don't think it is possible to do a better job with the money being spent than ISRO is doing. All work I saw was of very first quality and something I believe the Indian people can be very proud of. I was very impressed."

So was the Indian side. Madhavan Nair called the NASA Administrator's visit "a grand success". "He was very impressed with our achievements and capabilities in many areas of space," the ISRO Chairman said.

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