The Genesis of the Indian Space Program

It is hard to imagine the discourse of Indian space program and the way it shaped up, had there been no space race.

WrittenBy:Martand Jha
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The origins and the evolution of the Indian Space program is one of the most inspiring stories of India since its independence in 1947. The reason behind this is the context in which the country’s space program developed. India was featuring very low in almost all the socio-economic indicators when the launch of Sputnik 1 took the world by storm. The first two decades after independence was devoted to nation-building. India was struggling as a third world country with a barrage of problems. To think of having a space program of its own at that time was in itself a very ‘idealistic’ idea. Many believed that India was not in a position to spend on something which ‘elite nations’ would do. The reference was towards the cold war space race in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were spending heavily towards their space program. 

From the outset, the policymakers in India were clear that the country’s space program would be a ‘civilian one’. This was because the potential of outer space for the benefit of civilians was realized once the space race between the superpowers kicked off. Pioneers like Dr Vikram Sarabhai (who is known as the father of the Indian Space program) realised that national development and nation-building could be ‘leapfrogged’ through the usage of space technology. Leapfrogging in this context meant that space technology would help India skip a few stages of development, which it otherwise had to cross. What this means is that ‘natural progression’ or ‘step by step’ development takes a significant amount of time, even more so in under-developed countries due to other ‘societal challenges’ and ‘influences’.

Leapfrogging via space technology was a great idea because that had the potential to make India mark its place in the comity of nations. The then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had big ambitions in taking the country forward and making it gain the rightful place. As a result, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was constituted in 1962 by the Government of India. The proximity between the visionaries like Dr Sarabhai and Dr Homi Jahangir Bhabha with the Indian Prime Minister helped a lot in fastening the process of decision making in the field of outer space. Space research in India has its roots from way back in the 1920s when scientists like C V Raman, Meghnad Saha and K Mitra got interested in the outer space. But, the space research took institutional shape in the 1950s, especially under bodies like the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL). 

All these developments in the field of the Indian space program were happening in the backdrop of an intense Cold War Space rivalry. Being a non-aligned power, India was observing the space race very carefully. Space was seen as the future of humanity and India didn’t want to fall behind other countries that had started taking practical steps in this direction. It’s difficult to answer whether the genesis of the Indian Space program was a result of the ongoing Space Race, but it would be interesting to see the impact of Space Race on the birth of the Indian Space program.

“The space research activities were initiated in our country during the early 1960s 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” (ISRO website)

The above paragraph reflects the admission of ISRO itself that during the genesis of the Indian Space program, the pioneers were keenly observing what was happening in the field of outer space internationally. Therefore the evidence of ‘outside impact’ on the genesis of the country’s space program is well-established. However, how this impact came into being in the first place can be traced much before the first rocket was launched from the Indian soil. The Physical Research Laboratory, which is the cradle of Space Sciences in India, was founded way back in 1947 by Dr Vikram Sarabahi at Ahmedabad. The primary focus was to research on cosmic rays. Later on, PRL concentrated its research on areas of Physics, Space & Atmospheric Sciences, Astronomy, Astrophysics & Solar Physics, and Planetary & Geo-Sciences. Throughout the 1950s, PRL worked as the premiere institution working in the field of space research. 

International Geo-physical year (IGY) in 1957-58 was a golden moment for Indian scientists working in the area on nuclear energy as well as atmospheric sciences. Scientists from PRL, which included Dr Sarabhai as well as Dr Ramanathan participated actively in India’s contribution to the IGY. It was an internationally collaborated effort in which scientists of 67 countries participated and exchanged knowledge with each other. It was during IGY that the Committee on Outer Space Research (COSPAR) was formed. COSPAR as a body came under the aegis of International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). “The ICSU, along with the United States Outer Space Committee, pointed out the great importance of establishing an equatorial sounding rocket range” (Sarabhai, Nuclear India, Vol.2 No.4).

Along with the growth of PRL as an institution, the horizon of space research in India got widened. Once the artificial satellites became a reality after Sputnik 1 and subsequent satellites launches, PRL requested the Department of Atomic Energy to extend its support to the institution to facilitate space research in India. This was after the end of the International Geophysical year in 1958. DAE accepted this request after a thorough examination of the facilities present at PRL. DAE was primarily established to look into the prospects of the peaceful usage of Atomic Energy by India. But, one thing which is noteworthy is that in the first decade after independence, nuclear and space research had not been categorized as separate fields in India. Scientists like Bhabha, Sarabhai, CV Raman and others were working on various areas of nuclear and atmospheric physics at the same time. Therefore, there were many cross collaborations between institutions like DAE, PRL and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Raman Research Institute, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), all of whom were working different aspects of theoretical physics. But the most important institution among all these is the Department of Atomic Energy.

The Indian Space program was a result of sheer dedication and the dream of visionaries who were at the top of the professions. Nehru, Sarabhai and Bhabha were the three stalwarts behind the genesis of the Indian Space program. The genesis of the Indian Space program couldn’t have been in the same way it did if there had been no space race. The awareness of fast-changing dynamics internationally in the arena of outer space had a significant impact on the minds of visionaries like Vikram Sarabhai. Being well connected with the top Indian leadership (which included even Prime Minister Nehru) and scientists across the world, Sarabhai knew that the time was ripe for India to start taking steps of its own in the space sector; otherwise, it would fall behind the world which was moving very fast.

The exact same thing was outlined by Dr Homi Jahangir Bhabha as well while he was inaugurating a six-day seminar on ‘Space Physics’, the first of its kind to be held in India. He urged that a beginning must be made in the field of space research in order to not fall behind other countries in practical technology. He said, “if we do not do it now, we will have to depend later on buying the know-how from other countries at much greater cost” (Nuclear India, 1963). To sum up, it’s hard to imagine the discourse of Indian Space program in the way it shaped up, had there been no space race.


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