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GSLV launch
The launch of India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) in January, the first successful flight of the vehicle using an indigenously-developed cryogenic upper stage. Work on the GSLV, including its more powerful Mark III version, is a key part of ISRO’s latest budget. (credit: ISRO)

India’s 2014–15 space budget: an assessment

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India’s Interim Budget for 2014–15 was presented in the parliament during the middle of February 2014. Now, with the parliamentary elections being announced to take place during April/May 2014, it is expected that this provisional budget would be finalized in the next few months. However, for any government in power, there would be a need to maintain continuity with major policies and, from that perspective, no radical changes are expected to be made in budget provisions by the new government. In India, there appears to be a broad acceptability amongst the various political parties about science and technology policies in general. Hence, it is expected that no major changes in the budget provisions particularly in this field would happen when the new government comes to the power during May 2014.

It appears that India is in the process of “testing the waters” in respect to a human space program.

During the previous year’s budget, 2013–14 (in India, the financial cycle for the budget is from April to March), India’s space department was allotted 6,792 crores of Rupees (approximately US$1.2 billion) initially and this figure was finally revised to the total of 5,172 crores of Rupees (approximately US$900 million.) Presently, government has allotted for the 2014–15 period 7,238 crores of Rupees (approximately US$1.3 billion.) These budget allocations are made under the standard format of money allocated for satellite technologies, launch vehicle technologies, launch support facilities like tracking facilities, and so on.

It may be of interest to judge the possible trajectory of India’s space program based the financial allocations made to various important projects. This article attempts a broad assessment based on the 2014–15 budget provisions.

There have been recent reports that India has a proposal to undertake a human space mission by 2020 and, for that reason, will take the first major step in 2014 with the test of an uncrewed space capsule.

It appears that India is in the process of “testing the waters” in respect to a human space program. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is indeed planning to undertake a space capsule recovery experiment in 2014 to test some of the critical technologies for future human space missions. However, it is important to note is that this is likely to be only the first step of many for a major experiment and no unnecessary halo should be generated around it. What ISRO is proposing is to launch a crew module designed for orbital voyage by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). This module would be flown on the first experimental flight of the GSLV Mark III rocket, planned for this April.

In the beginning of 2014, ISRO demonstrated its mastery of cryogenic engine technology by successfully launching the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle D5 (GSLV-D5). GSLV Mark III is the next step of India’s GSLV program.

The main aim of the April experiment is to test the first stage and strap-on motors for this GSLV program. For that purpose ISRO is planning a suborbital flight to test the first stage and to ensure that the rocket gains a velocity of five kilometers per second. For ISRO, developing GSLV, a heavy-lift vehicle system, is very crucial for placing satellites weighing up to 5,000 kilograms in geosynchronous orbit. What they are proposing do is to use this testing opportunity to also test the crew module. This crew module is likely to be injected into the lower orbit and then made to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. It will be guided to land in a specified spot, most likely in the Bay of Bengal.

The actual spending with respect of Human Space Flight Program has been $1.7 million during 2012–13 and the revised estimates in regards to 2013–14 were the same. For current financial year the budget for the program is $3 million. The amount of money allocated for last three years do not provide any signal to conclude that ISRO has any major plans in regards to a human space mission for the immediate future. In fact, ISRO had demonstrated its ability to recover a capsule from space back in 2007 with the successful launch and return of Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1); the new module for testing is bit different than SRE and more close to what is required for human flight. SRE was a 550-kilogram capsule launched into a 635-kilometer sun synchronous orbit and was de-orbited and recovered successfully back on Earth after more than two weeks of stay in space. Apart from testing of various technologies like navigation, guidance and control, hypersonic thermodynamics, and more, this experiment also allowed ISRO to test thermal shield technology for the reentry phase.

Surprisingly, ISRO has not made any significant efforts during last seven years to consolidate the success of SRE-1 by launching more advanced missions. During last few budgets only a meager amount (less than $0.2 million) has been requested by ISRO to continue with this experimentation. All this indicates that India probably will continue to focus more on robotic missions for near future, but at the same time is keeping its options open for human space missions.

The big ticket item in this year’s ISRO space budget is their investments in the GSLV program.

Other reports announced that ISRO is planning the launch of its mission to Sun, called Aditya, during the 2017–2020 period. Actually, this mission to study solar cornea was approved during 2008, for launch in 2015–16. It is expected to cost around $18 million and would have sensors to study coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and to study crucial physical parameters for space weather. ISRO has spent less than $2 million during last two years on this experiment, but would receive $5 million for this year. Based on these projections one could conclude that progress is bit slow, but ISRO has some more time in hand to meet the proposed deadline.

It is important to note that although projects like the futuristic human space mission or mission to Sun are being widely discussed in the media, in reality they are minor financial components of India’s overall space budget. They do get publicity due to their “glamorous” nature, but the truth is that they are actually very low cost programs.

The “big ticket item” in this year’s ISRO space budget is their investments in the GSLV program. The budget for this program should not come as a surprise because the growth of India’s space program significantly depends on the capability to launch heavy satellites into space. Presently, India is spending significant amount of money for hiring of launch facilities to launch their communication satellites. This year’s budget also provides for $150 million towards the hiring of launch services for communication satellites GSAT-15 and GSAT-16, which are targeted for launch during the 2014–16 timeframe. Both these three-ton-class satellites are to be launched on Europe’s Ariane 5 vehicle. When India develops its own capability the GSLV Mark III to launch heavy satellites, it would then be in a position to save almost 40 to 50 percent of the cost that is presently being paid to foreign organizations for hiring them as launch contractors. Development of the GSLV system would also allow India to enter into global satellite launch business. This year’s budget also provides around $70 million for the overall GSLV program and GSLV Mark III program.

India’s successful GSLV-D5 mission in January was configured with its first and second stages as solid and liquid stages, while the third stage was the new indigenous cryogenic stage. India understands that for future launches (4 to 6 tonnes), it would not be advisable to have a vehicle with similar configuration. They would be required to follow a path of vehicle with a combination of semi-cryogenic and cryogenic stages. This year’s budget offers $30 million for the purposes of semi-cryogenic engine development.

The budget includes sufficient funding for other programs, such as the Navigational Satellite System ($25 million) and remote sensing satellite program. These programs’ key satellites expected to be launched in the near future, including Geo-Imaging Satellite (GISAT), Resourcesat-2A, Cartographic series satellites, and Oceansat-3. Also, the present year budget provisions indicate that India is concentrating on development and launch of various GSAT series satellites in near future, with provisions in the budget for the development of GSAT 17, 18, and 19 satellites.

ISRO’s focus mostly remains on the application-oriented programs. Thus, cosmic endeavors like Astrosat probably take a backseat.

One limitation that emerges from the study of the recent budget is that there is no clear signal about the future of India’s deep space mission agenda. It is a reality that India has failed to advance on the success of its first Moon mission in 2008. India was supposed to undertake its second Moon mission jointly with Russia, originally by 2010. Initially, ISRO was to have the prime responsibility for the orbiter and rover, while Russia was to provide the lander. However, Russia has not been able to fulfill its promise and India also does not have a reliable vehicle (in the GSLV class of rockets) to launch this mission. Now, India is planning to have an indigenous lander and rover system and could launch the second Moon mission by the 2017–2020 timeframe. This would amount to almost a decade’s delay to its initial plan for the launch of its second Moon mission. Presently, the budget provisions for this mission are $10 million, indicating that the program is definitely not on a fast track. The budget provisions for the Mars mission are $13 million. It is bit difficult to come to any definitive conclusion from this figure about India’s plans for a second Mars mission in 2016. Technically, the period around March 2016 offers the best window for undertaking this Mars mission, and various missions are being planned globally to use this opportunity. It is important for India not to miss this opportunity from the point of view of consolidating its Mars program further.

Another area of space exploration that has been discussed for many years is India’s Astrosat program, a program claimed to be for the design, development, fabrication and launch of an astronomical observatory. Little money has been spent during last three years on this program, and even less is allocated this time (less than $1 million,) giving indications that ISRO’s focus mostly remains on the application-oriented programs. Thus, cosmic endeavors like this probably take a backseat.

Overall, the 2014–15 budget figures indicate that India’s space program is progressing as per the roadmap and ISRO continues with its focus on programs of socioeconomic importance.