Emerging space power India took another step forward on Sunday with a successful launch of its Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV. The launch, which took place from the Indian Space Research Organization’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre at 4:18 p.m. India Standard Time, lofted GSAT-14, a 12 transponder, 1982 kg communications satellite to GTO, where it will provide service to India and surrounding waters.
More important than the payload however, was the cryogenic second stage which placed it precisely into the intended orbit. Unlike the highly successful but smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, which has been as staple of the Indian space program, notably launching the Mars Orbiter Mission in 2013, the development of the more powerful GSLV has been a difficult one, marked by four outright failures, one partial failure and three successes over its long strange history.
At the center of the story is India’s effort to develop a domestic cryogenic upper stage after the United States pressured Russia to back out of a deal to supply India the requisite technology in 1993. Justified under the auspices of the Missile Technology Control Regime, the move effectively set India’s space ambitions back by 20 years. Given that cryogenic engines are particularly unsuited for military applications due to slow fill times, fixed infrastructures and the inability to maintain a state of readiness, the U.S. claims were dubious at best, but they were effective. Instead of a pair of engines left over from the Soviet Union’s failed N-1 lunar program and the means to reproduce them, Russia agreed to sell a limited number of complete upper stages instead, causing a slow rollout of the GSLV and sending India on a two decade long quest to develop its own Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS.)
The first flight attempt utilizing the CUS, which took place on April 15th 2010, (the same day the U.S. cancelled Project Constellation) ended in a demoralizing failure when the hydrogen turbopump seized, sending stage and payload tumbling into the Bay of Bengal. Adding insult to injury, the next flight, which took place on Christmas day the same year, but using one of the Russian supplied upper stages, ended in disaster as well when failed connectors in the upper stage caused the four stage zero strap-on liquid fueled booster rockets to lose directional command. Range safety blew up the rocket.
After three more years of work, the next launch attempt was called off in August 2013 due to a fuel leak in the upper stage. On Sunday however, coming off the successful launch and departure from Earth orbit of India’s Mars bound MOM mission, the world’s second most populous country, found another reason for growing confidence in its space program with the trouble free flight. With a number of follow-on flights lined up, India is looking to establish the GSLV as a reliable medium class launcher, even as it is moving on to an all new GSLV Mk-III which it hopes can become a commercial contender in the four ton satellite class.
The Mk-III is scheduled for a suborbital test flight later this year, but an operational version of the booster will have to wait on the development of an even larger cryogenic upper stage engine, which is expected to take several more years.
Achieving commercial viability goal may be complicated by the fact that in its determination to develop a hydrogen /oxygen engine, India eschewed the alternative solution of a more manageable RP-1 / oxygen architecture, ultimately placing it in a difficult position against a changing market being led SpaceX, and a gradually accelerating modernization program taking place in Russia.
From the overall perspective of advancing the state of space exploration however, India’s entry into the larger classes of launch vehicles, while paving the way for increasingly ambitious stand- alone missions, could also could be taken as another piece of evidence that if the U.S. ever moves away from its current mega booster strategy, to a fuel depot based architecture, the combined launch capacity of the world’s space faring powers could a place a staggering amount of propellant into orbit on short order.