Stenograph the science down

A piece in Zee News, headlined ISRO to test next reusable launch vehicle after studying data of May 23 flight, begins thus:

The Indian Space Research Organisation has successfully launched it’s first ever ‘Made-in-India’ space shuttle RLV-Technology Demonstrator on May 23, 2016. After the launch, the Indian space agency will now test the next reusable launch vehicle test after studying May 23 flight data. A senior official in the Indian space agency says that India will test the next set of space technologies relating to the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) after studying the data collected from the May 23 flight of RLV-Technology Demonstrator. “We will have to study the data generated from the May 23 flight. Then we have to decide on the next set of technologies to be tested on the next flight. We have not finalised the time frame for the next RLV flight,” K Sivan, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) said on Wednesday.

Apart from presenting very little new information with each passing sentence, the piece also buries an important quote, and what could well have been the piece’s real peg, more than half the way down:

As per data the RLV-TD landed softly in Bay of Bengal. As per our calculations it would have disintegrated at the speed at which it touched the sea,” Sivan said.

It sounds like Sivan is admitting to a mistake in the calculations. There should have been a follow-up question at this point – asking him to elaborate on the mismatch – because this is valuable new information. Instead, the piece marches on as if Sivan had just commented on the weather. And in hindsight, the piece’s first few paragraphs present information that is blatantly obvious: of course results from the first test are going to inform the design of the second test. What new information are we to glean from such a statement?

Or is it that we’re paying no attention to the science and instead reproducing Sivan’s words line by line because they’re made of gold?

A tangential comment: The piece’s second, third and fourth sentences say the same thing. Sandwiching one meaty sentence between layers of faff is a symptom of writing for newspapers – where there is some space to fill for the sake of there being some attention to grab. At the same time, such writing is unthinkingly carried to the web because many publishers believe that staking a claim to ‘publishing on the web’ only means making podcasts and interactive graphics. What about concision?

No Space Age for us

There’s a 500-word section on the Wikipedia page for the NASA Space Shuttle that describes the markings on the programme’s iconic orbiter vehicle (OV). Specifically, it talks about where the words ‘NASA’ and ‘USA’ appeared on the vehicle’s body, if there were any other markings, as well as some modifications to how the flag was positioned. Small-time trivia-hunters like myself love this sort of thing because, whether in my imagination or writing, being able to recall and describe these markings provides a strong sense of character to the OV, apart from making it more memorable to my readers as well as myself.

These are the symbols in our memories, the emblem of choices that weren’t dictated by engineering requirements but by human wants, ambitions. And it’s important to remember that these signatures exist and even more so to remember them because of what they signify: ownership, belonging, identity.

Then again, the markings on an OV are a part of its visual identity. A majority of humans have not seen the OV take off and land, and there are many of us who can’t remember what that looked like on TV either. For us, the visual identity and its attendant shapes and colours may not be very cathartic – but we are also among those who have consumed information of these fascinating, awe-inspiring vehicles through news articles, podcasts, archival footage, etc., on the internet. There are feelings attached to some vague recollections of a name; we recall feats as well as some kind of character, as if the name belonged to a human. We remember where we were, what we were doing when the first flights of iconic missions took off. We use the triggers of our nostalgia to personalise our histories. Using some symbol or other, we forge a connection and make it ours.

This ourness is precisely what is lost, rather effectively diluted, through the use of bad metaphors, through ignorance and through silence. Great technology and great communication strive in opposite directions: the former is responsible, though in only an insentient and mechanistic way, for underscoring the distance – technological as much as physical – between starlight and the human eye that recognises it; the latter hopes to make us forget that distance. And in the absence of communication, our knowledge becomes clogged with noise and the facile beauty of our machines; without our symbols, we don’t see the imprints of humanity in the night sky but only our loneliness.

Such considerations are far removed from our daily lives. We don’t stop (okay, maybe Dennis Overbye does) to think about what our journalism needs to demand from history-making institutions – such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – apart from the precise details of those important moments. We don’t question the foundations of their glories as much as enquire after the glories themselves. We don’t engender the creation of sanctions against long-term equitable and sustainable growth. We thump our chests when probes are navigated to Mars on a Hollywood budget but we’re not outraged when only one scientific result has come of it. We are gratuitous with our praise even when all we’re processing are second-handed tidbits. We are proud of ISRO’s being removed from bureaucratic interference and, somehow, we are okay with ISRO giving access only to those journalists who have endeared themselves by reproducing press releases for two decades.

There’s no legislation that even says all knowledge generated by ISRO lies in the public domain. Irrespective of it being unlikely that ISRO will pursue legal action against me, I do deserve the right to use ISRO’s findings unto my private ends without anxiety. I’m reminded every once in a while that I, or one of my colleagues, could get into trouble for reusing images of the IRNSS launches from isro.gov.in in a didactic video we made at The Wire (or even the image at the top of this piece). At the same time, many of us are proponents of the open access, open science and open knowledge movements.

We remember the multiwavelength astronomy satellite launched in September 2015 as “India’s Hubble” – which only serves to remind us how much smaller the ASTROSAT is than its American counterpart. How many of you know that one of the ASTROSAT instruments is one of the world’s best at studying gamma-ray bursts? We discover, like hungry dogs, ISRO’s first tests of a proto-RLV as “India’s space shuttle”; when, and if, we do have the RLV in 2030, wouldn’t we be thrilled to know that there is something wonderful about it not just of national provenance but of Indian provenance, too?

Instead, what we are beginning to see is that India – with its strapped-on space programme – is emulating its predecessors, reliving jubilations from a previous age. We see that there is no more of an Indianess in them as much as there is an HDR recap of American and Soviet aspirations. Without communication, without the symbols of its progress being bandied about, without pride (and just a little bit of arrogance thrown in), it is becoming increasingly harder through the decades for us – as journalists or otherwise – to lay claim to something, a scrap of paper, a scrap of attitude, that will make a part of the Space Age feel like our own.

At some point, I fear we will miss the starlight for the distance in between.

Update: We are more concerned for our machines than for our dreams. Hardly anyone is helping put together the bigger picture; hardly anyone is taking control of what we will remember, leaving us to pick up on piecemeal details, to piece together a fragmented, disjointed memory of what ISRO used to be. There is no freedom in making up your version of a moment in history. There needs to be more information; there need to be souvenirs and memorabilia; and the onus of making them needs to be not on the consumers of this culture but the producers.

An identity for ISRO through a space agreement it may or may not sign

Indians, regardless of politics or ideology, have a high opinion of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Conversations centred on it usually retain a positive arc, sometimes even verging on the exaggerated in lay circles – in part because the organisation’s stunted PR policies haven’t given the people much to go by, in part because of pride. Then again, the numbers by themselves are impressive: Since 1993, there have been 32 successful PSLV launches with over 90 instruments sent into space; ISRO has sent probes to observe the Moon and Mars up close; launched a multi-wavelength space-probe; started work on a human spaceflight program; developed two active launch vehicles with two others still in the works; and it is continuing its work on cryogenic and scramjet engines.

The case of the cryogenic engine is particularly interesting and, as it happens, relevant to a certain agreement that India and the US haven’t been able to sign for more than a decade now. These details and more were revealed when a clutch of diplomatic cables containing the transcript of conversations between officials from the Government of India, ISRO, the US Trade Representative (USTR) and other federal agencies surfaced on Wikileaks in the week of May 16. One of themdelineates some concerns the Americans had about how the Indian public regarded US attempts to stall the transfer of cryogenic engines from the erstwhile USSR to India, and the complications that were born as a result.

In 1986, ISRO initiated the development of a one-tonne cryogenic engine for use on its planned Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Two years later, an American company offered to sell RL-10 cryogenic engines (used onboard the Atlas-Centaur Launch Vehicle) to ISRO but the offer was turned down because the cost was too high ($800 million) and an offer to give us the knowhow to make the engines was subject to approval by the US government, which wasn’t assured. Next, Arianespace, a French company, offered to sell two of its HM7 cryogenic engines along with the knowhow for $1,200 million. This offer was also rejected. Then, around 1989, a Soviet company named Glavkosmos offered to sell two cryogenic engines, transfer the knowhow as well as train some ISRO personnel – all for Rs.230 crore ($132 million at the time). This offer was taken up.

However, 15 months later, the US government demanded that the deal be called off because it allegedly violated some terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export control regime that Washington and Moscow are both part of. As U.R. Rao, former chairman of ISRO, writes in his book India’s Rise as a Space Power, “While the US did not object to the agreement with Glavkosmos at the time of signing, the rapid progress made by ISRO in launch vehicle technology was probably the primary cause which triggered [the delayed reaction 15 months later].” Officials on the Indian side were annoyed by the threat because solid- and liquid-fuel motors were preferred for use in rockets – not the hard-to-operate cryogenic engines – and because India had already indigenously developed such rockets (a concern that would be revived later). Nonetheless, after it became clear that the deal between Glavkosmos and ISRO wouldn’t be called off, the US imposed a two-year sanction from 1992 that voided all contracts between ISRO and the US and the transfer of any goods or services between them.

Remembering the cryogenic engines affair

This episode raised its ugly head once again in 2006, when India and the US – which had just issued a landmark statement on nuclear cooperation a year earlier – agreed on the final text of the Technical Safeguards Agreement (TSA) they would sign three years later. The TSA would “facilitate the launch of US satellite components on Indian space launch vehicles”. At this time, negotiations were also on for the Commercial Space Launch Agreement (CSLA), which would allow the launch of American commercial satellites onboard Indian launch vehicles. The terms of the CSLA were derived from the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), a bilateral dialogue that began during the Vajpayee government and defined a series of “quid-pro-quos” between the two countries that eventually led to the 2005 civilian nuclear deal. A new and niggling issue that crept in was that the US government was attempting to include satellite services in the CSLA – a move the Indian government was opposed to because it amounted to shifting the “carefully negotiated” NSSP goalposts.

As negotiations proceeded, the cable, declassified by the then US ambassador David Mulford, reads:

“Since the inception of the NSSP, reactionary holdouts within the Indian space bureaucracy and in the media and policy community have savaged the concept of greater ties with the US, pointing to the progress that India’s indigenous programs made without assistance from the West. The legacy of bitterness mingled with pride at US sanctions continues in the present debate, with commentators frequently referring to US actions to block the sale of Russian cryogenic engines in the 1990s as proof that American interest continues to focus on hobbling and/or displacing India’s indigenous launch and satellite capabilities.”

The timing of the Glavkosmos offer, and the American intervention to block it, is important when determining how much the indigenous development of the cryogenic upper stage in the 2000s meant to India. After ISRO had turned down Arianespace’s HM7 engines offer, it had decided to develop a cryogenic engine from scratch by itself over eight years. As a result, the GSLV program would’ve been set back by at least that much. And it was this setback that Glavkosmos helped avoid (allowing the GSLV development programme to commence in 1990). Then again, with the more-US-friendly Boris Yeltsin having succeeded Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Glavkosmos was pressurised from the new Russian government to renegotiate its ISRO deal. In December 1993, it was agreed that Glavkosmos would provide four operational cryogenic engines and two mockups at the same cost (Rs.230 crore), with three more for $9 million, but without any more technology transfer.

The result was that ISRO had to fabricate its own cryogenic engines (with an initial investment of Rs.280 crore in 1993) with little knowledge of the challenges and solutions involved. The first successful test flight happened in January 2014 on board the GSLV-D5 mission.

So a part of what’re proud about ISRO today, and repeatedly celebrate, is rooted in an act whose memories were potential retardants for a lucrative Indo-US space deal. Moreover, they would also entrench any concessions made on the Indian side in a language that was skeptical of the Americans by default. As the US cable notes:

“While proponents point to ISRO’s pragmatism and scientific openness (a point we endorse), opponents of the [123] nuclear deal have accused ISRO of selling out India’s domestic prowess in space launch vehicles and satellite construction in order to serve the political goal of closer ties with the US. They compare ISRO’s “caving to political pressure” unfavorably with … Anil Kakodkar’s public statements drawing a red line on what India’s nuclear establishment would not accept under hypothetical civil-military nuclear separation plans.”

How do we square this ‘problematic recall’ with, as the same cable also quotes, former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair saying a deal with the US would be “central to India’s international outreach”? Evidently, agreements like the TSA and CSLA signal a reversal of priorities for the US government – away from the insecurities motivated by Cold-War circumstances and toward capitalising on India’s rising prominence in the Space Age. In the same vein, further considering what else could be holding back the CSLA throws more light on what another government sees as being problematic about ISRO.

Seeing the need for the CSLA

The drafting of the CSLA was motivated by an uptick in collaborations between Indian and American entities in areas of strategic interest. The scope of these collaborations was determined by the NSSP, which laid the groundwork for the civilian nuclear deal. While the TSA would allow for American officials to inspect the integration of noncommercial American payloads with ISRO rockets ahead of launch, to prevent their misuse or misappropriation, it wouldn’t contain the checks necessary to launch commercial American payloads with ISRO rockets. Enter CSLA – and by 2006, the Americans had started to bargain for the inclusion of satellite services in it. (Note: US communications satellites are excluded from the CSLA because their use requires separate clearances from the State Department.)

However, the government of India wasn’t okay with the inclusion of satellite services in the CSLA because ISRO simply wasn’t ready for it and also because all other CSLAs that the US had signed didn’t include satellite services. The way S. Jaishankar – who was the MEA joint secretary dealing with North America at the time – put it: “As a market economy, India is entitled to an unencumbered CSLA with the US”. This, presumably, was also an allusion to the fact that Indian agencies were not being subsidised by their government in order to undercut international competitors.

A cable tracking the negotiations in 2009 noted that:

“ISRO was keen to be able to launch U.S. commercial satellites, but expected its nascent system to be afforded flexibility with respect to the market principles outlined in the CSLA. ISRO opposed language in the draft CSLA text on distorting competition, transparency, and improper business practices, but agreed to propose some alternate wording after Bliss made clear that the USG would not allow commercial satellites to be licensed in the same way as non-commercial satellites … indicating that commercial satellites licenses would either be allowed through the completion of a CSLA or after a substantial period of time has passed to allow the USG to evaluate ISRO’s pricing practices and determine that they do not create market distortions.”

ISRO officials present at the discussion table on that day asked if the wording meant the US government was alleging that ISRO was unfairly undercutting prices (when it wasn’t), and if the CSLA was being drafted as a separate agreement from the TSA because it would allow the US government to include language that explicitly prevented the Indian government from subsidising PSLV launches. USTR officials countered that such language was used across all CSLAs and that it had nothing to do with how ISRO operated. (Interestingly, 2009 was also the year when SpaceX ditched its Falcon 1 rocket in favour of the bigger Falcon 9, opening up a gap in the market for a cheaper launcher – such as the PSLV.)

Nonetheless, the underlying suspicion persists to this day. In September 2015, the PSLV C-30 mission launchedASTROSAT and six foreign satellites – including four cubesats belonging to an American company named Spire Global. In February 2016, US Ambassador Richard Verma recalled the feat in a speech he delivered at a conference in New Delhi; the next day, the Federal Aviation Administration reiterated its stance that commercial satellites shouldn’t be launched aboard ISRO rockets until India had signed the CSLA. In response to this bipolar behaviour, one US official told Space News, “On the one hand, you have the policy, which no agency wants to take responsibility for but which remains the policy. On the other, government agencies are practically falling over themselves to grant waivers.” Then, in April, private spaceflight companies in the US called for a ban on using the PSLV for launching commercial satellites because they suspected the Indian government was subsidising launches.

A fork in the path

India also did not understand the need for the CSLA in the first place because any security issues would be resolved according to the terms of the TSA (signed in 2009). It wanted to be treated the way Japan or the European Union were: by being allowed to launch American satellites without the need for an agreement to do so. In fact, at the time of signing its agreement with Japan, Japan did not allow any private spaceflight entities to operate, and first considered legislation to that end for the first time in 2015. On both these counts, the USTR had argued that its agreement with India was much less proscriptive than the agreements it had struck with Russia and Ukraine, and that its need for an agreement at all was motivated by the need to specify ‘proper’ pricing practices given India’s space launches sector was ruled by a single parastatal organisation (ISRO) as well as to ensure that knowhow transferred to ISRO wouldn’t find its way to military use.

The first news of any organisation other than ISRO being allowed to launch rockets to space from within India also only emerged earlier this year, with incumbent chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar saying he hoped PSLV operations could be privatised – through an industrial consortium in which its commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, would have a part – by 2020 so the rockets could be used on at least 18 missions every year. The move could ease the way to a CSLA. However, no word has emerged on whether the prices of launches will be set to market rates in the US or if ISRO is considering an absolute firewall between its civilian and military programmes. Recently, a group of universities developed the IRNSS (later NAVIC), India’s own satellite navigation system, alongside ISRO, ostensibly for reducing the Indian armed forces’ dependence on the American GPS system; before that was the GSAT-6 mission in August 2015.

If it somehow becomes the case that ISRO doesn’t ever accede to the CSLA, then USTR doubts over its pricing practices will intensify and any commercial use of the Indian agency’s low-cost launchers by American firms could become stymied by the need for evermore clearances. At the same time, signing up to the CSLA will mean the imposition of some limits on what PSLV launches (with small, commercial American payloads) can be priced at. This may rob ISRO of its ability to use flexible pricing as a way of creating space for what is after all a “nascent” entity in global terms, besides becoming another instance of the US bullying a smaller player into working on its terms. However, either course means that ISRO will have to take a call about whether it still thinks of itself as vulnerable to getting “priced out” of the world market for commercial satellite launches or is now mature enough to play hardball with the US.

Special thanks to Prateep Basu.

The Wire
May 23, 2016

So what's ISRO testing on May 23?

Apologies about the frequency of updates having fallen off. Work’s been hectic at The Wire – we’re expanding editorially, technologically and aesthetically – but more to the point, Delhi’s heat ensures my body has no surplus energy when I get back from work to blog (it’s a heartless 38 ºC at 10 pm). Even now, what follows is a Facebook Note I posted on The Wire‘s page yesterday (but which didn’t find much traction because of the buildup to today’s big news: the election results from five states).

At about 9.30 am on Monday, May 23, a two-stage rocket will take off from the Sriharikota High Altitude Range and climb to an altitude of 48 km while reaching a speed of ~1,770 m/s. At that point, the first stage – a solid-fuel booster – will break off from the rocket and fall down into the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, the second stage will still be on the ascent, climbing to 70 km and attaining a speed of ~1,871.5 m/s. Once there, it will begin its plummet down and so kick off the real mission.

Its designation is RLV-TD HEX1 – for Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstration, Hypersonic Experiment 1. The mission’s been in the works for about five years now, with an investment of Rs.95 crore, and is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s plans to develop a reusable launch vehicle in another 15 years. The HEX1 mission design suggests the vehicle won’t look anything like SpaceX’s reusable rockets (to be precise, reusable boosters). Instead, it will look more like NASA’s Space Shuttle (retired in 2011): with an airplane-like fuselage flanked by delta wings.

Screenshot from a presentation made by M.V. Dhekane, deputy director of the Control Guidance & Simulation Entity, VSSC, in 2014.
Screenshot from a presentation made by M.V. Dhekane, deputy director of the Control Guidance & Simulation Entity, VSSC, in 2014.

And the one that’ll be flying on Monday will be a version six-times smaller in scale than what may ultimately be built (though still 6.5-m long and weighing 1.7 tonnes). This is because ISRO intends to test two components of the flight for which the RLV’s size can be smaller. The first (in no specific order) will be the ability of its body to withstand high temperatures while falling through Earth’s atmosphere. ISRO will be monitoring the behaviour of heat-resistance silica tiles affixed to the RLV’s underside and its nose cone, made of a special carbon composite, as they experience temperatures of more than 1,600º C.

The second will be the RLV’s onboard computer’s ability to manoeuvre the vehicle to a designated spot in the Bay of Bengal before crashing into the water. That spot, in a future test designated LEX and a date for which hasn’t been announced, will hold a floating runway over 5 km long – and where the RLV will land like an airplane. A third test will check for the RLV’s ability to perform a ‘return flight experiment’ (REX) and the final one will check the scramjet propulsion system, currently under development.

ISRO has said that the RLV, should it someday be deployed, will be able to bring down launch costs from $5,000 per kg to $2,000 per kg – the sort of cuts SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly asserted are necessary to hasten the advent of interplanetary human spaceflight. However, the development of advanced technologies isn’t the only driver at the heart of this ambition. Private spaceflight companies in the US recently lobbied for a ban against the launch of American satellites onboard ISRO rockets “because it would be tough for them to compete against ISRO’s low-cost options, which they also alleged were subsidised by the Indian government”.

Then again, an ISRO official has since clarified that the organisation isn’t competing against SpaceX either. Speaking to Sputnik News, K. Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, said on May 17, “We are not involved in any race with anybody. We have our own problems to tackle. ISRO has its own domestic requirements which we need to satisfy.”

So, good luck for HEX1, ISRO!

Featured image: The PSLV C33 mission takes off to launch the IRNSS 1G satellite. Credit: ISRO.

Note: This post earlier stated that the HEX1 chassis would experience temperatures of 5,000º C during atmospheric reentry. It’s actually 1,600º C and the mistake has been corrected.