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To space on a shoestring

ISRO engineers next to models of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket, left, and Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, right, as they monitor their movements on screens at their Spacecraft Control Centre in Bangalore, 27th November 2013


India’s maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 – ‘Moon Craft’ in ancient Sanskrit – successfully takes off in October 2008

Bull carts, churches and ivory towers

India’s space adventure began in the unlikely setting of Thumba, an unremarkable fishing village in Kerala. It was here that physicist Vikram Sarabhai, having convinced the Indian government to invest, established the first launchpad on the subcontinent. “Our national goals involve leap-frogging from a state of economic backwardness and social disabilities,” said Sarabhai, “attempting to achieve in a few decades a change which has incidentally taken centuries in other countries and in other lands.”

Sarabhai established the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) with a mix of grand ambition and economic pragmatism. Rather than investing in purpose-built, space-age headquarters, the ISRO based itself in
St Mary Magdalene Church, just yards from its launchpad. Custom vehicles were expensive so interplanetary equipment was transported using bulls, bicycles and trains.

India’s first venture into space was the launch of a US-built Nike Apache rocket on 21st November 1963, but Sarabhai had little interest in following the lead of the West. “We look down on our scientists if they engage in outside consultation,” he said. “We implicitly promote the ivory tower.” He was true to his word and on 20th November 1967, the first Indian-designed and built rocket, RH-75, made its maiden flight.

India’s APPLE satellite being transported in a bullock cart in 1981

The IRS-1B satellite is prepared for launch. Baikanur cosmodrome, Soviet Union, 29th Aug 1991

A train carrying Bhaskara’s launch rocket travels through the Kazakh region of the Soviet Union, 18th June 1979

Bhaskara is prepared for take-off. Volgograd launch station, Soviet Union, 7th Jun 1979

Bhaskara-2 is docked into its launch vehicle. Volgograd launch station, Soviet Union, 20th Nov 1981

The first Indian in space

Sarabhai died in 1971 aged just 52. After that India’s ivory tower became one of necessity rather than choice – a nuclear weapons test in 1974 led to sanctions from the West including a ban on any assistance with the country’s space programme.

The ISRO continued regardless, and formed a partnership with the Soviet space programme. In 1975 the ISRO created the Aryabhata satellite, which was launched from the USSR’s Kosmos-3M launch vehicle. But it was the Bhaskara project that was the partnership’s crowning achievement. Launched in 1979, Bhaskara-I was the first experimental remote sensing satellite to be built in India. It was transported the 3,000 miles from Bangalore to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launchpad in what’s now Kazakhstan via train, cheered on as it went. In 1980 India went it alone, launching its satellite Rohini from home soil.

On 2nd April 1984 Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian in space when he flew aboard the Soviet rocket Soyuz T-11. Sharma – a squadron leader in the Indian air force – was selected to join the three-man crew and spent seven days, 21 hours and 40 minutes aboard the Salyut 7 space station. On returning to Earth he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union and received India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, the Ashoka Chakra.

Rakesh Sharma and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Malyshev aboard the Soyuz T-11/10, 24th Aug 1984

Indian trainee cosmonaut Ravish Malhotra, centre, poses with two Soviet cosmonauts in 1984. He would not make it into space

A transporter carries India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle in Sriharikota in 2006. It veered off course after takeoff

Kalpana Chawla suits up at the Kennedy Space

The GSAT-5P rocket explodes in mid-air shortly after its launch from Sriharikota, 25th Dec 2010

Debris from the space shuttle is seen over Texas

From disaster to the moon 

Sharma was followed by Kalpana Chawla, who became the first Indian-born woman in space in 1997. Chawla, who had become a US citizen in the 1980s, embarked on her first mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia on flight STS-87. Two weeks and 252 orbits of the Earth later she returned a hero. She went back to space in 2003, as a mission specialist on STS-107, and India’s media went into frenzy. At the end of the 16-day flight her picture was on the cover of The Times of India, news channels had mapped out exactly what time people should look to the skies to hail their countrywoman and street parties were arranged to mark the moment their heroine came home. That moment never came. On re-entry Columbia depressurised and broke apart, killing Chawla and her six colleagues instantly.

By 2005 the ISRO looked unlikely to survive. Two satellite launches in succession had ended in failure, with the GSAT-5P rocket ditching into the Bay of Bengal on its first launch attempt and then exploding in mid-air on its second. But the programme survived, and in 2008 India made it to the moon, with the unmanned Chandrayaan-1 entering lunar orbit on 8th November. India became the fourth country to put its flag on the lunar surface and a year later Chandrayaan-1 was credited with identifying water molecules on the moon. By this stage ISRO had its eyes on a bigger prize: interplanetary travel.

ISRO scientists at a press conference after the launch of its maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan-1, 22nd October 2008

A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, 1st July 2013

The chances of anything getting to Mars…

In August 2012, then prime minister Manmohan Singh announced approval for India’s most ambitious foray into space yet – the mission to Mars. ISRO engineers had just 15 months before the interplanetary launch window – the moment when Mars and the earth would be ideally aligned for a probe to travel between the two. Nasa’s own Mars mission, Maven, was gunning for the same cosmic slot. If they missed the five-minute opening, they would have to wait at least two years for another chance. According to ISRO chairman Koppillil Radhakrishnan, the team took it in their stride – 18-20 hour working days became the norm as the team raced against the clock.

Just getting to Mars, rather than any particular scientific mission, was the objective – so the probe’s instruments were kept relatively simple and light, at just over 30 pounds each. They were designed to send back colour photographs, search for signs of water and map the planet’s surface composition. A special sensor was developed to look for methane, which could indicate the presence of bacteria and life.

Indian engineers work on the Mars orbiter spacecraft, 11th September 2013

Paramilitary soldiers patrol the control station for the Mars mission, the Space Center in Sriharikota, 30th October 2013

Indians watch the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle
rocket lifting off from Sriharikota

By autumn 2013 Mangalyaan, an unmanned 1.5-tonne, gold-foiled probe roughly the size of a refrigerator, was ready. But the team faced one major complication: gravity. Unlike Nasa, the ISRO lacked a rocket with enough thrust to fire the probe directly out of Earth’s atmosphere. Instead it worked around an ingenious – if risky – sling-shot technique: the ISRO’s rocket would circle Earth for a month, building up enough velocity to break free of the planet’s pull and then coast the 400 million miles to Mars.

At 9.08am on 5th November 2013, bang on schedule, Mangalyaan was sent skywards on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. India held its breath. It was a longshot both literally and figuratively. Two-thirds of all previous Mars missions by other nations had failed – all with budgets that dwarfed the ISRO’s. At 7.41am on Wednesday 24th September, mission control in Bangalore received word. Mangalyaan had entered the orbit of the red planet. The ISRO had joined the space elite.

There was jubilation across the country. Tens of millions of people have followed the progress of the craft – the mission has led TV bulletins, filled front pages and has been mentioned in the prayers of temple priests. Getting to another planet was, for most, a moment of national pride – but others questioned the price tag for a country still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty.

The prime minister, Narendra Modi, who won power in May and was in Bangalore to see the operation, dismissed the criticism, highlighting the boost the project had given to the country’s tech industry.

“We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and innovation,” he said before challenging the ISRO to tackle “the next frontier”. The team have been only too happy to oblige, and plans are already underway for a mission to Venus in May 2015 – which may prove once again that reaching another planet needn’t cost the Earth.

ISRO engineers next to models of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket, left, and Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, right, as they monitor their movements on screens at their Spacecraft Control Centre in Bangalore, 27th November 2013

Indian schoolchildren show their support for the Mars orbiter, Chennai

ISRO scientists and officials celebrate Mangalyaan’s success in Bangalore

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