Evolution of India’s Space Program & ISRO

Evolution of India's Space Program & ISRO
Evolution of India's Space Program & ISRO

In the last five decades, we have witnessed significant growth in evolution of India’s Space Program. What was initially conceived and focused on developing space-based assets, for providing assistance to the country’s developments, in the form of telecommunication and remote sensing satellites eventually shifted part of its focus towards space exploration, giving rise to high profile missions like exploratory missions of Mars and Moon. In all these efforts India has been able to achieve significant success rates and today India’s Space Program includes not only a robust launch capacity and some very large remote sensing satellite systems but also a very well developed scientific deep space exploratory capabilities.

Led effectively by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and its various research wings, India’s Space Program, has carved a niche of its own amongst the elite space agencies of the world by consistently demonstrating its unique and cost-effective technologies in its various space missions.

ISRO and its establishment history

The Organization which is presently headquartered in Bengaluru , and operates under the Department of Space of the Government of India and is under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister of India , through the Prime minister’s office (PMO), was conceived as Indian National Committee for Space Research  (INCOSPAR) in the year 1962, by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, under the guidance of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who also was the chairman of INCOSPAR . Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who is considered as the founding father of India’s Space Program, recognized the importance and potential of satellites in the fields of communication and remote sensing, after the successful launch of the satellite sputnik by the erstwhile USSR in the year 1957. INCOSPAR was originally placed under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which had Dr. Homi Bhabha, The father of India’s Atomic Program, as its director.

The first venture of INCOSPAR was the establishment of a rocket launching station at Thumba, a small village located near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in the year 1963. The facility was rechristened as Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), due to its location on the earth’s geomagnetic equator. From here the first sounding rocket was launched on 21st November 1963. This launch was significant for two reasons, firstly it made it possible for India to conduct an in-situ probe into the regions of the upper atmosphere and secondly it served as the bedrock on which the indigenous rocket launching technology of India was later built. It can thus be said that this launch marked the beginning of the India’s Space Program.

In the year 1969, INCOSPAR was re-shaped and re-organized into ISRO. In the year 1972, The Government of India constituted the Space Commission and established the Department of Space (DoS) in 1972. ISRO was brought under DoS in the same year itself. Since then ISRO has become the country’s primary agency that has been entrusted with the tasks related to space-based applications, space exploration and development of related technologies.

The ISRO in its early years, i.e. 1970s, led by the vision of Professor Sarabhai, focused on two aspects of development of its space research capabilities first is to create indigenous launch vehicles, the satellite launch vehicle (SLV), which is capable of carrying the satellites into space and placing it into its respective orbit and the other is to develop satellite technology, which will fulfill the remote sensing and communication needs of the country.


Also See: Space Exploration


The Satellite launch vehicle (SLV) programs:

Keeping in mind professor Sarabhai’s vision, In the year, 1979, the first indigenously built satellite launch vehicle, the SLV-3 was launched  from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC)  located  in the Sriharikota Island of Andhra Pradesh. The launch vehicle carried the first of the Rohini Series of satellites, The Rohini Technology Payload (RTP). The mission was only “partially successful” due to a technical issue in the second stage of the launch vehicle.  The first successful launch of SLV-3 was however achieved in 1980, when the Rohini satellite RS-1 was successfully placed in its orbit, which made India the sixth member of an exclusive club of space-faring nations. The SLV-3 that was used in this mission was a four-stage rocket that used solid-propellant motors in all the stages. RS-1 therefore became the first satellite to be launched by India using its indigenously built SLV. Two more launches of the Rohini series of satellites were conducted from SDSC, using SLV-3, in 1981 and 1983 respectively. These satellites named RS-D1 and RS-D2 respectively carried remote sensing equipments.

launch vehicles Info 1
Launch vehicles

The success of SLV-3 paved the way for development of a more advanced launch vehicle, that would be able to place satellites into polar orbits. It was to be called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLV). The intended objective was to create a launch vehicle, that would serve as India’s workhorse launch system, by taking advantage of solid propellant technology of SLV-3 and new liquid engines. A smaller launch rocket named Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) was developed to test the technologies that would be used in PSLVs, for example, the strap-on boosters, inertial navigation, heat shields etc.

ASLVs were configured to include five stages driven by solid propellant engines, and its payload capacity was thrice that of SLV-3 and it was capable of placing satellites into Low Earth Orbits (LEO).

Under the ASLV project four missions were launched in the years 1987, 1988, 1992, 1994 respectively of which only one (the 1994 mission) was completely successful and one (1992 mission) partially successful.

In 1993 the maiden PSLV was launched. It consisted of four stages and was the first indigenously developed launch vehicle employing liquid stages along with solid stages. The 1993 launch was a failure but in the next year i.e 1994 it was launched successfully and it placed the Indian Remote Sensing satellite IRS-P2 into its sun-synchronous orbit, in the year 1994. IRS-P2 is one of the satellites in the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) Program of Earth Observation satellites. The principal aim of this satellite system is to support the economy of the nation in the areas of agriculture, water resources, forestry and ecology, geology, water sheds, marine fisheries and coastal management. Today the IRS system forms the largest constellation of remote sensing satellites for civilian use in the world, with 11 satellites in operation.

Following its first successful launch in 1994, the PSLV has emerged as a “reliable and versatile workhorse launch vehicle” for India. As of 2019 the PSLV has completed 48 successful launches with a record of placing 104 satellites in sun-synchronous orbit, in a single launch, in the year 2017.

PSLV has launched several high profile and milestone space missions for India, which includes India’s first lunar probe Chandrayaan-1 ( year2008), India’s first  interplanetary probe , the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which was launched in the year 2013 and entered Mars orbit in the year 2014, making India  the first nation to succeed on its maiden attempt to Mars, as well as the first space agency in Asia to reach Mars orbit , Astrosat, which is India’s first space based observatory (launched in the year 2015)

PSLV has also gained credence internationally as a leading provider of rideshare services for small satellites. As of December 2019 PSLV, has successfully launched 319 foreign satellites from 33 countries.

ISRO launched the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) project, in 1990 with the goal of acquiring the launch capabilities to launch satellites into geosynchronous orbit.

It was conceived as a three-stage rocket with the first two stages made from the technology from the technology of the PSLV (the first stage was solid fueled and the second stage was liquid fueled). Due to the higher thrust required for placing the satellite into Geosynchronous orbit, the third stage was required to be

powered by a Cryogenic engine. But at that time India did not possess the same, there by requiring the capability to be procured from outside.

ISRO entered into an agreement with Russian company Glavkosmos, for technology for transfer of technology and design details of cryogenic engine in the year 1991. However in the year 1992 Russia backed out of the agreement due to sanctions imposed by the United States.  A new agreement was reached with the Russian company under which the company agreed to export readymade cryogenic engines to ISRO instead of technology transfer and these engines were used in the first generation of GSLVs , called GSLV Mark 1.

The maiden launch of GSLV mark 1 took place in the year 2001, but the launch was a failure. The first successful launch happened in the year 2003, when the GSAT-2 satellite was successfully placed in its geosynchronous orbit around the earth.

India started developing indigenous technology for building its own cryogenic engine, under the Cryogenic Upper Stage Project (CUSP) launched in 1994. In April 2010 the first GSLV mission using India’s indigenously developed cryogenic engine was launched. The new variant of GSLV was named GSLV mark 2. The launch was a failure. The first successful mission using the GSLV mark 2 configuration was finally achieved in the year 2014, with the launch of GSLV-14 satellite.

From 2001 till 2014 both the versions of GSLV were used to conduct a total of thirteen launches, of which 8 are successful.

The latest satellite launch vehicle developed by ISRO is named Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) also known as GSLV mark 3. It is a three-stage medium-lift launch vehicle with a much higher payload capacity than GSLV mark 2.


Also See: Exploration of Mars


Although it was primarily designed to launch communication satellites into geostationary orbit, it has also identified as launch vehicle for crewed missions under the Indian Human Spaceflight Program (whose objective is to develop the technology required for launching crewed orbital spacecraft into low Earth orbit with the first crewed flight for December 2021 under the Gaganyaan mission) and other dedicated science missions. Till date it has been used in four successful missions which include the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) mission (launched in the year2014) as an experimental test vehicle for the Gaganyaan mission, two GSAT satellite launches, in the year 2017 and 2018 respectively and the latest one being the chandrayaan 2 mission in 2019.

The indigenous satellite programs

Having discussed the SLV program in brief it would be worthwhile in discussing  the second area in the Indian space program, where the country has achieved an enormous degree of self-reliance, i.e its satellite programs.

India’s first indigenously built satellite, named Aryabhata was launched by ISRO from a launch site in Russia using a soviet launch vehicle, named Kosmos-3M, in the year 1975. Although it was operational only for five days but it marked an important milestone in India’s Space program because it showcased for the first time to the world, India’s indigenous capabilities in satellite building.

Presently India has got multiple satellite programs in operation namely which includes the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) series, the Indian Remote Sensing satellites (IRS) series, the Radar Imaging Satellites (RISAT) series, the geostationary satellites (GSAT) series, the GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) system and the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) (also known as Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC)).

The INSAT, is a joint venture of the Department of Space, Department of Telecommunications, India Meteorological Department, All India Radio and Doordarshan which was Commissioned in 1983 and includes a series of multipurpose geostationary satellites aimed to not only fulfill the telecommunications, broadcasting needs of the country but also to also provide assistance in the fields of meteorology, and search and rescue operations. Presently it is the largest domestic communication system in the Indo-Pacific Region with a total of a total of 11 operational satellites.

INSAT system has created a revolution in India in the areas of television and radio broadcasting, telecommunications and meteorology. It was largely because of the INSAT system that it has been possible to extend TV and modern telecommunication facilities to every corner of the country including remote areas and offshore islands.

The Indian Remote Sensing satellites (IRS) includes a series of Earth observation satellites, built, launched and maintained by ISRO. The objectives of these satellites are to provide remote sensing services to the country. The program kick started with the launch of IRS-1A using a soviet launch vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch facility of the Soviet Union, in the year 1988.

With a total of 11 operational satellites the IRS series is presently the largest constellation of operational remote sensing satellites dedicated to civilian use in the world.

The services of the IRS satellites are managed by the DOS through the National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS).

The Radar Imaging Satellite (RISAT) consists of a series of radar imaging reconnaissance satellites, that has been built indigenously by ISRO. Their objective is to provide all-weather surveillance services.

Currently the series comprises of a constellation of 4 operational satellites. The first RISAT satellite that was launched in the year 2009 was RISAT 2, followed by RISAT 1 in the year 2012, RISAT 2B and RISAT2BR1 in May and December 2019 respectively.

The RISAT series are the first all-weather Earth observation satellites from ISRO. Previous Indian observation satellites relied primarily on optical and spectral sensors which were hampered by cloud cover.

for GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) is a Space Based Augmentation System (SBAS), that has been jointly developed by ISRO and Airport Authority of India (AAI), to provide navigational services, to assist aircrafts in accurate landing in Indian airspace and its adjoining areas.

The system uses a system of satellites (namely GSAT-8, GSAT-10 and GSAT-15) and a series of ground-based reference stations situated across various locations in India (known as Indian Reference Station (INRES)), that provides GPS signal corrections so as to give a better position accuracy.  Presently GAGAN, besides providing navigational support to aircrafts is also being used for monitoring forest areas and effective management of wildlife resources however it has potential applications in other areas like railway signaling and alignment of railway tracks, traffic management in roads etc.

Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), whose operational name is NavIC (as an acronym for Navigation with Indian Constellation) is an autonomous regional satellite navigation system launched and made operational by ISRO within the 2013-2018 time frame. The objective is to provide accurate real time and positioning services within the Indian territory and a region extending up to 1500 km around it. Presently it consists of a constellation  of 7 operational satellites and there are plans to increase the number of satellites in future.

NavIC will provide two levels of service, the “standard positioning service”, which will be open for civilian use, and a “restricted service” (an encrypted one)  which will be given to  authorised users only (including the military) .

NavIC project was conceived to decrease our reliance to foreign GPS services and develop our own satellite based navigation system with high levels of accuracy.

(List of Satellites launched by India)

Space Research and Exploration capabilities

Besides demonstrating its indigenous capabilities in terms of “bringing space to the service of the common man, to the service of the Nation”, through its SLV and satellite programs, ISRO has also demonstrated its capabilities in the areas of space research and space exploration, by launching some high profile and cutting-edge technology based space missions. This includes India’s first multi wavelength space observatory and full-fledged astronomy satellite, the AstroSat(which was launched in 2015, with the objective of studying celestial objects like white dwarfs, pulsars, black holes etc. through spectroscopic analysis); Chandrayaan 1 (which was launched in 2008 and was India’s first Lunar mission. India also made history of being the 4th country in the world to place its flag insignia on the lunar surface, through the moon impact probe. The Mission conducted surveys of the lunar surface and produced a detailed map of its chemical characteristics and 3-dimensional topography); The Mangalyaan or the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) (launched in 2013, it was India’s maiden interplanetary mission. India made history in becoming only the 4th space agency in the world after NASA, Roscosmos and European Space Agency (ESA) to reach mars and the first in Asia to reach Mars. India also became the first nation to reach mars in its maiden attempt and the mission is the least expensive mars mission to date with an operational budget of only US$73 million.

  The most recent Space mission conducted by ISRO was the 2019,  Chandrayaan -2 mission , with the principal objectives of exploring the south pole region of the moon and showcasing its indigenous  technological abilities of conducting  soft landing  on the lunar surface and operating a rover on the lunar surface. For this purpose The mission included an orbiter, a lander (named Vikram) and a rover (named Pragyan). The mission was partially successful as, due to a technical glitch the lander deviated from its expected trajectory and crashed onto the lunar surface .


Also See: Aditya – L1


Commercialization of ISRO ‘s  space technologies and services

In order promote and commercialise the products, services and technological capabilities of ISRO the Antrix Corporation Limited (ACL) was established by the government of India in 1992  as a private limited company, wholly owned by the government of India and administered by the Department of Space (DoS). Since its establishment the company has been highly profitable generating huge  annual revenues during the 2014-2019 time period through commercializing its satellite launch services to foreign countries and  high profile business dealings with some of the leading foreign private space players like Intelsat, EADS Astrium etc.

In the 2019 budget the government of India declared the formation of the second commercial arm of ISRO, The NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) and it has been decided that while Antrix will handle ISRO’s commercial dealings for satellites and launch vehicles with foreign customers, NSIL will focus on capacity building of local industries for manufacturing in the space sector. As a matter of fact one of the objectives of NSIL is to mass produce launch vehicles, in particular small satellite launch vehicles  (SSLVs) and PSLVs in partnership with the private sector in India, through the avenue of technology transfer.

NSIL and Antrix will therefore enable ISRO to privatise and commercialise their established technology to private players. It will also enable ISRO to focus on research and development of more cutting edge technologies and in its upcoming space exploratory missions, while leaving the basic operations of its already proven and tested technology in the hands of these private players.

Upcoming missions

As a matter of fact ISRO has a host of space exploratory missions planned which includes: The Aditya L1 mission, which will be India’s maiden solar mission, stated for launch in 2022;Sukrayaan-1, which will be an interplanetary mission to Venus stated to be launched between 2024 and 2026, Mangalyaan 2 (or Mars Orbiter Mission 2) which will be India’s second Mars mission, stated to be launched around 2024 among many others.



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