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Space Programme – M.S.N.Menon, V.P.Morozov (1986)

Indo-Soviet Trade and Economic Ties



Space Programme


In 1961, when Yuri Gagarin, the first space hero of the world, came to India, he spoke of the time when Soviet and Indian cosmonauts would together explore the universe. India was grateful to him for his kind thoughts, but attached no more importance to it because it did not have, then, even a space programme.

Since then India has blazed a trail in space research and development that must be the envy of the world. And after 23 years, Yuri Gagarin’s prophetic words came true: in April 1984, Sq. Ldr. Rakesh Sharma joined two Soviet cosmonauts on joint flight into space.

India has a long and distinguished tradition in science. It is not widely appreciated that scientific thought and innovative ideas relating to technology have been part of the Indian culture and the basis of its civilisation throughout its history, going to the Indus civilisation of 4000 to 5000 years ago.

There are only a few countries in the world today with a significant space programme and India is one of them. India’s space programme took shape like an edifice-brick by brick. When the USSR launched the world’s first Earth satellite in 1957, India established an optical tracking station at the Nainital Observatory (UP) to watch it. In 1958 the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay, began launching constant altitude plastic balloons to collect data on high altitude conditions. In 1961 space research was brought under the Department of Atomic Energy. In 1962 the Indian Council for Space Research was formed. A decision was soon taken to open a sounding rocket launching site to carry out systematic launchings. The first sounding rocket was launched on November 21, 1963, from Thumba, a fishing village on the Kerala coast, on the magnetic equator of the earth. This marked the birth of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). In 1963 India sought UN assistance for the TERLS programme as part of the activities of the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The Thumba facility is now open to members of the UN. Soon the USSR showed interest in this facility and offered to provide equipment. The USSR gave a helicopter, a digital computer, vibrobench and meteorological equipment. In 1969 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was formed.

Thumba was mainly interested at this stage in the study of meteorological phenomena. But rocket launchings were intermittent. However, these launchings became regular from 1970 under an Indo-Soviet programme of cooperation. The Soviet-made M-100 sounding rockets, which came to be used regularly, have a range of 80-90 km. with a payload upto 65 kg. Now, it is launched every Wednesday.

India and the Soviet Union coordinated their studies of the link between solar activity and various processes taking place in the upper atmosphere in the tropics. Experiments have also been carried out using Indian and Soviet instruments mounted on Centaur rockets. Soviet scientists are using the Thumba facility to study the upper layers of the atmosphere—in fact the whole of the eastern hemisphere.

Under the joint meteorological research programme between ISRO and the Hydrometeorological Services of the USSR, simultaneous rocket launchings were held in other regions as also from the oceans. Under the MONEX programme, Soviet ships took part in a study of the Indian monsoon. Valuable data have been collected, especially on wind and temperature. These have helped weathermen to forecast the onset of the Indian monsoon weeks in advance.

Satellite Development

India has taken major strides over the past two decades in the development and application of space technology and space sciences for the socio-economic benefit of the nation. This has been so particularly in the areas where satellite-based systems have an inherent edge over conventional ground-based systems. Space technologies are particularly 

significant for a country of India’s sub-continental dimensions. The areas cover telecommunication, radio and television broadcasting, and remote sensing, the latter with its wide-spread application in agriculture, forestry, meteorology, earth sciences and the like.

Various facilities have been created, and a whole range of capabilities developed. As a result of this, India can now plan, design, build and test satellites for scientific experiments as well as for practical applications, such as earth observations and tele-communications.

But in the early seventies, India did not have the technology, and the advanced countries of the West were not willing to part with rocket and satellite technology because of their military implications. India’s space programme was received in the West with scepticism, if not scorn. There were derisive remarks that India, which remained in the bullock cart age, had developed space ambitions. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer of India’s space programme, has given a fitting reply to these criticisms, explaining why India wanted a space programme. He said: “We are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the problem of man and society which we find in our country.” The USA offered to provide the satellite (not technology) and to place the satellite in orbit on commercial terms. But this was not the objective of India. It wanted to develop its own capabilities and achieve self-reliance. The USA wanted India to remain at the mercy of the US aerospace industry. The alternative for India was to seek Soviet assistance.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai did precisely that. He said: “If we need help in space technology, we shall ask the Soviet Union. We need not only a satellite but also the knowhow in building it and the knowhow in space technology, and only the Russians can give us such help”.

The Soviet Union did help, and, as usual, covering the entire gamut of the space programme. On the initiative of Dr. Sarabhai, a Satellite System Division was set up at Thumba under Prof. U.R. Rao. Dr. Sarabhai had already had talks with Academician Blagonravov of the USSR at Vienna on Indo-Soviet cooperation in space science. On his return to India, he took up the matter with the Soviet Ambassador in India. In August 1971, Prof. H. Murthy and Prof. U.R. Rao visited Moscow and had talks with the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Prof. V.M. Kovtunenko came of India, visited India’s facilities for the space programme and had extensive discussions with Indian authorities. On May 10, 1972 the first agreement was signed between the ISRO and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The agreement provided for Soviet assistance for the fabrication of a satellite and for its launching. The USSR offered to provide all these free of charge, along with training of Indian specialists in sharp contrast to the American offer. Soon a new laboratory of the Indian Scientific Satellite Project was established at Bangalore with Dr. U.R. Rao as its head. Indian and Soviet joint teams worked on various aspects of the satellite. Besides technical assistance, the USSR provided solar panels for power generation, special tape recorders for storage and transmission of data, batteries for storage of power and the spin-up system to stabilise the satellite while in orbit. Since the Soviet Union was providing the launcher, India went in for a higher payload to include experiments in 1) areonomy, 2) solar physics and 3) x-ray astronomy. Two telecommand stations were set up to provide two-way communication with the satellite, one at Bears Lake (USSR) and at Sriharikotta (Andhra Pradesh).

“Aryabhata”, the first indigenously designed and fabricated satellite, Was launched from the Soviet Union on April 19,1975. This was a technology test satellite which also carried instruments for conducting scientific experiments as mentioned earlier.

The satellite was named “Aryabhata” after the 5th century AD Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata, who laid the foundations of modern algebra, determined the movement of the celestial bodies, calculated the diameter of the Earth and Moon and the importance of their movement around the sun.

“Aryabhata” went beyond all expectations—it continued to function for a longer time than planned and to provide data. Dr. U.R. Rao, while thanking the Soviet scientists for their cooperation, said: “The satellite is of great significance to us. 

It represents India’s great lead in space technology. Now we can ourselves design and test space systems. The most important thing, however, is the creation of a young, dedicated team of scientists, who can confidently carry out future tasks.” India had joined the space club.

But Aryabhata was just the start. The Indians had mastered the latest space-technology. But the main thing was to use that space technology for practical purposes.

Three days after the launching of Aryabhata, India and the USSR entered into another agreement on April 22, 1975 for the launching of an earth observation satellite by 1978. The satellite, named after Bhaskara, the 6th century AD Indian astronomer, represented the first satellite-based space experiment, using the remote sensing technology for surveying natural resources of the country. It had relevance for hydrology, forestry, oceanography and meteorology. Some of the specific uses of this technology were in agriculture and forestry, in measuring the snow cover and ice accumulation, flood control, water management, underground seepage, ocean currents and winds forecast of cyclones, estimation of planktons, water pollution, geothermal and topographic mapping of rivers, lakes, etc.

Eight Indo-Soviet groups were set up to take up various aspects of this satellite. The Soviet Union provided the sub-systems as in the case of Aryabhata. Two TV cameras and microwave radiometers were the primary payloads for remote sensing experiments. Bhaskara-I was launched on June 7, 1979 by the Soviet Union from the Soviet cosmodrome. The satellite weighed 444 kg. Bhaskara-I provided the country with valuable information on many aspects of the Indian territory.

In his “Discovery of India” Jawaharlal Nehru saw a time, not far off, when India could combine “the ancient wisdom of India with the science and energy of modern times.” Evoking the very names of those great pathfinders like Aryabhata and Bhaskara, while combining those ethos with the energy and dynamism of men like Dr. Sarabhai, Dr. Satish Dhawan, Prof. U.R. Rao and many other luminaries gave the Indian space programme a peculiar symboiosis.

In the meantime, the USSR Academy of Sciences and the ISRO had concluded an agreement in 1976 to build a satellite tracking and ranging station (STARS) on Kavaloor Hills in Tamil Nadu. The Soviet Union provided AFU-75 photo cameras, laser-ranging radars, etc. and also scientific personnel to train Indian counterparts in manning the station. Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Hungary and Poland also provided certain equipment for the station, which started working in 1978. From here was established the correct position of a given satellite and of its orbit.

Gamma Ray Studies

Another agreement was signed in 1976 between the ISRO and the USSR Academy of Sciences for the launching of nine balloons from Hyderabad by the scientists of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay, to study the Gamma rays in the 40-500 Mev range in galactic and extra-galactic regions. It is now proposed to transfer these studies to satellite-based facilities. The balloon facility in Hyderabad, located as it is near the equator, offers ideal conditions for the observation of gamma particles from space. Under the joint programme, Soviet scientists have developed a gamma-ray telescope to study direction of gamma-rays and measure their energies and properties and the guidance system. The Indian side has provided, apart from other things, a device to send up and retrieve the telescope. Such balloons, flying at pre-set altitudes of between 35-40 kilometres, have transmitted much useful data.

Gamma-rays are produced by super-high energy particles which can be generated here on earth only by accelerators. A knowledge of the mystery of gamma-rays can lead to a better understanding of cosmic rays which bombard the earth from outer space.

India entered into another agreement with the USSR for the Bhaskara-II project in June 1979. Naturally, with the experience of fabricating Aryabhata and Bhaskara—I, the Indian scientists were able to introduce many improvements in the satellite. Bhaskara-II was launched from the Soviet cosmodrome on November 20, 1981 which provided much useful scientific data. 

India has signed yet another agreement with the USSR in May 1983 for the launching of another remote-sensing satellite^sometime in 1986.

India’s effort at building telecommunication facilities was not so successful. When India designed the INSAT-IA satellite—a costly and complex facility—and got it built by the Ford Aerospace Foundation of the USA, it had placed great hopes on using it for telecommunication purpose. It was put in orbit on April 10, 1982 but contact with it was lost after a few months. Thus, there was a serious setback to India’s telecommunication programme.

India switched over from INSAT—IA satellite to Soviet Stationar-6 for telecasting domestic TV programmes from March 23, 1983 following the leasing of a TV transponder in the Soviet satellite for a period of ten months from March 1983. Indian and Soviet scientists also cooperated in studying Halley’s Comet. Indian telescopes were mounted on two Soviet space vehicles as part of the cooperation.

The involvement of industrial undertakings in the highly exacting tasks relating to all this activity has led to the development of indigenous industrial infrastructures, capacities and expertise in these fields. And India has today a highly developed and adequate research facility to carry out its various programmes. By 1990 India proposes to eventually replace the foreign procured INSAT spacecraft with indigenously designed, developed, tested and qualified operational satellites.

Joint Flight

In the seventies the Soviet Union sounded India on a joint space flight. This was a natural and logical step to the years of cooperation between the two countries in the space programme. The joint flight was confirmed by the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before her visit to the USSR in 1982. Mrs. Gandhi argued that it was not only of scientific value, but also an inspiring example for the younger generation of India.

Two Indian Air Force test pilots Wg. Cdr. Ravish Malhotra and Sq. Ldr. Rakesh Sharma were selected after a rigorous scrutiny for training in the Soviet Union. Rakesh Sharma, born in 1949, was fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force since 1970 and had 1600 hours of flying to his credit. Ravish Malhotra, six years older, was a test pilot, with 3400 flying hours. He, too, was a fighter pilot

It is needless to say that India’s two envoys were given a warm welcome at the Star Town, where cosmonauts are trained. Not only Rakesh and Ravish, but also their wives and children were given a cordial welcome.

Training began almost immediately after their arrival. The first task was of course to learn Russian and master the technical jargon of space science.

The period of training depends on the individual abilities of the trainees, though on an average it takes two years. But this also depends on the complexity of the experiments that each one is expected to conduct in space.

During their September 1982 visit to the Soviet Union, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi visited the Star City and met with the Indian trainees. She wrote in the visitors’ book of the Star City: “The achievements of cosmonautics are a symbol of man’s indomitable spirit and his inexhaustible courage to endeavour and to rise to great deeds. My good wishes to all concerned with Star City.”

A Space flight is an elaborate programme. It is not only the crew who have to master the programme, but a whole team of specialists who will be involved in the flight. In fact, a symposium was held in India in February 1984, when the entire programme of the flight was thoroughly discussed by Indian space scientists to become familiar with flight. The programme included experiments in X-ray astronomy, remote sensing of the earth from outer space and experiments in space-materials technology, as well as space biology and medicine.

The training went through various stages, but mention may be made of the two important stages—the general space-training and the space-flight. At the first stage, the candidate studies space navigation and the design of the main types of manned crafts and stations. He has also to undergo general physical and medical-biological training. In the process, the instructors learn the individual psychological and physiological traits of each candidate, which will be considered when forming the teams. At the second stage, the crew masters the specific programme of their future flight.

The Indian trainees acquired the theoretical grounding in six months, such as the dynamics of space flight, the fundamentals of space navigation and radiation protection and the systems of spacecraft control. Along with these, they had practical training aboard specially equipped craft where conditions of weightlessness were artificially created. “We prepared them not only for the flight but also for their work, because they were going into space not as passengers but to perform definite duties, like the other members of the crew,” said Boris Volynov, commander of the training team and a Soviet cosmonaut. Though each crew member is expected to perform a specific task, each can standby for another in case of an emergency. They were also given training to render first aid as also to handle still and cine cameras.

Work on simulators, gymnastic devices, and in the hydrological laboratory formed an important part of the training. Simulators check and develop a spaceman’s ability to orient himself, while in the hydrological laboratory he gets accustomed to working in conditions of free floating.

The cosmonaut’s training centre has models of space-craft complete with instruments and devices that trainees have to handle in actual flight. Among them is a huge 15-metre-long mockup of the Salyut orbital station, weighing 20 tons. Here they learn how the various on-board systems work and go through the intricate motions of a craft’s docking and undocking with the Salyut station.

Soviet space systems are able to take charge of flight control from the crew. But there are certain things that the crew is expected to undertake in an emergency: entry into orbit, docking, undocking and descent. These are the key moments of a space flight and the crew is expected to step in if the automatic systems fail.

With each flight, the complexity of the jobs tackled in space has multiplied. The Vostoks, Voskhods and Soyuzes have given way to the Soyuz—T transport craft. The Salyut stations also have been modified. The Salyut—7, on which Rakesh Sharma worked together with his colleagues, belonged to the second generation space station. It has two docking units, one to receive the passenger craft and the other for cargo craft.

Cosmonauts are now expected to work on economic and other problems. For example, they conduct experiments in space metallurgy (such as production of pure metals). They also study space biology and man’s behaviour during long space flights.

In short, the cosmonauts of today are expected to have a great deal of specialisation on many things. Rakesh and Ravish had the best of training possible.

Before their flight, the two Indian cosmonauts took a holiday in India. They confidently told Indian journalists: “We’ll feel at home aboard the Soyuz.” They also spoke of the friendly feelings of the Soviet people towards them and of the hospitality they had received everywhere. Both of them spoke highly of the Soviet space technology. Rakesh Sharma said that there was hardly any chance of error, and Ravish Malhotra said: “The Soviet Soyuz space-craft is a very reliable one and easy to control. It is easier to steer than a car”.

At last the day of the flight arrived—April 3, 1984. Of the two teams, that of Commander Colonel Yuri Malyshev, Gennady Strekalov and Rakesh Sharma was cleared for the flight. In 1980 Malyshev and Vladimir Aksyonov were the first to test a new Soyuz spacecraft in flight. Gennady Strekalov was the engineer and Rakesh the engineer-researcher.

The other team consisted of Anatoly Berozovoi, Georgi Greckho, and Ravish Malhotra.

It needs now only the telling of the procedure of the flight. A powerful rocket put the Soyuz transport craft from its launching pad in Baikonur into a staging orbit in the same plane as the Salyut—71 station. After completing the first three orbits, the crew took off their pressure suits. They then checked the functioning and the state of on-board systems and instruments as well as the hermetic state of the modules. During its two further orbits of the earth, the craft was maneuvered into a higher plane so that it could catch up with the automatic space station. During the 6th to 12th orbits, the cosmonauts rested and slept. On waking up they washed and had breakfast, and checked the on-board system and prepared for the rendezvous and docking with the automatic station. 

While they did these, the spacecraft completed three more circuits of the earth.

On the 17th orbit, they carried out manoeuvers to bring their spacecraft closer to the station to a distance which made docking possible. From this distance rendezvous was performed automatically by the independent guidance system. The transport craft docked with the station on the 18th orbit. The crew and the ground station both monitored the docking.

After docking and testing the connection between the spacecraft and the station for leaks, the newly arrived crew, called the “visiting expedition”, entered the station. They were immediately given a “warm” dinner, though the flowers on the table were of plastic.

In a message from the orbital station to his compatriots Sharma said: “You belong to a beautiful country. I am here with your good wishes. I will return with your good wishes. I look forward to meeting you all again and sharing my experience with you.” He said that from a height of 300 km. India looked beautiful. Crossing over from the blue of the Indian Ocean, one could see the green of the south merging with the brown of the central region and then giving way to the beauty of the Himalayas. “There is so much beauty”, he exclaimed.

Asked by Indira Gandhi, in a 6-minute televised conversation, how India looked from space, Rakesh promptly replied “Saare Jahan Se achcha. . . ” (Of all the countries, the best) Mrs. Gandhi extended her greetings to all the cosmonauts aboard and said that their feat would make India space conscious and inspire the Indian youth.

Thanking Mrs. Gandhi for her greetings, Rakesh spoke highly of the effectiveness of their training. On how easily the docking was done, he said: “It was as if we were in a simulator on the ground when I moved from the space ship to the orbiting space station.”

Mrs. Gandhi said that the whole country wished them back safe, and that “their flight is an eloquent testimony to Indo-Soviet cooperation and friendship.”

“The people of India are thrilled that an Indian is going into space along with Soviet cosmonauts,” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told a TASS correspondent Valdimir Baidashin before the flight. She said that this “is being made possible by Soviet-Indian friendship, which now acquires a new dimension.” She said: “The space above us must be peaceful as the land and oceans around us. It must hold no terror for any nation. Our first cosmonaut, I hope, will symbolise the message of peace which is Mahatma Gandhi’s and Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy to India.”

The Indo-Soviet crew had photographed 40 per cent of the Indian territory during seven out of the 15 passes that Salyut-7 made during the joint flight. The films have added new knowledge on India’s changing coastline, the fish potential in the Arabian sea, likely oil and gas deposits in Rajasthan and the ice cover of the Himalayas. For the first time the Andaman and Nicobar islands were photographed in great detail, mapping 90 per cent of their forest cover. Photographing areas of natural resources from outer space with the MKF-6 multispectral camera, for example, achieves in just four minutes the same results it would take geologists two years to obtain using aerial photography.

The Soviet—Indian flight crew spent eight days in space. The expedition worked for seven days on board together with the main crew of Salyut-7 orbiting station.

In the seven days, the cosmonauts had carried out 43 earth-surveying, medical and technological experiments, and brought back to earth thousands of photographs, medical records and technological samples. They also made alloys of germanium and silver in the zero gravity of space. It they stand up to specifications, mass production of special materials called “Metallic glasses” may become potentially possible. The practical results of the mission were unquestionable.

The crew had gone up in Soyuz T—11 spaceship, but returned to earth in the Soyuz T—10 ship, leaving their new ship to the station’s crew who were to continue their work in space.

The Soviet-Indian mission brought to an end the programme of international manned flights on-board the Soviet ships and stations. There were eleven flights in all.

The first thing the crew did on touching the earth was to go to the monument of Yuri Gagarin to pay tribute to the world’s first man in space. Millions of viewers held their breath when 

Rakesh Sharma’s return from space was televised in India on April 11, at 10 p.m.

“The dramatic flight of an Indian into space accompanied by his Russian colleagues show how international cooperation can enable even poor nations to extend the frontiers of technology. Sq. Ldr. Rakesh Sharma has by now become a household name. But his achievement is part of the team-work and the entire flight has been made possible because of the friendly interest in India taken by the Soviet Union,” wrote The Hindustan Times in an editorial on 13th April 1984.

Mrs. Gandhi in her message to the Indian cosmonaut after his return said that “every such space adventure is a further step towards knowledge and experience.”

By a Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR, Hero of the Soviet Union Yuri Malyshev and Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR. Hero of the Soviet Union Gennady Strekalov were awarded the Order of Lenin and the second “Gold Star” medal for courage and heroism displayed during the flight.

The title of Hero of the Soviet Union was conferred upon the Indian cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma and the Order of Lenin and a “Gold Star” were also presented to him.

Ravish Malhotra was awarded the Order of Peoples’ Friendship for participation in preparations for and the holding of the flight.

Thanking the Soviet government for the honour conferred on him, Rakesh Sharma said: “Like our Soviet friends, we believe that space is the common asset of mankind and that space exploration should be carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes. The joint Indo-Soviet flight became a symbol of that general conviction of our peoples.”

India too honoured the cosmonauts. The Government of India announced the award of Ashoka Chakra to Rakesh Sharma and his Soviet colleagues. Ravish Malhotra was awarded the Kirti Chakra.

Prof. Nurul Hasan, Indian ambassador to the USSR, handed over to the cosmonauts a gift from Indira Gandhi. The globe with a model of a spaceship in orbit over it, Prof. Nurul Hasan said, is a symbol of the Indian people's sincere love for the Soviet people. 

India and the Soviet Union will continue their joint research in astronomy, astrophysics, meteorology, geophysics, technology of building spacecraft, methods of studying the Earth, and other fields. A protocol on such cooperation for a further ten years was signed by the ISRO and the USSR Academy of Sciences in February 1984.

The Government of India invited the Soviet teams to make a visit to India. The Indian President conferred on Yuri Malyshev, Gennady Strekalov and Rakesh Sharma the Ashoka Chakra award on May 12, 1984 and on Anatoly Berezovoi, Georgy Grechko and Ravish Malhotra, the Kirti Chakra. The Soviet cosmonauts became the first foreign citizens to be awarded these orders. “Your example will inspire millions of young citizens of our two states,” said the President while giving the awards. The President drew attention to other successful fields of cooperation between the two countries in industry, science and technology, culture and the arts.

Thousands of Delhi citizens gathered at a public meeting to honour the Soviet and Indian cosmonauts. Taking part in the meeting held on May 13 were Ministers of the Government of India, members of parliament, prominent politicians and public figures. The joint flight of the Soviet and Indian cosmonauts is a remarkable event in the life of our two peoples, said Rajiv Gandhi. The function was organise by the Friends of the Soviet Union Society.

At a civic reception to the space heroes organised by the Delhi Administration at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, the Mayor of Delhi Mohinder Singh Saathi, while presenting silver plaques to the cosmonauts, recalled the warm civic reception given by the Delhi citizens to Yuri Gagarin, the first space hero.

The members of the Space Club in Delhi also accorded a colourful reception to the cosmonauts at which the chief guest was the Lok Sabha speaker Mr. Balram Jakhar. Indira Gandhi gave a reception in honour of the Soviet and Indian cosmonauts. Speaking at the function, she said that the joint flight had become a landmark in the history of the development of relations between the two countries. She said that it has set an example of constructive cooperation for the progress of science and technology in the interest of mutual advantage and to the benefit of the entire mankind.

The Soviet and Indian cosmonauts made a grand tour of India and were everywhere received as heroes. It was indeed a memorable finale to the joint endeavours of the two nations in raising their cooperation truly to the skies.