Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, the former Chairman of ISRO, spoke at the 5th Foundation Day of Pune International Center in Pune this Saturday. It was an excellent lecture, covering many details around ISRO’s great progress and achievements, and future plans. ISRO has made tremendous strides over the past four decades in R&D led innovation and has succeeded in developing key technologies such as the cryogenic propulsion system. One thing that stood out in my mind during the lecture was the extent of private industry participation in R&D and manufacturing, and the manufacturing ecosystem.
Dr. Radhakrishnan mentioned that 80% of the value addition of ISRO’s workhorse launcher, the ‘Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’ (PSLV) comes from private industry. (Note – the PSLV is one of the most reliable space launch platforms in the world, with 34 successful launches in a row – at one of the lowest launch cost per payload weight).
These private industry contributions for building the PSLV come from over 120 large, medium and small companies. ISRO acts as the designer and system integrator, and assembles the final rocket at Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota. I had known about the industry participation, but the 80% number was indeed surprising. It was great to note the private sector’s role in India’s space program. ISRO is thus not only delivering great rockets and satellites technology, but also helping build an aerospace R&D and manufacturing ecosystem in India. This is critical. Over the past 50 years, NASA has played a key role in driving the development of a similar ecosystem in U.S. The advances made in space tech around materials, propulsion, guidance, navigation and other areas have many direct and indirect technology benefits in other sectors. ISRO should follow a similar example.
For the ‘Make in India’ initiative to succeed, we need high quality R&D investments in the public and private sector. R&D investments as a percent of GDP is an important metric and has a good correlation with the overall strength of the economy. South Korea (highest R&D/GDP in the world) is a great example. It invests 4.3% of its GDP in R&D. U.S. invests 2.7% (highest in absolute terms, given their GDP). China invests 2.1%. India invests only 0.85%.
Government led R&D is an important component of the total R&D spending in a country. Let’s look at the U.S. example. Here is a recent tweet by Bill Gates.
The tweet references a link from U.S. Department of Energy (www.energy.gov), where Bill Gates is drawing attention to this:
“Research and development (R&D) is the unsung hero of American innovation. Government-funded R&D spurs new industries, creates jobs and helps us tackle our greatest challenges. Decades ago, that challenge was the space race; today, it is climate change.”
While we regularly talk about the R&D in private sector U.S. companies such as Google, Apple, etc., what is often ignored is the huge investments made by the U.S. government in this area. NASA and U.S. Department of Defense are excellent examples. Another one is the agency that funds important research in U.S. Universities – NSF (National Science Foundation). Many of today’s great technologies and innovations were built on this R&D Foundation laid by the U.S. government R&D investments. Perhaps the best example of such an innovation is the ‘internet’. Just like U.S., France too has made many strategic R&D investments in areas related to aerospace & defense, energy and computing technologies.
Often government led R&D is also driven by a country’s strategic interests. This is very much applicable to India as well. This is one more important driver for government led R&D investments (and a topic of a separate article).
As discussed earlier, private R&D and manufacturing can build on top of the government led R&D initiatives. Yes, there are examples of wasteful expenditures, especially in the public sector. For one successful ISRO, there are counter examples as well. However, this should not deter the policy makers from allocating more R&D investments in strategic areas. It is important to study what has worked at ISRO, and then to institutionalize these processes in other R&D organizations. (This was one process related question, I wanted to ask Dr. Radhakrishnan yesterday, but we were short on time at the lecture).
ISRO represents one of the best examples (not just in India, but in the world) of effective and efficient R&D. The Mars Orbiter Mission ‘Mangalyaan’ is a great example. ISRO was able to deliver this incredible project for a fraction of the cost (around 10%) of what NASA spent on a similar project.
India’s goal should be create more ISRO like organizations in other areas – R&D driven organizations that develop important strategic and commercial products – and also help build a private R&D and manufacturing ecosystems around them. As a product/technology matures, the role of the private sector can grow. Where possible (in terms of tech capabilities), the private sector can also play an upfront role in collaborating on new technology development.
Just watched the launch of STS135; the lift-off of shuttle Atlantis on the last space shuttle mission. Two weeks from now, Atlantis will touch down one last time and bring an end to 30 years of Space Shuttle Flights. An end of an era.
I must have watched dozens of shuttle launches live on TV, but regret not having had the opportunity of watching one in-person, in Florida. All of them were great to watch (especially the ones I saw on NASA TV). The complexity of the machine, the mission control center interactions, the sheer magnitude of engine power, the grandeur of lift-off… fascinating!
Overall, the shuttle program has been quite successful, apart from the two tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Most of the other missions went through without any major issues – to the point that these missions were felt as really ‘routine’.
Like was the case with the Apollo Program nearly 40 years back, budget cuts have played their part in ending the shuttle program. The debate between cost-benefits of manned space flights will continue. Travelling to Mars is a possible long-term goal, but definitely not in the near future. In the medium term, some alternatives have been proposed, which aim to address some of the limitations of the space shuttle. Still, no firm plan exists today.
Leaves me wondering when the United States / NASA will return back to manned spaceflights. For now, the International Space Station will be served by Russian spacecrafts. Feels a bit odd that half a century since John Glenn’s historic flight – the United States doesn’t have a firm manned spaceflight roadmap. At least they should have planned for a few more shuttle launches, until the medium strategy was ready and set for deployment!
–Note added July 22, 2011 — STS-135 completed its mission yesterday and the space shuttle landed for the last time. Here’s a great video tribute to the space shuttle program, compiled by Nature that showcases all the missions over the past 30 years: http://youtu.be/II7QBLt36xo
Lift-Off of GSLV-F04 (image credit: Wikipedia)
It’s a sad coincidence that today’s failure of ISRO’s GSLV D3 Mission happened virtually on the exact day, 40 years on, since Apollo 13! Post the safe splash-down return of Jim Lovell and crew in the Pacific Ocean, many dubbed Apollo 13 as NASA’s most successful failure. How will this first test flight of the ISRO’s indigenously developed cryogenic engine be viewed? Only time will tell.
Space missions are fraught with risks and failures. ISRO has had a reasonably good track record, especially if you compare it with the early days of the USA and USSR Space Programs. And ISRO has been able to achieve success on a literal shoe-string budget as compared to what the other space leaders have spent.
What is the big deal with the Cryogenic Engine? A Cryogenic Engine uses a liquid propellant (typically liquid hydrogen) that is stored at a very low temperature (below –200 C). The other engines that have been used in ISRO’s rockets (including the first two stages of today’s mission) are solid fuel propellant based. Cryogenic Engines deliver a longer duration and more powerful thrust, per unit weight of propellant. They can also be controlled more effectively as compared to solid fuel propellant engines. Hence Cryogenic Engines are critical, as the range and weight capabilities of space missions increase. GSLV rocket has been designed to put heavy payloads (communication satellites, etc.) into a ‘Geo-Synchronous’ orbit (36,000 km orbit around the from earth). It will also provide a basis for future ISRO Missions to the Moon and beyond.
A little after 4:30pm, Indian Standard Time, a huge cloud of gloom descended upon ISRO. The first two stages had performed per expectations. However the 3rd stage powered by the cryogenic engine failed and the flight deviated from its desired path. One look at the scientists faces on TV, said it all. The emotions were there to be seen. It is these emotions that highlight the passion of these scientists, in their quest for building a great space program. In the present age of every-hyped entertainment and sports heroes, it it these real heroes that we all need to be proud of.
I am confident that ISRO will bounce back successfully from today’s failure, with the 2nd test flight due later this year. The data and results will be analyzed and corrective actions taken. Let’s not forget the spectacular success of the recent Chandrayaan Mission!
GSLV Mission / ISRO – Some Useful Links
ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) http://www.isro.org/
Official Press Release from ISRO about the GSLV D3 Mission http://www.isro.org/pressrelease/scripts/pressreleasein.aspx?Apr15_2010
Cryogenic Rocket Engine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryogenic_rocket_engine
ISRO Wikipedia Entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Space_Research_Organisation
ISRO Chandrayaan Mission http://www.isro.org/Chandrayaan/htmls/home.htm