Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Great India in Space

In recent months India has been a depressing country to observe. One scan follows another; the latest being the chopper scam for the procurement of 12 AW101 helicopters from the Anglo-Italian firm Agusta-Westland.
It is all the more disheartening because before any proof is made available, the MoD has already indicated that India will ‘ban’ the British and Italian companies.
It is depressing because for the faults of a few, it is the country which is penalized. Remember L’Affaire Bofors? India preferred to punish the bribe-giver company and let free the bribe-taker; ultimately, the country suffered for many years due to a lack of spare parts and ammunition.
The choppergate is the symptom of a deeper malady; corruption is increasing by the day. Last week I had to get my driving license, I was told that to ‘make it smooth’, some contribution has to be ‘offered’ to the licensing authorities; no way to only put the blame on the ‘voracious foreign’ arm dealers.
I need not further detail some other curses of modern India such as the way rape victims are treated…
I was in this dark mood when I got an invitation to attend the launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-20 in Sriharikota, 100 km north of Chennai.
Having followed President Hollande’s visit to India earlier this month, I thought that, if successful, this would be the cherry on the Indo-French partnership cake.
Apart from the Indo-French collaborative effort, Saral, which is to study the ocean surface and environment using two French devices — ARgos and ALtila, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was to put into orbit six other satellites, UniBRITE and BRITE from Austria, AAUSAT3 from Denmark, STRaND from the UK and NEOSSat and SAPPHIRE from Canada.
ISRO had postponed its 23rd launch of a PSLV rocket a couple of times since December due to detected technical malfunctions; this provided a unique occasion for President Pranab Mukherjee to witness the event at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the Sriharikota range.
I had no hesitation to jump at the occasion for another reason: the Indo-French collaboration in the domain of space had intrigued me from the time the romantic French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to visit the Satellite Centre of ISRO in Bangalore before taking his wife to the Taj Mahal.
Was space collaboration more glamorous than the Mumtaz’ mausoleum?
It is true that Indo-French cooperation in the domain of space is one of the oldest, even if not the best-known.
Already in May 1964, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) of France and the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) “embarked upon a programme of continuing cooperation in space research of mutual interest for peaceful scientific purposes.” ISRO did not exist as yet.
The DAE agreed to manufacture, under license in India, the Belier and Centaure probing rockets developed by the French firm Sub-Aviation. The CNES supplied to DAE four Centaure rockets used for vapour cloud experiments.
The Indian space program continued to develop smoothly, often with French collaboration.
Of course, India has gone a long way since. The present PSLV C-20 weighed 229 tones for a height of 44.4 meters and was able to carry a payload weighing 668 kg.
A couple of hours before the launch, Yannick d’Escatha, the CNES President told me how important the cooperation with ISRO has been for the CNES, particularly after the Megha-tropiques project initiated in 2003.
Not only did the bilateral relations take a new turn, but the joint venture was an occasion to deepen the friendship between the scientists of the 2 countries; and ‘friendship’ means trust, he said.
Launched on October 12, 2011 by PSLV C-18, the objective of the Megha-Tropiques was to study intra-seasonal and inter-annual variations of the energy and water budget of the land-ocean-atmosphere system; all linked with global warming.
On 14 February 2013, President Hollande and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh witnessed the signature of a Statement of Intent for long-term cooperation in space between ISRO and CNES; President d’Escatha said a third joint mission will soon be planned, again in the field of environment and climate change.
For me, the launch of PSLV C-20 was a ‘comforting’ experience.
One hour before the expected time of ignition, one could feel the tension (if not the anxiety) mounting among the French, Canadian and Indian engineers gathered in the special gallery above the control room in which 5 giant screens were installed. On each screen were given details of the countdown, including the IST and GMT timings. Several cameras focused on different parts of the rocket as well as the control room.
As The Hour approached, a silence descended on the range; even the thousands of flamingos, herons, egrets or pelicans populating the Pulicat lake seemed to know that the time had come. The full moon was a bonus organized by ISRO for its Indian and foreign guests.
As the ‘10 minute’ countdown was announced, the remaining tasks (shown on the screens), one by one turned from red to green when successfully completed; the silence was then complete. A Canadian scientist who had worked for 12 years on the NEOSSat satellite and who witnessed several launches at Baikonur (in today’s Kazakhstan) or at Kourou, in French Guyanna, advised me to stay outside during the first 2 minutes (the separation of Stage I occurred after 113 seconds after the initial ignition). I did not regret heeding to him; later I felt sorry for the President and the poor VVIPs inside the enclosure who could only see the screens. Outside, it was grandiose, as twilight descended, the PSLV majestically rose; first in a leisurely manner, then the rocket took a slow turn towards the south. It was worth watching. As the Stage I and II separated, one could see the Stage I slowly being left behind (before falling into the Bay of Bengal); all those present started clapping enthusiastically.
And then, everyone rushed into the gallery to follow the rocket’s trajectory on the radars. After each announcement, visible on the screens: the separation of a stage, ignition of the next one and then separation of each successive satellite, the scientific staff (including ISRO’s Chairman who had abandoned the President of India to be with his scientists) and the other lucky witnesses would clap.
Our hands were red after 22 minutes when it was announced that the launch had been a success; all the satellites had been placed on their proper orbits.
Then everybody started to congratulate his or her neighbours. Some even congratulated me, just because I happened to be born in France?
The tension was then transferred from ISRO to their partners whose job was to link their respective satellites with different earth stations. For Saral, it happened immediately; but the poor Canadian of the SAPPHIRE project had to wait 2 hours for the confirmation that the link was established; they could then join the celebrations.
It was a great clean success for India.
No question of bribery, of ‘cheating’ the system here, of replacing ‘cement by sand’ to cut down the cost. One can’t cheat at this level of technology.
The ‘foreign’ witnesses were impressed by the demonstration of technical skills and precision of the entire operation. At that minute, India was truly one of the major powers of the planet.
I thought to myself, India can do it! Why does one still need Czech trucks or Swedish howitzers? India can do them!
But the other India, the India of middlemen and their political sponsors seems to need always more money to run the largest democracy in the world. That is the problem.

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