Cryogenic tech was a far cry for India two decades ago

Sunday’s success of sending a heavy duty rocket to the sky with an indigenous cryogenic engine comes two decades after India was denied the strategic technology because of pressure from the United States that cited Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to block India’s access.

Cryogenic rocket technology involves use of super-cooled liquid fuels (liquid oxygen at minus 183 degrees Celsius and liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees Celsius) to produce massive amount of thrust for lifting heavy payloads into space. But it is a very complicated technology when compared against solid fuel propellant because of several scientific and engineering challenges.

Significantly, the technology is closely guarded by the five nations who have it: The US, Russia, Europe, China and Japan. In the late 1980s, when New Delhi was on the look out for a cryogenic engine, it was the US arms major General Dynamic, which first offered a cryo-engine to India. Soon, Europe's Arianespace too made a similar offer. But in both cases, the cost factor was prohibitory and out of India’s reach.

“Just then, a third approach came, this time from the Soviet Union, offering two engines and technology transfer for the more reasonable price of $200 million,” says a book titled, “Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier” by Brian Harvey, who writes on space issues.

On January 18, 1991, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) entered into a $120 million contract with Glavkosmos of Russia for the supply of two KVD-1 cryogenic engines and the complete transfer of technology for those engines. As it was the time of the USSR disintegration, both sides knew there would be US pressure to scuttle the deal.

Space scientists from the Isro and the Glavkosmos had a Plan-B, which was to outsource the manufacture of the cryogenic engines to Kerala High Tech Industries, a public sector undertaking, to bypass the MTCR. But the US administration, first under George Bush and subsequently under Bill Clinton, was up in the arms against the arrangement, forcing the two to redo the deal.

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