Half a century has passed since India took its first steps towards establishing a space programme of its own. The country’s first experimental satellite, Aryabhata, was launched from the Soviet Union in 1975 and the first successful satellite launch from within the country, using the SLV-3 rocket, followed five years later. On Sunday, the Indian Space Research Organisation celebrated its 100th mission with a flawless launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from Sriharikota. Given the long association between the French and Indian space programmes, it was particularly appropriate that this landmark launch carried France’s SPOT 6 satellite. A deal in the mid-1960s to make a small French two-stage rocket (known as a sounding rocket) in India catalysed the development of solid propulsion capabilities needed for the launch vehicle programme. A decade later, another deal gave ISRO access to French liquid propulsion technology, which has gone into the PSLV’s second stage. The PSLV has become a rugged workhorse with 21 consecutive successful launches behind it. It has taken over 50 satellites and spacecraft into space, half of them for foreign customers. Since it became operational, the PSLV has carried all of India’s remote sensing satellites and also launched the country’s first lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1. The first Indian mission to Mars too will travel on its shoulders next year.

With the PSLV, the country does not have to look abroad for launching its remote sensing satellites. But the same is not true with communication satellites. In contrast to the PSLV, the trouble-prone Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) has been hampered by delays in mastering the cryogenic technology required for it as well as other problems. Moreover, ISRO’s needs appear to go beyond the capabilities of this rocket, which was designed to carry two-tonne communication satellites. The Indian space agency has already launched three communication satellites weighing over three tonnes on Europe’s Ariane 5. A fourth satellite, GSAT-10, is to be carried on the Ariane 5 in two weeks’ time. Such foreign launches are expensive. In the case of the GSAT-8, which went into operation last year, it cost Rs. 300 crores to build the satellite and a similar sum went for its launch. The giant solid-propellant boosters and liquid-propellant core stage for the next generation GSLV Mark-III are ready and will be tested in an experimental flight. But this rocket, with the ability to carry four-tonne communication satellites, cannot be put to use till an entirely different cryogenic engine and stage have been perfected. That could take time. The Indian launch vehicle programme has a long way to go.