SP-4217 Beyond the Ionosphere

 

Chapter 16
 
No Free Launch: Designing the Indian National Satellite 1
 
by Raman Srinivasan

 

[215] The Indian National Satellite (INSAT) was the most advanced nonmilitary satellite ever launched anywhere. The satellite was and continues to be promoted by the Indian Space Research Organization as its flagship satellite and as being distinctly Indian in character. While most satellites fulfill a single, well-defined mission, INSAT was a multipurpose geostationary satellite. Its peculiar design arose partly from very unusual design constraints placed on it by India's insistence that the satellite carry at least four different payloads.

The most significant of the payloads on INSAT was a package that could receive television programs from selected stations in New Delhi and Ahmedabad and retransmit them to relay stations in Amritsar, Bombay, Madras, Gauhati, and Calcutta. Its importance arose from its special ability to transmit educational television programs directly to specially designed television sets owned communally by thousands of remote Indian villages. Many Indian leaders hoped that a significant fraction of India's somnolent villages thus would be awakened.

The second package was designed to provide telephone, facsimile, data, telegraph, video text, and other communications services among metropolitan areas. The third was a remote-sensing package built to survey the nation's resources and thus help in its development planning. The last payload was an ingenious meteorological system that not only transmitted pictures of cloud cover, but also collected weather information from several thousand unmanned data collection points on the ground; it served to trigger selected disaster-warning sirens in isolated coastal villages under the imminent threat of cyclones.

Thus, INSAT had the communications capacity of an Intelsat IV (the state of the art in communications satellites when INSAT was designed), a meteorological payload effectively equivalent to the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-A (then the most advanced of weather satellites), and a direct-broadcast television system akin to the Applications Technology Satellite (ATS)-6 (once again, the frontier of technology), all wrapped into one compact package. INSAT was a crowded Indian bus shot into space.

 

[216] INSAT Historiography: Questions, Sources, and Strategies

 

The history of INSAT was shaped by India's desire to "gatecrash" the glamorous world of modernism. When India gained independence in 1947, the moral authority of Gandhian nonviolence and the grandiose global vision of Nehru produced a heady euphoria. India not only wanted to join the party of the moderns, but insisted on wearing nothing but a loincloth, like Gandhi. Nowhere were these contradictory aims more apparent than in India's approach to its space program.

India made it clear, privately and through self-righteous declarations in international forums, that its plans for space technology were driven by "real needs" on land. Indians argued that technology in space was practically worthless without a vast array of other technological systems on the ground. INSAT sought to demonstrate the practical benefits of advanced technologies to the poorer nations. Its ground systems were designed to show that space technology was a technology appropriate for underdeveloped societies.2

INSAT could be equally renowned for the many meanings loaded into it. At one level, INSAT embodied the tensions and aspirations associated with decolonization. At another level, it illustrated the use of technology as an instrument of foreign policy. From the point of view of a third world country, it was also an example of using technology for economic development, social and cultural change, nation-state building, and the formation of a nonaligned bloc of third world nations politically equidistant from both the Soviet Union and the United States.

The past is a perishable resource, particularly so in the hot and humid climes of India. There are no depositories of documents, such as NASA's archives, for the Indian space program. The custodian of the satellite, the Indian Department of Space is a somewhat secretive quasi-governmental institution. In a society still largely oral rather than textual, crucial decisions are far less likely to be committed to paper than they are in the West. The culture of autonomy in these institutions encourages minimal documentation of decisions. Also, as is the case of good Hindus, the Department of Space cremates its dead files--and fairly regularly, too. Furthermore, that peculiar literary genre of the British Raj, annotations in official files, has declined, as has other institutions of the Raj in postcolonial India. Thus, researching INSAT poses many problems.

The sources for INSAT's history are scattered. This chapter relies extensively on field work, interviews, and archives in the West. Access to information was achieved in India using the data obtained in the West, such as limited access to the Indian Department of Space records.3

 

From Atomic Energy to Space Research

 

The Indian nuclear and space programs, although originally the private vision of a few scientists, quickly crystallized as high-priority programs of the new Indian state. A parliament, largely ignorant of science but lusting after advanced technology, approved the programs. An impoverished mass of mostly agrarian taxpayers funded the nuclear and space programs. These programs became planned efforts to appropriate alien technologies, [217] paths to rapid industrialization, ways of catching up with the West, and symbols of a resurgent India.

Just as it is necessary to know Mahatma Gandhi to appreciate the history of independent India, an awareness of Homi J. Bhabha is crucial to the story of INSAT. By creating new institutions for the adaptation of advanced technologies, Bhabha laid the foundations of INSAT. His approach to high technology continued to shape the Indian space and nuclear programs for nearly four decades. To know and appreciate the life and work of Homi Bhabha is to understand not only INSAT, but also other high-technology enterprises of the Indian state.

Born to an influential Bombay Parsi family in 1909, the young Bhabha attended a private school established primarily for European children. He pursued a career in physics, starting with undergraduate and doctoral studies at Cambridge under the famed physicist Paul Dirac, as well as at the Cavendish Laboratory. He quickly earned a reputation as a brilliant theoretical physicist, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1939.4

On a short holiday when World War II erupted, Bhabha accepted a specially created readership in cosmic ray physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which was founded by his relatives, the Tata family. Bhabha decided to concentrate on the difficult task of creating new institutions embodying a new culture of science befitting modern India. The Tata Trusts, controlled by his close relatives, aided Bhabha in this task. In 1945, a generous and timely grant enabled him to create the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Bombay. There, amidst beautiful paintings and landscaped gardens, Bhabha planned how to shape the future of India.

A member of the Bombay Parsi elite by birth, Bhabha came into frequent contact with the leaders of the nationalist movement, such as Nehru and Gandhi. The independence movement received financial contributions from the merchant-princes of the Parsi community, and nationalist leaders were often their house guests. These informal contacts with the statesmen of India became important in helping the young Homi Bhabha direct India's high-technology ventures.

Just after independence, Bhabha quickly obtained formal approval to create the Atomic Energy Commission. Under its umbrella, he organized a vast empire of research. Convinced that even a backward country such as India could catch up with the West in an emerging field such as atomic energy, precisely because of the field's nascent character, Bhabha effectively welded Gandhian nonviolence and the rhetoric of the "peaceful uses of atomic energy" to Nehru's inspiring, if occasionally irritating, philosophy of political nonalignment.5

Although India began with atomic energy programs, it quickly diversified into space research. Propelling this move were both Indian and foreign influences. Bhabha's extensive travels in the West and his own interest in the physics of the upper atmosphere alerted him to the growing significance of space technology. He gradually expanded the [218] domain of his Department of Atomic Energy to encompass the upper atmosphere and thus, eventually, space. The Indian National Committee for Outer Space Research (INCOSPAR) was constituted in early 1962 under the umbrella of the Department of Atomic Energy. As a result, all space-related research was embedded in the technocratic Department of Atomic Energy until 1972, when an independent Department of Space was formed.

With the death of Homi Bhabha in an airplane accident, a new generation ascended to the throne. The generational transition, although nonviolent, produced discontinuities. In the area of large-scale science, Vikram Sarabhai succeeded Bhabha. Similar to Homi Bhabha, whom he had assisted in space research, Sarabhai was born into an elite family with a pronounced interest in social reform, the arts, and letters. His father, Ambalal Sarabhai, was one of the leading citizens of Ahmedabad, approximately 300 hundred miles north of Bombay. Ahmedabad, proudly proclaimed "the Manchester of India," had become a major textile center by the early twentieth century, thanks to the enterprise of a group of intricately connected Gujarati Jain families. Close ties grew between the Sarabhai family and national leaders. The Sarabhai family, described by a Rockefeller Foundation officer as the "Medicis of Ahmedabad," played a crucial role in postcolonial India.6

Vikram Sarabhai and his sisters, children of a wealthy Gujarati merchant, were educated at home by a carefully selected group of Indian and foreign educators inspired by Maria Montessori. As a child, Sarabhai met national leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, as family guests in the Sarabhai mansions.7 At age seventeen, Sarabhai enrolled at St. John's College in Cambridge in 1936 and completed his natural science tripos in 1939. The onset of World War II forced him to return to India, where he continued to study physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. There, the young Vikram Sarabhai found the opportunity to work closely with C.V. Raman and Homi Bhabha. After the end of the war, Sarabhai returned to Cambridge to finish his doctoral dissertation. On his return in 1947 to an independent India, Sarabhai, like Bhabha, persuaded charitable trusts controlled by his family and friends to endow a research institution near home in Ahmedabad, the Physical Research Laboratory. Barely twenty-eight years old, Sarabhai had embarked on an intense mission as a creator and cultivator of institutions.

 

Building Coalitions

 

Despite the frustrations and disillusionment of India during the 1960s, the early years of the Indian space program were euphoric. Vikram Sarabhai, a playful, Krishna-like successor to the solemn and remote Bhabha, ushered in a decade of naive technological enthusiasm in India with the formation of INCOSPAR in 1962. Sarabhai's personality definitely generated excitement with the space program. Only someone endowed with at least some of the attributes of Krishna could have built India's space program in such a traumatic decade.

Like Krishna, Sarabhai played several roles in his efforts to nurture the frail space program in its early years. He was a roving diplomat, teacher, strategist, friend, counselor, leader, and system-builder. Within India, his unusual combination of scientific eminence, [219] aristocratic background, and disarming simplicity created a loving loyalty, often amounting to devotion, among those who knew him. Sarabhai's first attempts at technological evangelism within the Indian bureaucracy resulted in the Arvi Earth Station, the creation of which knit together a strong network of allies for the space program and set the pattern for the way in which INSAT would be constituted.8

The Arvi terminal, now a prominent landmark on the Pune-Nasik Road, stands as a testament to India's first success in space technology. Sarabhai had to persuade the rather conservative engineering bureaucracy entrenched in the Ministry of Communications to let him build satellite telecommunications terminals. The Overseas Communications Service had made plans to be connected to the international telephone network provided by Intelsat III, and it needed a ground station in India.

Because no one in India had built a ground terminal before, RCA was retained as a consultant and subcontractor for the electronics. The design of the antenna itself was based on the drawings of a similar antenna built by the U.S. firm Blaw Knox, but the engineering construction was done with the help of a Tata company, TELCO. The Arvi station was ready by October 1969, ahead of schedule. Sarabhai's ability to snatch the Arvi project from RCA resulted in saving India the equivalent of about $800,000 (in 1969 dollars) in foreign exchange and created a powerful profile for the space program within the bureaucracy. More importantly, it redefined the rules of the game. The space program acquired operational autonomy from the bureaucracy.

The sheer force of Sarabhai's personality subdued open dissent, and his reputation enabled him to slice through the bureaucratic jungle. Assured of loyal support at all levels, from the prime minister to the peon, Sarabhai, as did Bhabha, set out to secure cooperation from the spacefaring powers. He first turned to the United States. Unfortunately, NASA's pragmatic director of international programs, Arnold W. Frutkin, had heard it all before. Frutkin previously had been inoculated by none other than Homi Bhabha himself. Thus, Sarabhai's efforts to gain U.S. assistance met with polite but firm refusals.9

There was, however, one important exception. During the early 1960s, NASA was planning a series of advanced technology satellites known by the acronym ATS. Leonard Jaffe, NASA's director of communications, informed Frutkin of the need to field-test an ATS project, which involved the direct broadcast of television to receivers from a satellite. At the time, this technology was untested. The commercial and political advantages of a satellite system that could beam programs directly to television sets attracted NASA policy-makers.10

Frutkin and Jaffe examined a world atlas for a suitable site for the ATS experiment. The three countries that were large enough and close enough to the equator for testing a direct-broadcast satellite were Brazil, China, and India. Brazil proved uninteresting; the population was concentrated in a few cities, and conventional television broadcast technology was clearly a better solution. The People's Republic of China was out of the picture for political reasons. Therefore, India was the logical choice. It was densely populated, yet only Delhi had a television transmitter (a small one) left behind by a Dutch electronics company after a trade show.

[220] Frutkin and Jaffe calculated that it would be expensive to have a conventional television system covering the entire country; a satellite would provide a cheaper alternative. Apart from being free of technological encumbrances, India possessed other advantages. Politically, it was an ideal location to demonstrate the peaceful uses of U.S. space technology and to beat the Soviets in technological diplomacy. The potential for propaganda was immense; Frutkin vowed to exploit it to the fullest. His earlier experience with Bhabha had taught him to negotiate with India.11

The U.S. State Department, however, was not enthusiastic about India, having been frustrated many times in its crude attempts to win India over to the "free world." An embarrassing controversy over placing Voice of America transmitters in India remained fresh in its memory.12 Having been turned down recently, the State Department was not about to ask India if it would let a U.S. satellite beam television programs directly into remote villages. The request had to come from India. Therefore, to spare the State Department further embarrassment, Frutkin arranged to have Sarabhai approach NASA. Sarabhai agreed gleefully.

He requested the use of an ATS satellite for a year to conduct a satellite instructional television experiment in India's villages. He saw a great opportunity to convince India of the need to invest heavily in space technology, a unique chance to learn the ground segment of a satellite system from the Americans, the possibility of baptizing a whole generation of Indian scientists and engineers, and a systems management lesson for an INSAT satellite. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy and NASA signed an agreement for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) in 1966.

 

The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment

 

SITE,13 a massive experiment in social engineering designed jointly by NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), is a fantastic tale of technological cooperation between unfriendly democracies. Indian engineers placed television sets in 5,000 remote villages spread in six clusters across the subcontinent. Half of the televisions were further modified to receive programs directly from the ATS satellite, and each of which was equipped with a large, distinctive dish antenna that dominated the village landscape. ISRO technocrats, spurred by social engineering ambitions, devised a highly sophisticated computer program that chose villages specifically for their backwardness. Most villages were not electrified, and many could not be connected to the electric network within a year. Therefore, space technologists reengineered the television sets to adapt them to the rigors of rural life. Many were powered by solar energy and batteries. NASA wanted to test some new solar cells and encouraged the use of such television sets.14

For a year, from 1 August 1975 to 31 July 1976, hundreds and sometimes thousands of villagers gathered daily in front of each of these 5,000 television sets--placed outside like a processional deity of a temple--to watch educational television, which showed them....

 


[
221]

Figure 29. A technician with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) stands next to a working model of the solid-state television set, designed with NASA assistance, for use in SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment).

Figure 29. A technician with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) stands next to a working model of the solid-state television set, designed with NASA assistance, for use in SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment). The picture epitomizes the contrast between Indian traditional rural culture and the high-technology domain of satellite communications, as well as Indian technocratic hopes of using SITE to satisfy the country's social engineering ambitions. (Courtesy of NASA)

 

....how to lead better lives and grow more food. During the day, the village school children watched science experiments on television. Not all the viewers were villagers. Often, engineers and bureaucrats watched. The American embassy in New Delhi had a SITE television set. In Sri Lanka, Arthur C. Clarke, the Jules Verne of satellite communications, was given a set to watch SITE from his home. Every major newspaper in the world wrote about SITE.

After a year, NASA parked the satellite in a new orbit away from India. Clarke pleaded forcefully with NASA to continue this revolutionary experiment beyond the stipulated one-year period. Many leftist journalists voiced the disappointment of villagers. Delegations of villagers trekked several miles to meet government officials. Hundreds of postcards petitioned the government to continue the program. Several of the anthropologists stationed in villages to study the effects of SITE stayed longer to conduct post-SITE evaluations, then returned home to write lengthy reports.15

SITE was, thanks to Vikram Sarabhai's foresight, a joint effort of All India Radio and Doordarshan (Indian Television), the Ministry of Telecommunications, the education and agriculture ministries, and ISRO. ISRO, of course, had the final responsibility for the project's execution. Although ISRO engineers were reasonably confident of being ready with the technologies for handling the ATS-6 ground segment, they necessarily had to delegate the task of producing programming to the Ministry of Telecommunications and, within it, to All India Radio and later Doordarshan.

All India Radio was an inertial bureaucracy totally unequipped to imagine the possibility of producing six hours of educational television every day for a year in four different languages. According to the agreement between the Department of Atomic Energy [222] and NASA, the Indians had agreed to feed the satellite six hours of television programming for 365 days. To be fair to All India Radio, one must remember that the voracious appetite of ATS-6 amounted to almost twice the annual harvest of the extraordinarily active Indian commercial film industry. At least in the eyes of its Indian managers, SITE quickly transmogrified itself from a boon to a devilish nightmare of a bargain to be fulfilled by them.16 As late as January 1975, less than six months before SITE was to go on air, only enough satellite fodder for one month was on hand.17

SITE provided a perfect opportunity for Indian engineers to acquire a wide variety of valuable technological knowledge--the sort of technological learning that occurs on any project. What marked SITE as an exceptional technological enterprise (and of importance to INSAT) was the way in which SITE affected those Indian engineers who went to the United States to help NASA prepare for SITE. The ISRO liaison in the United States between 1969 and 1973, Pramod Kale, had been recruited by Sarabhai to work in the Indian space program. Kale and other ISRO engineers working at NASA learned to design an advanced operational satellite, and Kale eventually became the project manager of INSAT.18

The phenomenal success of SITE in penetrating remote regions of rural India impressed everyone. It gave the Indian space program a level of state support that was otherwise unimaginable. SITE provided ISRO valuable technical expertise in building and managing the elaborate ground systems needed to utilize any satellite. It also enhanced the credibility of ISRO in the Indian scientific community and in the international space community. Indian scientists and engineers were more willing to work for ISRO. The recruitment of young professionals from elite engineering institutions increased for the first time after Sarabhai's death. SITE opened critical paths in the rapidly emerging European space programs. ISRO was accepted as an equal partner in several critical cooperative programs managed by the European, French, and German space programs. The collaborations with European space agencies brought ISRO decisive technologies and much needed experience. The experience and confidence gained abroad fed into the design of INSAT. It also enabled India to practice its own technological diplomacy--one based on nonalignment.19

More important than all the technical expertise gained from SITE was the education that ISRO received from the Indian villages it had set out to instruct. SITE planted the seeds of social responsibility into the minds of India's elite space engineers. It etched India's social contexts into ISRO space technology. Exposure to the complex problems of India's villages tempered technocratic grandiosity. Although rural television promised revolutionary social changes, it also revealed the limitations of technological fixes.20

 

Unraveling INSAT

 

Homi Bhabha had begun scouting for a satellite for India as early as 1965. He was unwilling to purchase a ready-made satellite, because Indians would not learn anything about making satellites. Instead, he sought technical assistance in building a satellite and met several times with Arnold Frutkin to discuss U.S. assistance. Frutkin, however, saw no [223] practical benefits for NASA from teaching Indians to build satellites. Vikram Sarabhai encountered even greater obstacles--not only more resistance to technology transfer, but also systematic pressures from the United States and its allies, especially Britain, aimed at discouraging India's space program. Hesitantly, Sarabhai initiated planning for an Indian national satellite, to be called INSAT, in 1967.

Systematic thinking about INSAT began in mid-1968. A seventeen-member committee of engineers and scientists based at the Space Science and Technology Center in Thumba conducted a preliminary feasibility study. Ironically, their preliminary report did not consider the development of the payload or satellite. They had concluded that the first satellite had to be built in collaboration with other countries. They had not anticipated Western resistance to the transfer of space technology.21 Thus, the first step in India's satellite program concentrated on the ground systems. This orientation continues to characterize the Indian space program today. The preliminary 1968 feasibility study explicitly focused on two tasks that the Indians could see themselves doing: (1) designing orbital parameters and ground stations and (2) developing those technologies for which no foreign assistance was available, such as propellants and rocket guidance.22

India's initial emphasis, then, was to be on the launch vehicle rather than the satellite. By 1968, negotiations with NASA to borrow the ATS-6 had generated considerable optimism about U.S. technological assistance. Several American aerospace firms, such as General Electric and Hughes Aerospace, had shown a keen desire to collaborate with India in building its first operational Indian satellite. However, these early efforts to build a launcher were unusually optimistic.

Sarabhai, as did Bhabha, found the United Nations an effective forum to argue for technological assistance. An international sounding rocket program conducted in India brought basic rocket technology from the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. However, scaling up to rockets capable of launching operational satellites was a daunting task. Sarabhai and his colleagues recognized the nature of the challenge: India would have to obtain launch services, at least initially, from either the United States or the Soviet Union and planned its satellites accordingly.

In 1970, Vikram Sarabhai announced plans for an Indian National Satellite (INSAT) at the Bombay National Electronics Conference. Attending the conference was an impressive collection of academics, industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats, researchers, scientists, and engineers, as well as a substantial crew of Indian journalists.23 It was a perfect place to manufacture consensus for a national satellite. Sarabhai's presentation of the INSAT plans thrilled the crowd. Dissenting questioners were co-opted by well-informed "Sarabhai boys." Sarabhai's INSAT was primarily a direct-broadcast satellite meant to educate Indian villagers through television. To secure a wide range of support, Sarabhai indicated the possibility of including a number of special payloads to satisfy special clients. He also drew attention to the proposed SITE plan, which at the time was being worked out by a joint committee of Indian and U.S. engineers.

However, there was not much demand for telecommunications from the Postal and Telegraphs Department or for remote sensing from the Ministry of Defense. Weather information was not highly sought after either. Unlike most of the participants at the conference, the representatives of government bureaucracies were not excited by [224] Sarabhai's technological evangelism. It seemed, though, that they realized they could not pose any significant opposition publicly. The primary function of Sarabhai's INSAT was rural education through direct-broadcast television, making it explicitly a permanent replacement for SITE. If in the process INSAT could serve other needs, that was so much for the better.

Shortly after unveiling his INSAT plans, Vikram Sarabhai died, in December 1971. His death caused serious concern about the future of INSAT. Unlike SITE, which had NASA for a godfather, INSAT had no powerful patrons outside the Indian space program. Even more troubling was that no obvious successors to Sarabhai came forth from the Indian scientific community. At the same time, the U.S. Congress delayed the ATS program through budget cuts, giving time for India to revamp its space program. ISRO engineers committed to INSAT took pains to disconnect the fates of INSAT and SITE, which had been tied together implicitly, in the hope of ensuring INSAT's survival.

Toward the end of January 1972, the Indian government offered the leadership of the space program to Satish Dhawan. Dhawan had worked for Hindusthan Aeronautics Limited, India's state-owned aerospace industry, and he was familiar with Soviet aerospace technology. In appointing Dhawan, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced the creation of two important new organizations. One was the Department of Space. Dhawan convinced Gandhi to headquarter the Department of Space away from New Delhi, in Bangalore. The Department of Space was to be overseen by the other new institution, the Space Commission. At the same time, the space laboratories in Sarabhai's home town were consolidated into the Space Applications Center under the direction of Yash Pal of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Also, the space laboratories in and around Trivandrum were consolidated as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center. Brahm Prakash, recently retired from the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, was persuaded to direct its activities.24

Dhawan's leadership marked a significant change in the Indian space program. India could not withdraw from SITE without seriously jeopardizing its relations with NASA and the United States. Dhawan recognized that it had to make SITE a success. On the other hand, plans for INSAT could be shelved, especially because its advocates had separated it from SITE, and there were pressures from the Planning Commission to discard INSAT. The Ministry of Finance and the Planning Commission saw no cash flows in the original educational television version of INSAT. Fortunately, the fight over INSAT resulted in a compromise. No decision was made one way or the other. The government waited until SITE was completed to evaluate proposals for INSAT, even though it meant an expensive hiatus in the social revolution catalyzed by SITE.

Dhawan pushed hard to make SITE succeed. He saw the future of INSAT, if not ISRO, at stake. When SITE was hailed loudly as an unprecedented success by the Western media, thanks to NASA's self-interest, INSAT revived. Between 1970 and 1977, the Ministry of Telecommunications awakened to the necessity of satellite technologies. The Prime Minister's Office had also become aware of the potential revolutionary capabilities of direct-broadcast satellite television. ISRO personnel, fired by Sarabhai's vision, succeeded in creating a small, independent rural television station based in Pij, Gujrat. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister's Office began to see the spread of satellite television of the SITE variety to be socially disruptive. It wanted nothing more than a gradual social revolution.25

[225] Much had changed by the time the INSAT concept revived in 1977. Dhawan, while well respected, did not command the influence that Sarabhai had. Back-of-the-envelope calculations, on net revenues generated by rural education through satellite television, did not hold any weight without Sarabhai. The Planning Commission, in collaboration with the Prime Minister's Office, sought to ground INSAT's direct-broadcast capability. Also, the Ministry of Finance made it clear that INSAT had to be a fully operational and revenue-generating satellite for it to receive funding. This implied that INSAT had to be a collaborative venture involving the Department of Space (directly under the purview of the prime minister), the gargantuan Postal and Telegraphs Department under the Ministry of Communications, the Meteorological Department of the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, and Doordarshan and All India Radio of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Suddenly, INSAT had five clients, but they were all ossified bureaucracies dating from the British Raj into which had transmigrated a thoroughly Indian soul. They had little commitment to Sarabhai's vision of INSAT as an educational tool. Paradoxically, All India Radio and Doordarshan were anxious not to be saddled with the direct-broadcast segment. They feared the chore of feeding the demon satellite. The government revealed no intention of freeing broadcasting from its total control. In addition, maintaining several hundred thousand village television sets, as called for in the INSAT plans, was a logistical nightmare for any government bureaucracy. Thus, the market for INSAT changed radically between 1970 and l977.

Many idealistic ISRO engineers, fresh from the experience of SITE, realized that the original INSAT might be hijacked. They refused to consider any INSAT design that did not include a direct-broadcast television payload. To placate them, the INSAT design committee, now a real working group with engineers from the Ministry of Telecommuni-cations, agreed to install a television transmitter comparable to the one used in SITE. However, the Planning Commission refused to sanction money for ground equipment, such as television sets and antennas. Such a compromise served only to save face. The activists in ISRO wanted to be prepared for an opportunity to renew SITE. On the dark side, this decision to include a SITE capability imposed tough design constraints on INSAT. For instance, it increased the power needed to keep the satellite alive.

Why did Indian space technologists prefer not to design several single-purpose satellites? Each such satellite would have been fairly simple and built with proven, off-the-shelf technology. Building several satellites also would have spurred the serial production of an Indian space platform. The official answer to this obvious question is the economics of satellite launching. Because Indian rockets were incapable of launching a satellite into geostationary orbit, India had to purchase foreign launch services. "There are no free launches," NASA told Dhawan. The Soviets did not launch geostationary satellites; their launch pads were too far north to achieve an equatorial orbit. The European Space Agency offered free launches, but only on experimental rockets. INSAT could not be risked on experimental rockets. Rough calculations showed that the launch costs of a multipurpose satellite would be lower than the cost of launching three or four smaller spacecraft.

The technological patrimony of SITE especially influenced INSAT. The success of SITE, in a sense, blinded INSAT designers. The activist culture of the Indian space program did not permit leisure introspection. The shortage of skilled personnel ensured minimal dissent on technological alternatives. The United States--and Canada to some extent--lured away a significant number of elite Indian engineers and scientists, stunting the growth of a healthy scientific community.

Moreover, ISRO progressively lost the ability to define the satellite. When Sarabhai succeeded Bhabha, he continued to follow his mentor's strategy without responding to changes in the geopolitical context. India did not command the same moral authority it had even in the early 1950s. Also, Sarabhai was not fully aware of the motivations [226] prompting NASA and the United States on SITE. He could not foresee that SITE committed the Indian space program to an expensive detour that would ultimately freeze unwieldy features, such as a television transmitter, into the second generation of INSAT satellites. After Sarabhai's death, the Indian space program had to compromise more to keep its allies. Dhawan had even less room to negotiate than Sarabhai. In the meantime, the space organization had grown into a large bureaucracy. In real terms, budgets did not grow at a healthy rate. Dhawan sought to balance carefully the diverse needs of his various allies, while preserving a demanding coalition.

Not all of the payloads on INSAT had powerful patrons fighting for them. The Meteorological Department was not really interested in the satellite. Its clients were small farmers who did not know how to lobby for their share of technology. Yet, the designers of INSAT added the meteorological subsystems. In doing so, they made the satellite even more difficult technologically. To predict weather, INSAT designers placed a camera on the satellite. Thus, the satellite could send pictures of cloud movements that could be used to predict weather patterns. The camera required that the satellite be ten times more stable in space than it needed to be for the other missions. This added another dimension to INSAT's technological complexity. Why was the weather subsystem not left out? Who would have complained that INSAT did not predict the weather? A few people on the INSAT design committee experienced a deeply felt responsibility to the Indian farmer and stood their ground in design committee deliberations. India's efforts to get INSAT built required it to harness several payloads, to yoke several interests, and even to create new constituencies. INSAT became a crowded Indian bus.

 

Conclusion

 

Indians do not enjoy concluding stories. For complex epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, conclusions are often beginnings. In 1947, an independent Indian state came into being. Barely two years after independence, food shortages forced the government of India to beg from the West. The United States, especially under the Johnson administration, cynically sought to use India's food crisis to further its own Cold War agenda. The uneasiness between the two countries is evident in the history of India's nuclear and space programs, especially when they are seen in the light of decolonization.

The history of INSAT is also a case study in the emergence of a nation-state in South Asia. Nascent science and technology institutions learned to deal, trade, and negotiate with the West under the leadership of Bhabha and Sarabhai, both of whom came from merchant-industrialist families. Doing business with the rest of the world, a skill not in great demand during centuries of foreign oppression, was what INSAT taught some Indians.

The rise of a professional, middle-class leadership in the Indian space and nuclear programs may be read as an indicator of the growing integration of the Indian nation-state into the family of nations. The politics of accommodation vividly illustrated by INSAT is at some level a comforting sign. The politics of foreign aid and the geopolitics of INSAT show India that nothing comes free.

 


END NOTES
 

1. Senior retired Indian officials who have read this text have advised the author that it contains materials "of a sensitive nature." Confidential sources may be found in two of the author's papers, "INSAT: The Politics of Appropriating High Technology" and "SITE: Traditionalizing Space Technology," typescript manuscripts, seminar papers in the author's possession. Unless indicated otherwise, this chapter is extracted from those two papers. Moreover, extensive interviews with Indian space program personnel form the basis of some of the assertions made here. The author wishes to thank his advisors, Raja Rao, his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, and the officials of the Indian space program for helping with both the research and the writing.

2. Vikram A. Sarabhai, Science Policy and National Development (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1974).

3. The author would like to thank an anonymous worker in the Indian Space Research Organization for granting limited access to the records of the Department of Space. This person, of all the people the author met in India, understood history.

4. The only scholarly work on Homi Jehangir Bhabha is a comparative study of Bhabha and Meghnad Saha. Robert S. Anderson, Building Scientific Institutions in India: Saha and Bhabha (Montreal: Centre for Developing-Area Studies, McGill University, 1975). The section on Bhabha also draws on: R.P. Kulkarni and V. Sarma, Homi Bhabha: Father of Nuclear Science in India (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1969); P.R. Pisharoty, C. V. Raman (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1982); George Greenstein, "A Gentleman of the Old School: Homi Bhabha and the Development of Science in India," American Scholar 61 (Summer 1992): 409-19; Shiv Visvanathan, Organising for Science: The Making of an Industrial Research Laboratory (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985); G. Venkatraman, Journey into Light: Life and Science of C. V. Raman (Bangalore, India: Indian Academy of Sciences in cooperation with Indian National Science Academy, distributed by Oxford University Press, 1988); as well as Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Science and the Problems of Development (Bombay: Atomic Energy Establishment of Bombay, 1966); the "Bhabha Report," the popular name for India (Republic) Electronics Committee, Electronics in India Report (Bombay: India Government Press, February 1966).

5. For a history of India-U.S. relations after World War II, a surprisingly neglected research area, see H.W. Brands, The Specter of Neutralism: The United States and the Emergence of the Third World, 1947-1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

6. Erik Erikson, Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Non-Violence (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 298. For background on Ahmedabad, see Kenneth L. Gillion, Ahmedabad: A Study in Indian Urban History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968).

7. The section on Vikram Sarabhai is drawn from Chotubhai Bhatt, "Vikram Sarabhai," Electronics India 2 (January 1972): 35; Padmanabh Joshi, "Vikram Sarabhai: A Study in Innovative Leadership and Institution-Building," Ph.D. diss., Gujrat University at Ahmedabad, 1985.

8. Kamla Chowdhry, "Vikram Sarabhai: Institution Builder," Physics News 3(1) (1972): 17; Kshitish Divalia, "Dr. Vikram Sarabhai: An Enterprising Industrialist," Physics News 3(1) (1972): 19; M. Sarabhai, This Alone is True (London: Meridian Books, 1952).

9. Arnold Frutkin, interview, Washington, DC, 4 January 1989, NASA History Office, Washington, DC; Satish Dhawan, interview with author, Bangalore, India, 5 January 1990.

10. Arnold Frutkin, interview, Washington, DC, 5 January 1989, NASA History Office; Leonard Jaffe, personal communication; James Wood, Satellite Communications and DBS Systems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Michael E. Kinsley, Outer Space and Inner Sanctums (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976).

11. R.S. Jakhu and R. Singal, "Satellite Technology and Education," Annals of Air and Space Law 6 (1981): 400-425.

12. The United States wanted a Voice of America transmitter on Indian soil to counter communist propaganda in South and Southeast Asia. See James Tyson, U.S. International Broadcasting and National Security (New York: Ramapo Press, 1983).

13. An experiment akin to SITE was conducted using radio technology from the mid-1940s and into the 1950s. However, SITE did not seem to have utilized the historical experience of either the educational radio experiments or a similar rural television experiment conducted in Europe during the early 1950s.

14. Arbind Sinha, Media and Rural Development (New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1985).

15. Arthur C. Clarke, Ascent to Orbit: A Scientific Autobiography: The Writings of Arthur C. Clarke (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1984).

16. On All India Radio, see K.S. Mullick, Tangled Tapes: The Inside Story of Indian Broadcasting (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1974).

17. Arnold W. Frutkin to Yash Pal, letter, 30 January 1975, NASA History Office.

18. M.S. Sridhar, "A Study of Indian Space Technologists," Journal of Library and Information Science 7(2) (1982): 146-58.

19. G.A. Van Reeth and V.A. Hood, "Review of ISRO/ESA Cooperation," conference paper, Rome, 1983; Vijay Gupta, ed., India and Non-alignment (New Delhi: New Literature, 1983); H.W. Brands, The Specter of Neutralism.

20. Vikram Sarabhai, Science Policy and National Development (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1974); Vikram Sarabhai, Management for Development (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1974).

21. Anonymous, Preliminary Feasibility Study Report (Satellite Project) (Bombay: India Government Press, 1968), p. 8.

22. Sreehari Rao and S.K. Sinha, "Orbit Determination for ISRO Satellite Missions," Advances in Space Research 5(2) (1985):147-153; Murray Stedman, Exporting Arms: The Federal Arms Exports Administration 1935-1945 (New York: Kings Crown Press, 1947).

23. Government of India, Proceedings of the National Electronics Conference on Electronics (Bombay: India Government Press, 1972).

24. K.A.V. Pandalai, "Aerospace Personalities: Prof. Satish Dhawan," Aeronautical Society of India Newsletter 3(8) (August 1986): 2-12; Satish Dhawan, Prospects for a Space Industry in India (Bangalore, India: Patiala Technical Education Trust, 1983).

25. Satish Dhawan, interview with author, Bangalore, India, 4 January 1990.


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