Space Race or Space Rage?

“We do not have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon, or the planets, or manned space-flight. But if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Unbeknownst to a world still reeling from the atomic catastrophe of Hiroshima, and under the crafty guise of a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, India detonated it’s first Weapon of Mass Destruction at the infamous Pokhran test range in 1974, carving for itself an irrevocable position in a community of toffee-nosed, nuclear-armed governments. The diplomatic furore that followed this tectonic shift would resound in the international nuclear coterie for decades to come, and incense totalitarian American administrations committed to crippling India’s self-defence programmes. Even the most imperious sanctions and underhanded espionage, however, could not muffle a nation of determined democracy, that tested it’s most triumphant space-technology yesterday – The GSLV Mk-III.

On June 5th, 2017, after more than 200 tests in 2 years, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched into orbit a three-tonne payload on a home-grown rocket of the class developed by only 5 others – Russia, China, Japan, the European Space Agency, and the United States. The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV Mk-III) weighs 640 tonnes – as much as 200 fully grown elephants – and carries upto 10 tonnes to be delivered into orbit. It is a 140 foot-tall, three-stage, game-changing Launch Vehicle with a cryogenic engine, developed almost entirely using Indian components, and capable at long last of sending manned crews into space.

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The Command Centre and Launchpad at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, witnessed a turning point in the global space-race yesterday with the success of India’s GSLV Mk-III, placing the country at the heart of a space-industry valued at nearly $350 billion. Dependent on foreign agencies to launch satellites over 2,300 kilograms, India was confined to under 1 percent of this burgeoning market. Today, India has made “quantum leaps” in the words of P. V. Krishnan, Director of the ISRO Propulsion Complex, and is well on the way to launching Chandrayaan-II, slated for next year, and Aditya-I, a satellite mission designed to study the sun.

This jumbo-jet of the rocket-world, however, has a dramatic history riddled with international outrage and sabotage spanning nearly three decades. Beginning at the height of the Soviet era, India’s space and nuclear programmes have been the subject of gory eco-political power-plays between the two superpowers of our time – Russia and the United States. Yet, against all odds, and the express actions and sanctions of the US Government, Indian scientists designed by themselves a heavy-weight carrier of not only 10-tonne satellites, but also national pride and international glory.

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After the successful Smiling Buddha nuclear tests at Pokhran, ISRO made enormous strides in space technology with the aid of it’s Russian counterparts, leading up to a $120 million contract in 1991 with the Soviet Space Agency Glavkosmos for seven cryogenic rocket engines, along with a complete transfer of technology. Cryogenic engines use super-cooled liquid fuels to produce massive amounts of thrust in order to lift heavy payloads into space, and the Russians were offering a secret engine, the RD-56 or KVD-1 – originally designed by the Isayev Design Bureau as part of the Soviet manned moon-landing programme of 1964 – with unparalleled thrust and capabilities that NASA could not match for years. Apprehensive of competition in the highly-lucrative commercial space industry, the US descended into a dirty game of geopolitical sanctions and espionage to disable this agreement.

Invoking the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the United States stalled the engine supply by sanctioning both ISRO and Glavkosmos. The American administration claimed that the issue was not India importing engine components from Russia, but that India was importing engines at all. The idea being that if India were forced to make those developments on their own instead of simply buying engines and the technology driving them, it would slow India’s rocket program and keep them from becoming a potential military threat.

The two-faced Americans, however, continued to import engines from Russia, simultaneously strong-arming India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India refused on the grounds that all signatories – except members of the UN Security Council – are required to unilaterally destroy their nuclear weapons, and could not afford to oblige given that the country is neighboured by two nuclear armed states, both of whom are hostile. Crippled but not killed, ISRO began the formidable task of developing indigenously a cryogenic rocket.

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America views launch vehicles as weapons and components of ballistic missiles, as opposed to a commercial service. That is why it is acceptable when European nations, America, or other such countries purchase engines from each other, because they are allies and have advanced propulsion capabilities of their own, but a less developed, non-allied nation buying the same engines is not. This is, however, a remarkably flawed perspective.

In fact, there are no ballistic missiles in the world that use cryogenic engines. Because it takes several critical hours to fuel up a cryogenic rocket, such an engine could never be used in a ballistic missile. The fear mongering about using or selling these engines, then, is an outright farce and strawman fallacy.

Unblushing and wholly devoid of shame, the Machiavellian Americans turned around to sell banned WMD technologies to Pakistan, disobeying both US as well as international non-proliferation protocols. When US aid to Pakistan tapered off after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the unscrupulous and impoverished Pakistani military responded in 1987 by selling it’s nuclear hardware and know-how for cash, pitching south Asia into three near-nuclear conflagrations, and enabling the nuclear weapons programmes of Iran, Libya and North Korea, which might never have got off the ground were it not for the duplicitous Americans. This hypocritical subterfuge is detailed in the account of CIA Agent and Pakistan-specialist Rich Barlow, reported by The Guardian almost a decade ago.

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As if sanctions and double-dealing weren’t enough, the US then moved to shut down ISRO’s cryogenic research programmes from the inside. Directing it’s spies in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Kerala police to collude with spineless Indian Congress Party agents, the US falsely implicated and arrested veteran scientist and ISRO Cryogenic Research Director, S. Nambi Narayanan, on the entirely implausible charge of leaking national defence secrets, maligning and paralysing the project all at once. The IB allegedly tortured Narayanan and his associates in Moscow, but all charges would ultimately be revoked, and the scientist vindicated, by Supreme Court.

In defiance of ruthless international oppression and embargo, ISRO advanced swiftly and surely to counter America’s tyrannical throttling of the industry and reserve a seat at the space-table. Earlier this year, the triumphant ISRO launched a record 104 satellites on a single rocket. And now, having spurned the Non-Proliferation Treaty, this historic moment is an open-handed smack in the face of US monopoly.

India has overcome cumbrous obstacles and staunch opposition to design and launch it’s own cryogenic rocket. The GSLV Mk-III is a true testament to the ingenuity of an intrepid democracy. Resolute is the country we live in today.

Ankur Borwankar is an author, lawyer, motivational speaker & entrepreneur. He is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Indus Dictum.

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This article first appeared in Indus Dictum.

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