The space research activities were initiated in our country during the early 1960’s, when applications using satellites were in experimental stages even in the United States. With the live transmission of Tokyo Olympic Games across the Pacific by the American Satellite ‘Syncom-3’ demonstrating the power of communication satellites, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of Indian space programme, quickly recognized the benefits of space technologies for India.
Dr. Sarabhai was convinced and envisioned that the resources in space have the potential to address the real problems of man and society. As Director, Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) located in Ahmedabad, Dr. Sarabhai convened an army of able and brilliant scientists, anthropologists, communicators and social scientists from all corners of the country to spearhead the Indian space programme.
To spearhead the space research activities, Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 under the Department of Atomic Energy. Subsequently, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established in August 1969, in place of INCOSPAR. The Government of India constituted the Space Commission and established Department of Space (DOS) in June 1972 and brought ISRO under DOS in September 1972.
Since inception, the Indian space programme has been orchestrated well and had three distinct elements such as, satellites for communication and remote sensing, the space transportation system and application programmes. In 1967, the first ‘Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES)’ located in Ahmedabad was operationalized, which also doubled as a training centre for the Indian as well as International scientists and engineers.
To establish that a satellite system can contribute to the national development, ISRO was clear that it need not wait for its own satellites to begin application development, while foreign satellites could be used in the initial stages. However, before trying out a full-fledged satellite system, some controlled experiment to prove the efficacy of television medium for national development was found necessary. Accordingly, a TV programme on agricultural information to farmers ‘Krishi Darshan’ was started, which received good response.
The next logical step was the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), hailed as ‘the largest sociological experiment in the world’ during 1975-76. This experiment benefited around 200,000 people, covering 2400 villages of six states and transmitted development oriented programmes using the American Technology Satellite (ATS-6). The credit of training 50,000 science teachers primary schools in one year goes to SITE.
SITE was followed by the Satellite Telecommunication Experiments Project (STEP), a joint project of ISRO-and Post and Telegraphs Department (P&T) using the Franco-German Symphonie satellite during 1977-79. Conceived as a sequel to SITE which focused on Television, STEP was for telecommunication experiments. STEP was aimed to provide a system test of using geosynchronous satellites for domestic communications, enhance capabilities and experience in the design, manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance of various ground segment facilities and build up requisite indigenous competence for the proposed operational domestic satellite system, INSAT, for the country.
SITE was followed by the ‘Kheda Communications Project (KCP)’, which worked as a field laboratory for need-based and locale specific programme transmission in the Kheda district of Gujarat State. KCP was awarded the UNESCO-IPDC (International Programme for the Development of Communication) award for rural communication efficiency in the 1984.
During this period, the first Indian spacecraft ‘Aryabhata’ was developed and was launched using a Soviet Launcher. Another major landmark was the development of the first launch vehicle SLV-3 with a capability to place 40 kg in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which had its first successful flight in 1980. Through the SLV-3 programme, competence was built up for the overall vehicle design, mission design, material, hardware fabrication, solid propulsion technology, control power plants, avionics, vehicle integration checkout and launch operations. Development of mult-istage rocket systems with appropriate control and guidance systems to orbit a satellite was a major landmark in our space programme.
In the experimental phase during 80’s, end-to-end capability demonstration was done in the design, development and in-orbit management of space systems together with the associated ground systems for the users. Bhaskara-I & II missions were pioneering steps in the remote sensing area whereas ‘Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE)’ became the forerunner for future communication satellite system. Development of the complex Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), also demonstrated newer technologies like use of strap-on, bulbous heat shield, closed loop guidance and digital autopilot. This paved the way for learning many nuances of launch vehicle design for complex missions, leading the way for realisation of operational launch vehicles such as PSLV and GSLV.
During the operational phase in 90’s, major space infrastructure was created under two broad classes: one for the communication, broadcasting and meteorology through a multi-purpose Indian National Satellite system (INSAT), and the other for Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) system. The development and operationalisation of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and development of Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) were significant achievements during this phase.