Launched to fail

The failure of the launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)-D3 with India’s first cryogenic engine has disappointed not only the scientists and engineers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) but also the entire nation. The failure was unexpected because the engine had been in development for years and had been tested to the best technological satisfaction. The cryo stage was required to work in space for only 720 seconds but it had been tested successfully on the ground for up to 1,000 seconds. It was not tested in weightless conditions but this would not have been possible, and was perhaps not needed. The failure was a setback but there is no need to lose heart. Only five other countries — the US, Russia, France, China and Japan — have mastered the cryogenic technology. They had failed many times before achieving success. ISRO had sought to develop the technology after Russia refused to transfer it to India on US pressure. The technology is very complex, and however successful it is in simulated conditions, there is a chance of error in actual flight. The first attempt often becomes an experiment and a trial.

There have been failures in the past in India’s space efforts. The first attempt of an SLV rocket  in 1979 was not successful. There have been failures since then with ASLV and PSLV launches too. GSLV launches in the past have met with some kind of failure or the other. But the space programme has grown through these failures  and became sophisticated enough to send a probe to the moon. The PSLV has proved to be very dependable, and has performed well in the last 14 consecutive flights. There is no doubt that the cause of last week’s failure will also be identified correctly and the glitches removed.

ISRO has said that a successful launch using a cryogenic engine might take about an year’s time. The delay might affect the Chandrayan-2 mission which has been scheduled for 2013.  Satellite launches will become much cheaper with cryogenic technology and become commercially attractive too. About Rs 335 crore was spent on the GSLV-D3 launch. The advanced communication satellite GSAT-4 cost Rs 150 crore. It was also experimental. It is pointed out that ISRO should not have risked launching a costly and experimental satellite in a test flight, however certain it was of the success. The view is not entirely wrong.

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