Employees at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) do not open champagne bottles to celebrate success. As soon as a rocket launch is over, they go back to their offices and start working on the next launch. About two years ago, Isro decided that this practice was not good enough. No, they weren’t yearning for the bubbly. Rather, the organisation was keen to begin assembling the next rocket well before a specific launch was over. So, it created teams and processes to that end.
The successful launch of the Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III on Monday was a major milestone in Isro’s five-decade history. A similar success would have resulted in celebrations in some space agencies around the world. But, on Tuesday morning, employees at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (Shar) in Sriharikota were back to working on the half-assembled Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-39, which will soon be assembled fully and launched on June 23. used to concentrate on one mission,” says director P Kunhikrishnan. “Now we work in parallel to increase the throughput.”
By the end of this month, Isro would have made four rocket launches this year itself. Two of them were technically challenging, one being GSLV Mark III and the other the launch of 104 satellites on one rocket. By the month-end, Isro would also have built four satellites this year. They include the Gsat-19, a sophisticated satellite with high throughput that is expected to improve communication significantly in the country. It was put into orbit on Monday by the GSLV Mark III.
Even a casual observer would have noticed that the frequency of Isro’s missions has been increasing in recent times. Isro is also tackling missions of increasing sophistication, and slowly reducing the gap between India and the other space powers. Early next year, Isro will launch its second lunar mission, consisting of an orbiter, lander and rover.
If the government gives its approval, Isro will also begin work on a human mission sometime soon. With two different rockets and a third to be available soon, Isro will have an increasing presence in the global commercial market. When current chairman Kiran Kumar took over two and a half years ago, Isro was in good shape from a technical perspective.
The Mars mission had been accomplished and the GSLV, a thorn in Isro’s flesh for a long time, had been successfully flown. A cryogenic engine had been developed, and a human crew capsule tested by atmospheric re-entry. Through all these, the PSLV had been launching satellites with exquisite precision.
This was not always the case, as Isro went through a difficult phase about seven years ago. A GSLV launch failed and a cryogenic engine shut off prematurely. Another mission was aborted due to a fuel leak. “When you encounter difficulties,” says Kiran Kumar, “the concentration of the people goes towards solving those problems. But, once these problems are solved, the concentration is on how we can make things happen at a faster pace.”
The technical problems had delayed Isro’s programmes significantly. The GSLV should have been ready by 2009, but its first successful flight was only in 2014. The cryogenic engine should have been ready early in the millennium, but it was successfully flown only in 2014. Even the PSLV had a backlog. The government was aware of the problems, but continued to support the organization.
Soon after he took over, Kumar reengineered Isro to work faster. The senior management sat down and identified the bottlenecks. They strengthened the technical review system. They also optimized procurement and methods of testing. Separate divisions were created to deal with operations and R&D.
Projects were done in parallel. “The chairman asked us to push ourselves to the limit,” says S Somanath, director of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) in Thiruvananthapuram. The results were evident soon. The launches increased in frequency.
The backlog of satellites and launches has decreased, but national requirements are so large that Isro will be kept busy for a long time. The commercial opportunities are also not insignificant. “There is a shortage of launchers, whether it is higher capacity of lower capacity,” says Kumar. Isro, especially in the current high-speed environment, has the ability to respond quickly to market needs.
With PSLV launches increasing in frequency, satellite builders get opportunities for launch with low turnaround time. Isro’s launch costs also go down. None of these would have been possible if the technical problems had been left unsolved. In its nine-year history, GSLV Mark I and II together had notched five failures till December 2010. After Mark I failed in December 2010, Isro took two years before trying the next launch. In August 2013, GSLV Mark II flight was aborted due to a fuel leak. These failures delayed GSLV Mark III as well, as its facilities were used for Mark II for some time.
Isro subsequently did such thorough analysis of the GSLV that some of its engineers had said that they would not have known what to do if it had failed again in 2014. Its successful flight in January 2014 was a major turnaround for Isro. The preceding years were the period when Isro engineers mastered several technology areas, including the cryogenic engine, and developed confidence to take more risks. It also grabbed world attention through the mars mission. “Two successful GSLV launches showed that whatever we worked out was successful,” says Kumar. “Technology is no longer an issue.” He could look at more challenging problems from 2015 onwards.
Isro now became very serious about adhering to the fixed launch date. Launch dates became sacrosanct. Only a newly-formed project management council had the right to change a launch date, and that too when done well in advance. Once Isro became serious about not changing the launch date, work culture changed for the better. People picked up speed. “In the aerospace sector, there is a belief that we should not hurry,” says Somanath. “But we can do faster. By doing things faster, nothing bad is going to happen.”
Isro then looked at its testing methods and decided to optimise them. Launch vehicle components were being tested in Thiruvanathapuram, transported to the launch centre at Sriharikota and then tested again. Isro decided to test them only at Sriharikota, thereby saving time. “We took a calculated risk,” says K Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram.
If the components were found to be faulty during tests at Shar, Isro would have lost more time. However, engineers at VSSC by now have the confidence in their skills to take this risk. The biggest changes were reserved for Shar, which got big investments to create new facilities. Shar also started activities in parallel. It had built a solid stage assembly building, exclusively meant for GSLV Mark III.
This rocket had big solid motors – the third largest in the world – that could not be made by industry, and needed these special facilities for assembly. Isro also decided that the assembly building would be used for PSLV assembly as well. When the solid stage assembly building was being used for multiple vehicles, two vehicles could be assembled in parallel. Earlier the practice was to launch a rocket, clean up and repair the launch pad in about three weeks, and then start the new assembly. Now vehicles are assembled in parallel without affecting each other. Shar is building a third vehicle assembly bay that will be ready by the end of the year, and it will increase the efficiency even more.
Isro has two launch pads. From the first pad, it can launch six PSLVs. When the third assembly bay is ready, the throughput from the second launch pad will increase to ten, or probably 12 when teams are stretched fully. It means that Isro can have 18 launches from next year onwards.
Its launch capacity will remain at this level till it builds a third launch pad. Isro now has an extremely reliable vehicle in PSLV, which is being used by many satellite builders for launch. GSLV Mark II is now operational, and so Isro has a second vehicle for commercial launches. GSLV Mark III will be declared operational after one more flight, scheduled to happen after a year. It can launch satellites of up to 4,000 kg in weight.
As Isro developed more powerful launch vehicles, the weight of communication satellites kept going up. However, electric propulsion in satellites is promising to bring down their weight in the near future. So the GSLV Mark III will enter a lucrative commercial market soon. Big rockets are not optimized to launch 4-5-tonne satellites.
Arianspace, whose Ariane 5 rocket can launch payloads of more than ten tonnes, is now developing Ariane 6 for launching satellites of around five tonnes. So the two GSLV vehicles are addressing a market that may not go away soon. “I am confident that the GSLV Mark III will have a long life,” says K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of Isro.
Over the next few years, Isro is planning to start a joint venture with private industry to launch vehicles and make satellites. Isro itself is going to concentrate on future challenges, leaving the routine jobs to the joint venture. This entity is expected to start work by 2021. Isro’s biggest challenge after that will be to take humans to space.