India Succeeds In Launching Satellite Rocket, Despite U.S. Sanctions

By Suryamurthy Ramachandran | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - Despite U.S.-imposed sanctions on technology transfers, India on Wednesday successfully launched a satellite rocket, thus joining an elite club of nations capable of launching commercial satellites.

"It was a textbook flight," an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) official said.

The geo-synchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) rocket, which cost $300 million and took 10 years to build, is carrying a 1.5 tonne (metric ton) experimental satellite.

Geo-synchronous orbit means the satellite is always at the same point above the Earth's surface, and so must orbit at the same rate as the planet spins round.

The successful launch moves India closer to the United States, Russia, Japan, China and the European Space Agency, countries able to place heavy communications satellites deep into space.

The goal of India's space program is to launch satellites weighing up to two tonnes, at a cheaper rate than that offered by the European Space Agency's Ariane rocket or the Chinese Long March rocket series.

"If we cater to a niche market for two tonne satellites, I am sure many countries will be interested in our vehicle," said ISRO chairman K. Kasturirangan.

At the moment, it costs between $18,000 and $33,000 per kilogram for a satellite to be placed in geo-synchronous orbit. ISRO hopes to undercut the opposition by charging just $4,000 per kg.

Wednesday's launch followed an abortive attempt on March 28, after a computerized launching system detected that one of four strap-on booster engines did not have enough thrust. Millions of television viewers watched the failed effort.

U.S. opposition

India's attempt to launch a satellite has been delayed by U.S. sanctions, imposed because New Delhi has not signed the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

But Indian scientists accused the U.S. of being motivated by commercial interests.

In 1992, Washington imposed a two-year technology embargo after a U.S. company, General Dynamics, unsuccessfully negotiated for a contract to provide cryogenic engines for the GSLV.

The ISRO then signed a $120 million contract with the Russian space agency, Glavcosmos, to acquire two flight-worthy cryogenic engines, with the deal including an important technology transfer component.

Washington intervened, saying the technology transfer would be in violation of the MTCR, and a fresh contract had to be signed with Glavcosmos in 1993, which excluded the technology transfer.

The ISRO believes the real U.S. concern is not that India will launch inter-continental ballistic missiles using this technology, but that the GSLV would make India a serious player in the space business.

"Everyone knows that cryogenic technology is not missile technology," said Dr. U.R. Rao, a former chairman of ISRO and member of India's Space Commission.

"I am sure that the U.S. embargo on the sale of technology and supplies to the Indian space program was commercially motivated," he said. "Now that our GSLV is ready, we will be able to give them a run for their money."

Space research was once a symbol of friendship between India and the former Soviet Union. India's only cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, underwent a mission on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz-T, seen largely as a public relations exercise to celebrate this friendship almost two decades ago.

The Americans, too, were closely involved with the Indian space program at its inception. NASA trained the first few Indian space engineers ever, and even helped launch the first American rockets ever sent up from a station in South India.