The Indian Space Research Organization ISRO) announced yesterday that it scrubbed the launch of its GSLV booster, which had been scheduled for liftoff at 7:20 AM EDT. The scrub came during the countdown an hour and 14 minutes prior to launch, due to the detection of a hydrazine leak in the hypergolic fueled second stage.
India’s space launch development history is a study in contrasts. It’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is a four stage booster with alternating solid and liquid fueled stages which has posted a record of 23 straight successful launches, notably including the October 22, 2008 liftoff of Chandrayaan-1, India’s first mission to the Moon.
And then there is the Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV) which has thus far had an interesting history to say the least. Designed as a medium class launch vehicle to serve, as its name implies, the geostationary satellite launch market, the GSLV got off to an encouraging start when, following a maiden launch in 2001 which placed its payload in a lower than expected orbit, it recorded two successful launches in 2003, and 2004 respectively.
The program took a turn for the worse, and it is still spinning.
Outright failure came in 2006 during the fourth flight, when one four hypergolic fueled strap-on boosters shut down two seconds after ignition, leading to gradually increasing control issues, culminating in a flaming breakup over the Bay of Bengal. After the next flight placed its satellite in a low, but recoverable orbit a little over a year after the 2006 accident, the GSLV underwent a three year stand down as the ISRO attempted to finish development of its domestically designed Cryogenic Upper Station.
The CUS program, and its difficulties, came partly at the hands of the United States, which stymied the original development program in 1992 by sanctioning a Russian company working with the ISRO over fears of nuclear proliferation. India responded by purchasing seven already built cryogenic upper stages from Russia.
After four previous flights equipped with Russian upper stages, India was ready to debut its own CUS on the fifth flight, which took place in April 2010. The result was another failure, when the upper stage liquid hydrogen turbopump lost pressure within the first two seconds of operation. The sixth flight, taking place only 8 months later and outfitted with one of two remaining Russian upper stages, came to a dismal end when a shroud tore off the upper stage as the booster went supersonic, ripping away electrical cables from the flight computer to the rest of the rocket. A range safety officer was forced to destroy the booster after only 45 seconds of flight.
After yesterday’s scrub, the GSLV, equipped with the CUS for only the second time, will be rolled back to the assembly building for analysis, repair, and hopefully the start of a long overdue string of successes.
Seeking to become a fully independent commercial launch provider with the development of a third vehicle, the considerably more powerful GSLV-III, which is structurally similar to the world leading Ariane V, India has a great deal on the line with the current launch attempt, which is meant as a significant step on what is proving to be much longer path than many expected.