The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO

For space, frugality is a harmful aspiration

Ref:

‘ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to cost lesser than Hollywood movie Interstellar – here’s how they make it cost-effective’, staff, Moneycontrol, February 20, 2018. 

‘Chandrayaan-2 mission cheaper than Hollywood film Interstellar’, Surendra Singh, Times of India, February 20, 2018. 

The following statements from the Moneycontrol and Times of India articles have no meaning:

  1. The cost of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was less than the production cost of the film Gravity.
  2. The cost of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission is expected to be less than the production cost of the film Interstellar.

It’s like saying the angular momentum of a frog is lower than the speed of light. “But of course,” you’re going to say, “we’re comparing angular momentum to speed – they have different dimensions”. Well, the production cost of a film and mission costs also have different dimensions if you cared to look beyond the ‘$’ prefix. That’s because you can’t just pick up two dollar figures, decide which one’s lower and feel good about that without any social and economic context.

For example, what explains the choice of films to compare mission costs to? Is it because Gravity and Interstellar were both set in space? Is it because both films are fairly famous? Is it also because both films were released recently? Or is it because they offered convenient numbers? It’s probably the last one because there’s no reason otherwise to have picked these two films over, say, After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant – all of which were set in space AND cost less to make than Interstellar.

So I suspect it would be equally fair to say that the cost of C’yaan 2 is more than the budget of After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant. But few are going to spin it like this because of two reasons:

  1. The cost of anything has to be a rational, positive number, so saying cost(Y) is less than cost(X) would imply that cost(X) > cost(Y) ≥ 0; however, saying cost(Y) is greater than cost(X) doesn’t give us any real sense of what cost(Y) could be because it could approach ∞ or…
  2. Make cost (Y) feel like it’s gigantic, often because your reader assumes cost(Y) should be compared to cost(X) simply because you’ve done so

Now, what comparing C’yaan 2’s cost to that of making Interstellar achieves very well is a sense of the magnitude of the number involved. It’s an excellent associative mnemonic that will likely ensure you don’t forget how much C’yaan 2 cost – except you’d also have to know how much Interstellar cost. Without this bit of the statement, you have one equation and two variables, a.k.a. an unsolvable problem.

Additionally, journalists don’t use such comparisons in other beats. For example, when the Union budget was announced on February 1 this year, nobody was comparing anything to the production costs of assets that had a high cultural cachet. Rs 12.5 crore was Rs 12.5 crore; it was not framed as “India spends less on annual scholarships for students with disabilities than it cost to make Kabali“.

This suggests that such comparisons are reserved by some journalists for matters of space, which in turn raises the possibility that those journalists, and their bosses, organisations and readers, are prompted to think of costs in the space sector as something that must always be brought down. This is where this belief becomes pernicious: it assumes a life of its own. It shouldn’t. Lowering costs becomes a priority only after scientists and engineers have checked tens, possibly hundreds, of other boxes. Using only dollar figures to represent this effort mischaracterises it as simply being an exercise in cost reduction.

So, (risking repetition:) comparing a mission cost to a movie budget tells us absolutely nothing of meaning or value. Thanks to how Moneycontrol’s phrased it, all I know now is that C’yaan 2 is going to cost less than $165 million to make. Why not just say that and walk away? (While one could compare $165 million to mission costs at other space agencies, ISRO chief K. Sivan has advised against it; if one wants to compare it to other PSUs in India, I would advise against it.) The need to bring Interstellar into this, of course, is because we’ve got to show up the West.

And once we’re done showing up the West, we still have to keep. Showing up. The West. Because we’re obsessed with what white people do in first-world countries. If we didn’t have them to show up, who knows, we’d have framed ISRO news differently already because we’d have been able to see $165 million for what it is: a dimensionless number beyond the ‘$’ prefix. Without any other details about C’yaan 2 itself, it’s pretty fucking meaningless.

Please don’t celebrate frugality. It’s an unbecoming tag for any space programme. ISRO may have been successful in keeping costs down but, in the long run, the numbers will definitely go up. Frugality is a harmful aspiration vis-à-vis a sector banking on reliability and redundancy. And for fuck’s sake, never compare: the act of it creates just the wrong ideas about what space agencies are doing, what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re doing it. For example, consider Sivan’s answer when asked by a Times of India reporter as to how ISRO kept its costs down:

Simplifying the system, miniaturising the complex big system, strict quality control and maximising output from a product, make the missions of Indian space agency cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development of a spacecraft or a rocket and, therefore, we are able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimise the mission cost.

If I didn’t know Sivan was saying this, I’d have thought it was techno-managerial babble from Dilbert (maybe with the exception of QC). More importantly, Sivan doesn’t say here what ISRO is doing differently from other space agencies (such as, say, accessing cheaper labour), which is what would matter when you’re rearing to go “neener neener” at NASA/ESA, but sticks to talking about what everyone already does. Do you think NASA and ESA waste products? Do they not remain vigilant during each and every stage of development? Do they not have robust QC standards and enforcement regimes?

Notice here that Sivan isn’t saying “we’re doing it cheaper than others”, only that doing these things keeps the space agency “cost-effective”. Cost-effective is not the same as frugal.

Featured image: The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO.

A Falcon 9 lifting off in 2014. Credit: SpaceX

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn’t make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?

🤦🏾

KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

ToI successfully launches story using image from China

It may not seem like a big deal, and the sort of thing that happens often at Times of India. After ISRO “successfully” tested its scramjet engine in what seem like the early hours of August 28, Times of India published a story announcing the development. And for the story, the lead image was that of a Chinese rocket. No biggie, right? I mean, copy-editors AFAIK are given instructions to not reuse images, and in this case all the reader needed to be shown was a representative image of a rocket taking off.

The ToI story showing a picture of a Chinese rocket adjacent to the announcement that ISRO has tested its scramjet engine.
The ToI story showing a picture of a Chinese rocket adjacent to the announcement that ISRO has tested its scramjet engine.

But if you looked intently, it is a biggie. I’m guessing Times of India used that image because it had run out of ISRO images to use, or even reuse. In the four days preceding the scramjet engine test, ISRO’s Twitter timeline was empty and no press releases had been issued. All that was known was that a test was going to happen. In fact, even the details of the test turned out to be different: ISRO had originally suggested that the scramjet engine would be fired at an altitude of around 70 km; sometime after, it seems this parameter had been changed to 20 km. The test also happened at 6 am, which nobody knew was going to be the case (and which is hardly the sort of thing ISRO could decide at the last minute).

Even ahead of – and during – the previous RLV-related test conducted on May 23, ISRO was silent on all of the details. What was known emerged from two sources: K. Sivan from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and news agencies like PTI and IANS. The organisation itself did nothing in its official capacity to publicly qualify the test. Some people I spoke to today mentioned that this may not have been something ISRO considered worth highlighting to the media. I mean, no one is expecting this test to be sensational; it’s already been established that the four major RLV tests are all about making measurements, and the scram test isn’t even one of them. If this is really why ISRO chooses to be quiet, then it is simply misunderstanding the media’s role and responsibility.

From my PoV, there are two issues at work here. First, ISRO has no incentive to speak to the media. Second, strategic interests are involved in ISRO’s developing a reusable launch vehicle. Both together keep the organisation immune to the consequences of zero public outreach. Unlike NASA, whose media machine is one of the best on the planet but which also banks on public support to secure federal funding, ISRO does not have to campaign for its money nor does it have to be publicly accountable. Effectively, it is non-consultative in many ways and not compelled to engage in conversations. This is still okay. My problem is that ISRO is also caged as a result, the prime-mover of our space programme taken hostage by a system that lets ISRO work in the environment that it does instead of – as I get often get the impression from speaking to people who have worked with it – being much more.

In the case of the first RLV test (the one on May 23), photos emerged a couple days after the test had concluded while there was no announcement, tweet or release issued before; it even took a while to ascertain its success. In fact, after the test, Sivan had told Zee News that there may have been a flaw in one of ISRO’s calculations but the statement was not followed up. I’m also told now that today’s scram test was something ISRO was happy with and that the official announcement will happen soon. These efforts, and this communication, even if made privately, are appreciated but it’s not all that could have been done. One of the many consequences of this silence is that a copy-editor at Times of India has to work with very little to publish something worth printing. And then get ridiculed for it.

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.

The GSLV Mk-III is no jugaad

Scroll
December 18, 2014

(Note: This piece was written in the future-tense and published before ISRO’s successful test flight this morning.)

Come Thursday, the Indian Space Research Organisation will launch its GSLV Mk-III rocket from its launch pad in Sriharikota. In the run-up, most media attention has been on a conical module the rocket will carry on board. But of greater interest is the rocket itself, which holds the key to making ISRO a serious contender in the international satellite-launch sector.

The module is part of the Crew-Module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment, which will see it being released at an altitude of 126 kilometres, upon which it will re-enter earth’s atmosphere and crash into the Bay of Bengal, some 200 kilometres west of the Andaman Islands.

Scientists at ISRO will monitor CARE during its journey and gather important data about its surface and interiors. If the module’s performance matches their predictions, India will be that much closer to using it as a crew capsule for a manned mission into space planned in the early 2020s.

Cashing in on the growth

Forgotten in the media buzz around the module is the rocket itself.

The Mk-III, a next-generation variant of ISRO’s fleet of geosynchronous satellite launch vehicles, boasts of India’s highest payload capacity yet: 10,000 kilograms to low-earth orbit and 4,000 kilograms to the highly elliptical geostationary-transfer orbit.

If the launch is successful – and if future test flights establish reliability – ISRO’s commercial space programme will be in a position to cash in on the rapidly growing global satellite-launching industry as well as give domestic engineers the leeway to design more sophisticated satellites.

This was an important consideration during the Mars Orbiter Mission. The orbiter itself, currently revolving around the Red Planet, weighs only 15 kilograms because the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s payload limit to earth orbit is 1,350 kilograms. This includes all the other instruments on board to ensure a smooth journey. A heavier orbiter could have included more than the five instruments it did.

Dependence on others

In this regard, the GSLV Mk-III will be important because it will determine where India’s native space research programme is headed and how it plans to leverage the increased payload mass option.

It will also reduce India’s dependence on foreign launch vehicles to get heavier satellites into orbit, although self-reliance comes with problems of its own. The common choice in lieu of a reliable GSLV has been the French Arianespace programme, which currently serves almost 65% of the Asia-Pacific market. The Mk-III bears many structural similarities to the Ariane 6 variant. Also, both rockets have a liquid main-stage, a cryogenic upper-stage and two solid-fuel boosters.

The Ariane 6 can lift 6,500 kilograms to the geostationary-transfer orbit, and each launch costs India about $95 million. Assuming the cost-per-launch of the Mk-III is comparable to the Mk-II’s, the number approximately comes down to $40 million (this is likely to be slightly higher). Compare this to the global average price-per-launch of vehicles capable of reaching the geostationary-transfer orbit: $145.57 million, as of 2013.

Skyrocketing profits

From 1999 to 2014, ISRO launched 40 foreign satellites, all with PSLV rockets, and earned EUR 50.47 million and $17.17 million (or Rs 505.74 crore) from 19 countries. Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO in charge of handling the contracts with foreign space agencies, has reported profits ranging from Rs 19 crore to Rs 169 crore between 2002 and 2009.

This is a pittance compared to what Arianespace made in 2013 alone: EUR 680.1 million. A reliable launch vehicle to the geostationary-transfer orbit can change this for the better and position ISRO as a serious contender in the space-launch sector, assuming it is accompanied by a more efficient Antrix and an ISRO that is willing to work with foreign counterparts, both private and governmental.

It must also consider expanding its launch capabilities to the geostationary-transfer orbit and prepare to keep up with the 5-15% growth rate recorded in the last five years in the satellites industry. Now is an opportune time, too, to get on the wagon: the agency’s flags are flying high on the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Facing other challenges

ISRO has to be ready to confront the likes of SpaceX, a space transport services company which already has the Falcon 9 rocket that can launch 13,150 kilograms to low-earth orbit and 4,850 kilograms to the geostationary-transfer orbit at starting costs of $57 million per launch.

On another front, ISRO will have to move the public dialogue away from its fixation on big science missions and toward less grandiose but equally significant ones. These will help establish the space agency’s mettle in reliably executing higher-altitude launches, enhancing India’s capabilities in the space-launch and space-research sectors. These will also, in turn, serve to make high-cost missions more meaningful than simple proofs of concepts.

For example, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan has announced that a project report compiled by the agency envisages a Rs 12,400-crore manned space mission by 2021. In the next seven years, thus, ISRO aims to master concepts of re-entry technology, human spaceflight and radiation protection. This will happen not just through repeated test flights and launches of crew modules but also using satellites, space-borne observatories and data analysis.

For all these reasons, the GSLV Mk-III marks an important step by ISRO, one that will expose it to greater competition from European and American launchers, increase its self-reliance in a way that it will have to justify its increasing launch capabilities with well-integrated projects, and help the agency establish a legacy over and beyond the jugaad that took it to Mars.

The Mars Orbiter Mission was launched around the same time as NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, and with comparable instrumental specifications. While MOM cost ISRO $74 million, MAVEN cost NASA $672 million. In fact, ISRO’s orbiter was by far the least expensive Mars satellite ever built.

A "Dear ISRO" moment

I published a quick analysis in The Hindu, republished with permission from Scienceline, about the ISRO Mars Orbiter. Gist (excerpted):

Even if [ISRO] has launched a spacecraft to Mars, the payload limit and the lack of an inclusive scientific agenda still stand in the way of taking full advantage of scientific interest and infrastructure on the ground.

These are some of the replies I received on Twitter in response to the piece.

You probably didn’t read my piece, and you probably don’t know what “one-hit wonder” means either.

Who are “Thomeses”?

I don’t understand why you think I’ve not been courteous. My arguments weren’t barbaric. And I think it’d be wonderful if people considered constructive criticism the utmost courtesy. I know I do.

A friend of mine recently told me he couldn’t criticize my piece for me because he said that’s not what friends do. But that’s what I think friends do do because appreciation that is completely honest is something very hard to come by.

This is a common blight plaguing the perception of scientific research in India. It’s easy to just say “nanosatellites” and then think about it inside your head. However, what’re they for? Who comes up with such ideas? Who builds them? And at the end of the day where would ISRO go with it? Answer them reasonably and then I’ll concede nanosatellites make sense.

Another aspect of this comment is that you’re thinking in terms of gee-whiz stuff, you’re thinking of demonstrating more technology, but ISRO is too important to indulge in things like that over and over again. It’s a national space agency so let’s be respectful of that.

Someone’s made an allegation and you’re batting it away. Do you know something that nobody else does?

Thanks.

Scienceline

I also received the following comments on the same piece as published on Scienceline (you should check the site out, it’s my NYU program’s science portal and has some other amazing pieces as well).

Thanks you for writing such a wonderful article to put the facts straight.Hope we don’t get overconfident as we have put only small payload of 15 kg whereas others have put 64 kg of payload. Hope a new mission to use GSLV-D5 to put more payload gets approved quickly and gets successful.Anyway achieving success on first maiden flight is no small feat and kudos to Indian Space scientists!!! – Ravikanth V

I’m glad you understand my sentiment.

Mr.Vasudevan, I don’t think you are a father. Only if you have become a father you can appreciate the baby’s steps in the beginning and that which ends even as an Olympic champion. But one has to go thru what is called growth. Hope you understood what I meant. – Bindo

Yeah, I get you, but I don’t want ISRO – nor the nation – to think of its interplanetary exploration program as it would of a child.

Dear writer, You crave attention so bad that, on the day of a historical achievement, you have published such a negative aticle. Shame on you. Have you designed any electronics before? And do you know how challenging is it to achieve that with limited budget? Please do not write such articles for ISRO. People of India take pride in this organization. You should have waited for atleast a day. – Kc

Because all my opinions are suddenly okay after 24 hours? And I think it is my duty as someone who does take pride in ISRO that I feel such things need to be said before we ramp up our expectations to heights the agency may never even have plans for.

Now it’s time for us to show our gratitude to the nation. Indians who are draining their brain to foreign countries, come back to our country as soon as possible. Finish ur commitments soon, ur nation has just made a history and waiting for you. – Dilip

I resent that you’re implying that all those who left the country in search of greener fields are/were opportunists. I also resent that you think the proverbial system is working well enough to be able to reject the oodles of talent still present in the country.

Very well articulated article, thank you. The mission is symbolic and demonstrates our ISRO’s scientific capability. I’m hopeful our new govt. will only be supportive of country’s scientific community, encourage with all means available and pragmatic enough to have or build a plan so, in a decade least, we indeed achieve what we want to be – equally a ‘space superpower’. Albeit this is still a proud moment for we the people of India. Congratulations to the ISRO’s scientific community who made this possible. – Guru Dwarakanath

Again, I’m glad you understand what I’m trying to say.