Indian Summer: The Changing Face of the Space Race

Did you know that India’s space program began as far back as 1962? This was before the US had landed on the moon, and only a few months after the first interplanetary probe (Venera 1) was launched. The program was largely inspired by Vikram Sarabhai, an Indian physicist who also helped develop India’s nuclear power program. (I named an Atoll JumpShip after him in the Logan’s World series.)

Initially called the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) and renamed in 1966 as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), their first rocket was launched in 1963 with the parts delivered to the launch site by bicycle! In 1975, India saw its first satellite launched by Interkosmos, the Soviet space agency. Later, in 1980, they launched the Rohini series of satellites, using their home-developed Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV).

After the success of the SLV, ISRO went on to enhance its launcher systems, increasing their launch capacity, culminating in the development of the highly successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This rocket made over fifty successful flights, enabling India to launch low Earth orbit satellites, smaller payloads to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and hundreds of satellites for other nations. Then, in 1984, the first Indian astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, spent eight days on the Russian space station, Salyut-7.

Rakesh Sharma, first Indian astronaut

After the Chinese Shenzhou 5 mission sent humans into space, the Indian government initiated a number of more ambitious programs that included lunar, interplanetary, and crewed goals. In 2008, Chandryaan-1 was launched, the first lunar probe to verify water on the moon. And in 2013, the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission resulted in the first Asian spacecraft entering Mars orbit, making India the first country to succeed on its first attempt.

Comparison of Indian space launch rockets: SLV, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV, LVM3

The second Chandrayaan mission consisted of an orbiter, a lander, and a moon rover. Intended to survey the relatively unexplored south pole region, it suffered a software malfunction and the lander crashed. However, the orbiter was successfully placed into lunar orbit.

As I write this, Chandrayaan-3 is has just made a historic touchdown on the moon’s south pole. This mission also carries a rover for exploration and will communicate with the orbiter from Chandrayaan-2. The rover is currently deploying to the moon’s surface, where it will conduct thermal conductivity and temperature scans, as well as monitoring seismic activity.

First image of Chandrayaan-3 rover moving down the ramp to the moon’s surface.

India’s growth in the space exploration field is fascinating to watch, and it’s refreshing to see another country develop the technological ability outside of the “usual suspects.” With plans to develop more powerful, reusable rockets, space planes, electric thrusters, and even the possibility of an orbital space station in the offing, let’s hope for a long and lustrous Indian summer!

ISRO Space Station Concept

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