- The former Isro chairman wants an Indian to set foot on Mars in the next 15 years
- Whoever controls valuable resources found in space will control the world, he says
- The Indian government needs to take risks and invest in space or it stands to lose out to China in gaining access to resources
Professor Udupi Ramachandra Rao, better known as U R Rao, is one of the key architects of India’s space program. He’s worked alongside the likes of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, Dr Homi Bhabha and professor Satish Dhawan. As chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) between 1984 to 1994, he built the Indian space program, brick by brick — starting from the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) to operationalising India’s most successful launcher, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). He drove the launch of India’s first satellite — Aryabhata — and followed it up with nearly 20 more satellites including the INSAT series.
In 2013, Rao was inducted into the prestigious Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) Hall of Fame to join more than 50 other big names including Dr Arthur C Clarke, Dr Harold Rosen, Sidney Topol, Mary Frost and Robert Berry, to name a few. He’s also won Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan in 2017 from the Indian government.
U R Rao wants an Indian to step foot on Mars in the next 15 years. It’s a passion he has nurtured for a while. A little more than a decade ago, he co-authored a paper with his “good friend” Arthur C Clarke on colonising the red planet
Rao led Isro at a time when international embargos restricted India’s access to new space technologies. It was also a time when the country was still grappling with development issues and limited resources were available for the space program. All of this serves to amplify the organisation’s achievement under his helm. It also shines light on Rao’s unbridled space ambitions and confidence.
Now, he wants an Indian to set foot on Mars in the next 15 years. It’s a passion he has nurtured for a while. A little more than a decade ago, he co-authored a paper with his “good friend” Arthur C Clarke on colonising the red planet.
At 85, he is busy attending meetings and sharing his thoughts at Isro’s headquarters in Bangalore. He turned 85 on March 10. I caught up with him last week to talk about Isro, colonising Mars and the state of the space industry today.
What did you think of Isro’s recent record launch of 104 satellites in one launch?
It’s great because it indicates that we are a mature space nation and ready for bigger things. Although it is not a huge feat technically, everything had to go absolutely right — that is true of any rocketry and satellite technology. It showcases our technology maturity to the world. And it also indicates that we are ready for something bigger. This will not have a huge impact commercially though, as the payloads are small.
If there’s no big commercial payoff, what do we stand to gain by launching a lot of small satellites?
The ability to carry and put composite payloads (smaller individual satellites all communicating with each other) is helpful in larger missions. If you want to go to the moon and learn more about it, you don’t just carry a single camera. You need to have photographs, but also need to investigate the wind, temperature, dust, etc. This will be achieved by launching composite setups — knowing to do them efficiently will help us. Also, we cannot carry heavier payloads more with PSLV launchers.
The GSLV MKIII is capable of carrying heavier payloads. Wouldn’t that be a big milestone?
The MKIII can carry satellites up to eight tonnes (of payload). But, we need to think about manned missions. In order to do that, we need launchers that can carry six-eight tonnes of payload. If you want a manned mission to Mars, you need even bigger launchers to carry all the supplies, people, etc.
How would you compare Isro’s progress with what’s happening internationally?
Working for the government has its limitations. In the US, private players have much more flexibility and the freedom to take more risks. Governments are risk averse. They make sure they also earn for larger missions by doing regular launches. In turn, they also hoard a lot of good, high quality people by paying them very well.
How did this change come about?
Earlier, our view of space was that it’s a space shared by the entire world. First, space law mandated that space cannot be exploited by individuals and it belongs to everyone. But this resulted in providing no incentive for private players to invest in space.
So, the US passed a new law where the natural resources (found in space) can be owned but not the place itself — like catching fish at sea. This has encouraged the pursuit of the space business and millions of dollars have come in from private players. Today, if you find a rock with valuable materials (precious metals like gold / platinum), it’s yours.
Should Isro be privatised to be able to compete effectively?
I wish Isro would be privatised. Vikram Sarabhai has been talking about this since the beginning of the space program. Today, more than 50% of our income comes from services provided outside the country. There is a market here too.
I wish Isro would be privatised. Vikram Sarabhai has been talking about this since the beginning of the space program
But, if it’s privatised today, Isro won’t make much money. It does a lot of launches for PSUs and government owned-entities like Doordarshan and the Meteorology department. They hardly pay anything and won’t even if it’s privatised. Unfortunately, we are dependent on government funds for our research and development.
How is Isro able to offer competitive launch pricing? Is it subsidised?
Obviously, Isro’s wages are lower. But it’s not only that. When we developed the space program, we had a lot of international embargos put on us. I used to be happy every time we had a new embargo as it forced us to invent a way out and develop our own solutions.
What kind of solutions?
Space gyroscopes for example. They were complex and we started making them here after initial struggles. We needed beryllium (a rare element), so we started a beryllium factory. We also built factories to make the cameras we use in space completely from scratch; we also made our own mirrors, lenses etc. We approached a small company called Andhra Sugars and asked them make propellants for us. The success of our space program today is a result of the ecosystem we built locally. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that for our electronics industry. Today, China owns electronics completely.
Can Isro maintain cost competitiveness going forward?
The fundamental problem is the cost of launches. The solution is to build reusable launchers. This is what SpaceX (a private US-based aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company) and even Isro are working on.
Do you think Isro will place an Indian on Mars by 2030?
Isro is yet to get into manned missions. We’ve never done it and it’s a huge step. So, I am not sure if we will get a person in Mars by 2030. We can build the rocket — another generation of the GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle). But, we need a go-ahead from the government for manned missions. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. Arthur Clarke and I even co-authored a paper on colonising Mars more than 10 years ago.
We will have an energy crisis soon and we’re depleting all of our resources here on earth. Whoever controls valuable resources found in space will control the world. Colonising Mars is a natural step in our evolution
Today, China is beating us here — it’s grown by leaps and bounds. There’s obviously much more money being poured in by the government there and there’s a mandate for manned missions.
Will the Indian government approve manned missions anytime soon?
It might, but it is difficult given the Indian government’s traditional attitude towards space. Our government’s approach is to avoid all failures, but sometimes we need failures to push the boundaries.
Why are manned missions important? Is it just an ego boost?
Manned missions are a necessity! There are incredible resources out there. The moon has sufficient helium to power the entire globe. We will have an energy crisis soon and we’re depleting all of our resources here on earth. Whoever controls valuable resources found in space will control the world. Colonising Mars is a natural step in our evolution.
There’s a lot of talk around the culture of meritocracy at Isro. How did you build it?
By aiming high and focussing on results and data. When we launched the second-generation remote sensing satellites, I decided that I was tired of hearing that India was the sixth best in sensing capabilities. We had a 30-metre coverage (spatial resolution — also a measure of accuracy) and the French had achieved 10 metres. I decided that we will go to five metres. There were doubters, but we did it. Now, the world and we have gone beyond that. I think we should push ourselves to beat the world rather than follow it. But, unless these goals are set, we will never get there.
We are still wasting our energy and time on differences due to religion, language, etc. It’s an unproductive distraction
Do you believe we have a meritocracy based approach in India today?
Not as much as I would like. We are still wasting our energy and time on differences due to religion, language, etc. It’s an unproductive distraction. Thankfully Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai had the clarity to focus on nation building. This is the reason Isro went to the industry at every stage. We wanted the benefits to percolate throughout the country and not remain in an island. We had to fight with politicians all the time. Politics and politicians have mostly spoilt this country.
What is the achievement you are most proud of?
Always my first child — Aryabhata. We worked from sheds. I had only two and a half years for the project and a small group of people in Ahmedabad, including Kasturi Rangan, and another small group working from Trivandrum. I wrote to all the universities and told them that I would take two of their best students. Every day, we would have six panels conducting interviews at the IISC auditorium. This way, we built a team of 250 rapidly. If we had gone through regular channels, we couldn’t have done it. We did it in two and a half years.
Can you tell us about some of your difficult times at Isro?
The failure of the ASLV in the first two attempts was difficult. We’d built the ASLV as a two-stage rocket and were implementing the control, guidance and navigation (CGN) systems in rockets for the first time. In the first attempt, the second stage failed to burn. In the second attempt, it released, but still failed; we knew it was a CGN issue.
Once we figured it out, we launched successfully and build the even bigger PSLV. Without these failures, we wouldn’t have this reliable launcher, but there were a lot of doubts being raised at that time.
It will be the electronics story all over again if our government is not open to taking more risks and giving due importance to investments in space
Was the government not supportive?
The problem is that politicians care more about the optics than the actual advancements. Trouble usually starts with the media, especially when they are ignorant about the nuances in technology and write damaging things. For example, Mathrubhumi carried a piece which said the ASLV failed due to a gravitational anomaly based on the view of some physics professor. We had to set up a committee to address this issue. We called the professor to Isro to have a talk with him, and he agreed that his theory was wrong, but then he went out and claimed that we had agreed to his theory. Mathrubhumi never bothered to correct it later or issue any apology.
What should be the way forward for India in space?
Our government has a tendency to think that that space is tangential. We need to understand, sooner rather than later, that space has become a necessity. Why are the Chinese doing it (investing in space)? Not because they have excess money to throw around. They are looking at controlling the entire planet’s access to resources in future. It will be the electronics story all over again if our government is not open to taking more risks and giving due importance to investments in space.
Isro always tries to minimise costs. We may be able to innovate on efficient and safe ways to achieve manned missions too if we are given the go ahead by the government.
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