The launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle D5, or GSLV-D5, and the successful deployment of the GSAT-14 satellite represent a breakthrough for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). The indigenous cryogenic engine used in the three-stage GSLV has stabilised. Isro can now launch heavier satellites of up to 2,500 kilogrammes (GSAT-14 weighed 1,980 kg). Cryogenic engines, using liquid hydrogen and oxygen as fuel, are crucial for putting large payloads into space. The mixture of the two elements results in an explosive chemical reaction, imparting thrust as it creates water. But hydrogen stays liquid only below -253 degrees Celsius, and oxygen below -185 degrees Celsius. The liquids must be pumped and reheated to temperatures above 3,000 degrees Celsius in the reaction. There are tricky engineering issues involved; the two-decade cryogenic engine programme has suffered many vicissitudes. Much of the related technology was deemed "dual-use" - which could be easily weaponised. Hence, multiple technology transfers were blocked. The first two launches with indigenous engines failed and this launch was also rescheduled after a leak was detected in August.
Now that it has a grasp of the technology, Isro must scale up quickly. The commercial market revolves around the launch of satellites weighing 4,000 kg plus. The GSLV-D5 cannot service those needs. Until Isro succeeds in developing cryogenic engines with more thrust, it will remain a fringe player in the commercial market and India's own heavy satellites will continue to depend on external launches. Isro has stayed behind the curve in meeting market demand; to become anything other than a niche player, it must speed its movement up the technological ladder.
It is also worth noting that the budgetary allocations to the space programme may be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The annual budget of roughly Rs 7,000 crore is tiny. Its legendary frugality is forced upon Isro by parsimonious resources, which retard the pace of its R&D. There has been much praise for the low-cost nature of the Mangalyaan, which cost just $73 million (Rs 450 crore) - roughly one-ninth that of a comparable probe built by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). The GSLVs cost Rs 200-250 crore. These are paltry sums. In 2012, global satellite launch industry revenues amounted to over $6.5 billion (about Rs 40,000 crore), while satellite-based services generated $113 billion (Rs 7 lakh crore). Isro could be a big player in both segments, given that it is the most cost-effective of the six agencies with cryogenic capability. There is, thus, a strong case for doubling or trebling budgetary allocations. As it stands, the Indian space programme has paid for itself multiple times. It is integral to remote sensing, weather forecasting, direct-to-home television, mobile communications, navigation, road alignment design, assessment of forest cover, etc.
At the same time, the objectives behind the new thrust into space exploration must be reviewed and stated clearly. In terms of flying the tricolour, the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions have already demonstrated technological capabilities that command global respect, as well as triggering great local interest in space technology. But there may not be direct and immediate pay-offs from these adventures. It is worth asking how much of this will be a useful extension of soft power. If it is - and that case is certainly strong - should it not be supported with more emphatically stated objectives?