ISRO’s incredible feat of launching 104 satellites at one go shows what the audacity of hope can do. The full import of the achievement can be understood if one goes decades back to the agency’s humble origins. It built India’s first satellite Aryabhata in 1975 and just five years later, placed Rohini in orbit using an indigenously-built launch vehicle, SLV-3. Since then, it has perfected the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) going so far as to send a satellite to Mars. Wednesday’s record is all the more laudable coming as it did a couple of years after ISRO powered 23 satellites into space at one go.
The technological marvel aside, it reinforces the agency’s commitment to its raison dêtre voiced by its founder Vikram Sarabhai—“There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose ... we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.” And, ISRO today is second to none in applying technology to solve national problems and in the process, is advancing space exploration and helping foreign nations. Of the 104 satellites launched, 101 belong to six foreign nations.
ISRO’s cost-effective launches have put it on a firm footing in the global space industry which is estimated to be around $325 billion in 2015. The increasing needs of private companies to have satellites has given a new impetus to the industry. Competition is also on the rise with the entry of private players like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. ISRO is now the preferred agency for launching small satellites, thanks to its tried and tested PSLV. But the big money is in the heavy payloads. And, heavier satellites require the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). ISRO has the ambition and the ability to turn GSLV into its next warhorse. The only question before it is not how but when.