To the moon and beyond: The incredible success of India's space programme

Today India stands among an exclusive group of nations as one of the pioneers in space technology.

R K Maya

India launched Chandrayaan-3, its third lunar mission on July 14, 2023 / Image- ISRO

Imagine a country launching an exploratory probe to the Moon. A country that has successfully sent a human to space and which routinely launches telecommunication satellites into orbit and a country that hopes to land a human on the moon. We are not talking about any cash rich western economy but India, a so-called third world country. 

India that is set to celebrate its 76th Independence day on August 15th, has emerged as one of the powerhouses of space technology today. Much of the credit of this achievement lies with the vision of the first prime minister of India Shri Jawaharlal Nehru who laid the foundations for the space research programme in India. India prioritised the growth of scientific research in the First Five Year plan and witnessed the growth of educational institutions like IIT and IISc . These educational institutions  promoted scientific research in India and helped to lay the bedrock of numerous success stories in the scientific field.

At a time when the world witnessed the space race between the West and the Soviet Union, the live transmission of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 across the Pacific by the American Satellite “Syncom-3” fired the imagination of Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of the space programme in India. The visionaries of the day realised the immense potential that existed in space technology for a newly emergent developing nation like India. Dr Sarabhai understood the need to harness the latest developments in science in technology to serve the greatest number of people. Vikram Sarabhai’s passion and extraordinary vision meant that an army of scientists, anthropologists, communicators and social scientists answered his call to land at the Thumba, a tiny fishing hamlet close to Thiruvantantapuram to  transform India’s presence in space. 

Space research took its initial steps with the establishment of the INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research) in 1962 under the department of Atomic Energy. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established in 1969 which later came under the newly established Department of Space in 1972. As the years rolled by the country began to establish itself  as a reliable and successful actor in space research and thus emphasising India’s scientific capability and self-sufficiency.

The launching of the first indigenous satellite Aryabhata in April 1975, was a landmark in Indian space technology. Launched with the help of the Soviet rocket under the Interkosmos programme that sought to promote friendly relations among nations in accessing space. Aryabhata though beset with issues five days after the launch was celebrated within the hardly thirty year old country as an audacious dream fulfilled.

The decades that followed saw a steady growth in the space programme in India with numerous successful satellite missions such as the Bhaskara, Rohini, INSAT series and many more satellite launch vehicles being successfully deployed. 

Today India stands among an exclusive group of nations as one of the pioneers in space technology. The Moon mission Chandrayaan I and II as well as the recent Chandrayaan III have demonstrated the success and occasional challenges that the space programme has seen but non one can take from the fact that despite the challenges of conducting a space programme in a developing country India has chosen the right path in prioritising scientific and technological development tha aims at fulfilling the aspirations of the people. In short, the democratic principles that underlie the setting up of the space programme has resulted in the creation of a unique success story for India.


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