Articles and Commentaries |
January 4, 2024

India’s Space Programme: Developments And Strategic Concerns

Written By: Dhruv C Katoch

The end of World War II did not usher in the desired peace; rather, it saw the beginning of geopolitical tensions between two blocs—the United States and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. As hostilities between the two blocs did not involve large scale fighting, this period came to be known as the Cold War, which continued for over four decades till the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Along with the Cold War began the race for space. This in part was inspired by the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. The former began research on nuclear fission in January 1939, and by June 1940, scientists had a fair idea of the potential of atomic energy. Through the Manhattan project, huge investments were made to build a nuclear device, which finally fructified with the successful testing of a plutonium implosion device called “Gadget” on 16 July 1945. While Germany had surrendered earlier in May 1945, Japan was continuing with the war. To force an early Japanese surrender, an atomic bomb was dropped by the US on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, using a B 29 heavy bomber. Another atom bomb was detonated over Nagasaki three days later[1], which forced Japan to surrender, marking the end of World War II. The Soviets were now spurred to develop their own nuclear programme, both for national security as well as for ideological reasons. On 29 August 1949, the Soviets successfully conducted their first nuclear test in Kazakhstan.[2] The nuclear race had begun.

The next step was dominating space, which in military parlance is viewed as the ultimate high ground. The Soviets were first off the board, with the launch of Sputnik 1 in a low earth orbit on 4 October 1957. A month later, on 3 November 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, carrying a dog named Laila into space.[3] Shortly thereafter, the US launched their own satellite, Explorer 1 into space on 31 January 1958.[4] Thus began the race for domination of space flight technologies. This pursuit continues amongst various nation states of the world, encompassing the launch of earth satellites in various orbital configurations, establishing space stations and space probes of the Moon, Venus Mars and other celestial bodies.

The Beginning of India’s Space Programme

India began its space programme, a few years after the Americans and the Soviets had launched their first satellites. At that time, applications using satellites were still in an experimental stage, but with the live television coverage of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, across the Pacific by the American Satellite ‘Syncom-3’—an experimental geosynchronous communications satellite[5]—the potential of satellites for communication and other purposes was dramatically demonstrated to the world.

A few years after gaining independence, India started research on nuclear energy. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was established on 3 August 1954, under the direct charge of the Prime Minister and with Dr Homi Bhabha as its Director. The DAE was given the mandate to transact all businesses of the Government of India under the Atomic Energy Act, 1948. On 1 March 1958, the government set up the Atomic Energy Commission with full authority to plan and implement the various measures required for the expansion of the atomic energy programme. In 1961, space research was placed under the ambit of the DAE. A year later, in 1962, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established under the DAE, with Dr Vikram Sarabhai as its chairman. Subsequently, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established in August 1969, in place of INCOSPAR.[6] In June 1972, the Government of India constituted the Space Commission and established Department of Space (DOS). Thereafter, in September 1972, ISRO was brought under the DOS.

Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of India’s space programme, appreciated the benefits of space technologies and their potential to address the myriad problems of a geographically large developing country like India. He founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in 1947 and became its first founder director. Dr Sarabhai founded the PRL initially at his residence, to carry out research on cosmic rays and the upper atmosphere. On 11 November 1947, it was formally established in the M. G. Science College, Ahmedabad, with support from the Karmkshetra Educational Foundation and the Ahmedabad Education Society. Research in Theoretical Physics and Radio Physics were added later with grants from the Atomic Energy Commission.[7] As Director, PRL, Dr. Sarabhai got together a number of brilliant scientists from multiple disciplines to spearhead the space programme. These included scientists, anthropologists, communicators, social scientists and others from all over the country.[8] In 1962, he took over the responsibility of organising Space Research in India as Chairman of INCOSPAR and thereafter as Chairman of ISRO. Since then, India’s space programme has made tremendous strides, especially in the last decade, placing India as one of the leading nations in space technology.

India’s Space Programme

Over the last six decades, the Department of Space has evolved various programmes to promote and develop application of space science and space technology. These include:[9]

  • Developing indigenous capability for launching satellites.
  • Developing satellites for the purpose of communication, remote sensing, navigation, meteorology, etc.
  • Research and Development in Space Sciences and Technology.

Launch Vehicles: SLV and ASLV

In the early 70s, ISRO started to develop the technology to launch satellites. The Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) project aimed to carry a payload of 40 kg, up to a height of 400 km. The first launch mission carried out by India was the SLV 3E1 on 10 August 1979.  The mission was unsuccessful, but the very next year, on 18 July 1980, Rohini Satellite RS-1 was successfully launched using the SLV 3E2. This was an experimental project, but the next two projects were designated as developmental, with the fourth and final launch of the SLV taking place on 17 April 1983. The SLV project was followed by the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) programme, aimed to deliver a 150 kg payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Four development flights of the ASLV took place, the first on 24 March 1987 and the fourth on 4 May 1994.[10]

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle

The ASLV project was followed by the third generation Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) programme. Called the workhorse of ISRO, it has been used to launch all the three types of payloads, viz. Earth Observation, Geo-stationary and Navigation. Both Indian and foreign satellites have been successfully launched using the PSLV. Amongst others, the PSLV was used to launch “Chandrayaan-1 and Mars Orbiter Spacecraft in 2018 and 2013 respectively, the former for India’s Moon mission and the latter for India’s mission to Mars.[11] Its reliability, versatility and affordability has made it a sought after launch vehicle for the launch of foreign satellite also.

Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle

The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with indigenous Cryogenic Upper Stage has enabled the launching of up to 2.25  tonne class of communication satellites. A fourth generation launch vehicle, GSLV’s primary payloads are INSAT class of communication satellites for placing them in Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits. It can also place a payload of up to six tonnes in LEO.[12] With these launchers, India is totally self sufficient for launching its satellites.

Small Satellite Launch Vehicle

The Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) is capable of launching a 500 kg satellite in a 500 km planar orbit. The second developmental flight of the SSLV was successfully launched on 10 February 2023. SSLVs require minimal launch infrastructure and can be launched on demand. They are cost effective, have low turn-around time, and can accommodate multiple Nano, Micro and Mini satellites. SSLV-D2 is intended to inject EOS-07, Janus-1 and Azaadi SAT-2 satellites into 450 km circular orbit, in its 15 minutes flight.[13]

Launchers in use and under Development

A total of 94 launches have taken place till date, the most recent being on 02 September 2023 where the PSLV-XL Launcher placed the Aditya L1 satellite into orbit. Of the 94 launches made so far, 85 were successful, giving the Indian space programme a success rate of 90 percent successful launches. In the last nine years, 54 launch missions have taken place of which 52 were successful, giving a success rate of over 96 percent. In the last two years, all the 12 missions launched were successful, giving a 100 percent success rate.[14] This is indeed an enviable achievement, comparing favourably with other major space-faring nations.

Launchers in use are the PSLV, GSLV, Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (LVM3) and Sounding Rockets. Both the SLV and the ASLV have been retired. The LVM3 was used for launching Chandrayaan 3 to the Moon on 18 July 2023. Launchers under development are the Human Rated Launch Vehicle (HRLV), Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) and Scramjet Engine – TD.[15]

Major Satellite Launches

From the launch of the Aryabhata and Bhaskara 1 satellites on 19 April 1975 and 7 June 1979 respectively, both of which were experimental satellites, India has come a long way. Over a hundred Indian satellites have been launched till date, using for the most part, Indian launchers. Satellites have been launched for earth observation, planetary observation, communication, navigation, disaster management, climate environment and for experimental purposes.

Aditya L1. This is India’s first space based mission to study the sun. Launched on 02 September 2023, the satellite is set to reach its cosmic destination, Lagrange Point 1 (L1) on 6 January 2024. Aditya-L1 is carrying instruments to observe the solar atmosphere, mainly the chromosphere and corona. In-situ instruments will observe the local environment at L1. There are seven payloads on-board of which four are for carrying out remote sensing of the Sun and three for carrying out in-situ observation.[16]

Chandrayaan 3. India’s lunar exploration program has been a source of national pride and a testament to the country’s scientific prowess. Chandrayaan 3 was a follow on mission of Chandrayaan 2, designed to demonstrate end-to-end capability in safe landing and roving on the moon. Consisting of a lander and a rover, the former was equipped with Chandra’s Surface Thermophysical Experiment (ChaSTE) to measure thermal conductivity and temperature. Other equipment in the lander was to measure seismicity around the landing site and to estimate plasma density and its variations. The Lander also carried a passive Laser Retroreflector Array from NASA for lunar laser ranging studies. The Rover’s payload was for deriving the elemental composition in the vicinity of landing site. Launched on 14 July 2023, the Lander made a successful touch down near the lunar south pole on 23 August 2023, placing India among a select group of countries—the US, Russia and China—to achieve this feat and the only country to have successfully landed on the moon’s south pole. It positions India as a global hub in the new space economy.


India’s first inter-planetary mission was the launch of Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), called Mangalyaan, on 05 November 2013. Mangalyaan orbited Mars  from 2014-2022, making ISRO only the fourth space agency after NASA, Roscosmos, and the European Space Agency to achieve this feat. Mangalyaan had a stated life span of six months, but it continued to send data well beyond that prior, for a period of seven and half years, after which the mission was declared closed. It represented a great step forward in developing technologies to explore the inner solar system. The scientific equipment carried on board  was Mars Colour Camera, Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer, Methane Sensor for Mars, Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser and Lyman Alpha Photometer.[17]

Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)

India’s ambitious IRNSS programme is a constellation of seven satellites in space, the first of which, IRNSS-1A was launched on 01 July 2013 and the seventh, IRNSS-1G, on 28 April 2016. IRNSS is now called NavIC, an acronym for Navigation by Indian Constellation. NavIC is designed to provide geospatial positioning information within the Indian sub-continent. It functions akin to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), but unlike the US GPS, which provides global coverage, NavIC provides coverage to the Indian land mass and to areas 1500 km beyond it. NavIC is used for ground, aerial and marine navigation, disaster management, mobile phone integration, mapping and visual & voice navigation for drivers, among others. When fully functional, India’s dependency on foreign navigation satellite systems will reduce considerably.[18]

The NavIC space segment consists of 3 Geostationary orbits (GEO) and 4 Geosynchronous orbits (GSO) satellites. The ground segment is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the IRNSS constellation.  It consists of the spacecraft control facility, navigation centre, Range and Integrity monitoring stations, Network Timing Centre, CDMA, Laser Ranging stations and a Data Communication Network. The User segment aims to provide Standard Positioning Service (SPS) for civilian research & commercial use, and Restricted Service (RS) for authorised users such as in the defence sector.[19] As per Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister of State for Electronics and Information technology, all smartphones will have to support NavIC by the end of 2025.[20]

GAGAN is the acronym for GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation. Jointly developed by ISRO and the Airports Authority of India (AAI), it uses a system of ground stations to provide necessary augmentations to the GPS standard positioning service (SPS) navigation signal. It was first used by a commercial aircraft on 22 April 2022, when an Indigo flight landed in Kishangarh Airport in Rajasthan using the indigenously developed Satellite based augmentation system (SBAS), making India the first country in the Asia Pacific to successfully develop such a system for aviation use.[21] With this, India’s GAGAN becomes the fourth space-based augmentation systems available in the world after US (WAAS,) Europe (EGNOS) and Japan (MSAS).[22]

Strategic Concerns

When India began its space program, it remained focussed on the peaceful uses of space such as for weather forecasting, disaster management, communications, education, remote sensing etc.. India had tremendous development challenges, so to make a case for additional allocation of funds for the space sector which did not have a direct bearing on India’s development effort, was  a difficult proposition. That India has still made gigantic progress in the space sector reflects credibly on the aptitude and dedication of its scientists, but that has not lessened the need for allocation of higher budgetary allocations. Today, considering the geo-strategic environment in which we are living, much greater thrust has to be given to this sector, both as an economic necessity as well as on security considerations. India’s share in the global space economy is just about 2-3%, which needs to be considerably enhanced to at least 10% by 2030 and to 25-30 % by 2050, commensurate with India’s standing in the world. Funding for space-based activities will hence require a quantum increase, year on year, henceforth.

The security challenges which India faces on its land and maritime borders are indeed immense. While success in sending a satellite into orbit around Mars, the demonstration of end-to-end capability in safe landing and roving on the moon, and its success in sending a space-based mission to study the sun is laudable, concerns remain about the vulnerabilities that India’s reliance on satellites has created. Doing away with space based assets for communication, earth observation etc.. is really not an option. Increasing focus is hence required on the need to protect space and ground based assets from hostile forces.

In addition, China’s controversial testing of an anti-satellite missile in 2007, was a wake up call for India. It took 12 years for India to develop its own ASAT capability, with India successfully carrying out an ASAT test on 27 march 2019.

This was announced to the nation by Prime Minister Modi on the same day. Mission ‘Shakti’ as the test was called, struck an Indian satellite in LEO, which had been recently launched for the purpose, destroying it. With weaponisation of space becoming a possibility in future, India’s ASAT test, besides showing India’s deterrence capability, was also required from India’s point of view as future arms control agreements will place India on the have category and make it a party to framing that agreement.

Conflicts over the past three decades have shown the power of technology in the battlefield, wherein a missile can be sent to destroy a target with precision, many thousands of kilometres away. This has been made possible by space based capabilities, which play a key role in the military’s C4I2SR (command, control, communications, computers, information, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems. ISRO presently has 54 satellites in orbit – both LEO and GEO combined. Some of these are dual use, but only two are dedicated for military use. The dedicated military satellites are the GSAT-7 (Rukmini) and GSAT-7A (Angry Bird),  used by the Indian Navy and Air Force, respectively.[23] India has been relying on foreign partners for some of its satellite-based communications and data services. While cooperation in space with friendly countries will continue, India needs to ramp up its space capabilities and dedicate a much larger number of satellites for that purpose. Speaking on this issue, ISRO Chairman S Somanath said that ISRO will launch 50 satellites in the next five years that are based on AI technology and that can interact with each other in space to gather geo-intelligence.[24] This indeed is a welcome step that will bolster Indian space capability and assuage to some extent, India’s security concerns.

Since 2014, we have seen the political leadership taking ownership of the space domain. This too, is a welcome and most desirable development, as it will lead to much greater focus on this segment. But the political leadership has to be consistent in its support for the space programme, especially in terms of setting goals, requirements, and milestones outlining where India wants to be in 2030 and 2050 and thereafter ensure that the stated goals are achieved.

As in the US, there is a need for much greater involvement of the private sector in India’s space programme. The Indian space program is entirely state-driven, though ISRO is around 70%–80% reliant on private sector contractors for components and services. The DOS is now proposing reforms to open up the space sector to private industries. NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), which was incorporated in 2019 under the DOS, to commercially exploit the goods and products emanating from the Indian space programme will act as the aggregator of user requirements and obtain commitments. Accordingly, Non Government Private Enterprises (NGPE) could be allowed to take part in space activities through an Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center (IN-SPACe).[25] How this pans out remains to be seen, but it is a welcome step that has the potential to boost the entry of private players in the space segment manifold. We could well see an Indian Elon Musk emerging in the next decade or two, if the private sector picks up pace. In any case, if the private sector can manage some of the tried and tested programmes, ISRO would be able to focus on purely research driven programmes and on interplanetary missions.


Despite limited resources, India’s space programme has achieved a great deal and covered many milestones over the last six decades. Space however is the final frontier and a great deal more has to be done for India to come at par with the space programmes of the US, Russia, the EU and China. This would require a very active involvement of the political leadership to fulfil India’s space ambitions as also the involvement of the private sector in a big way. Cooperation with other space agencies would also be required, and India joining the Artemis Accord is a step in that direction. The future is exciting. The next decade will determine how India’s plans to be a leading space-faring nation plays out. This is one race in which we cannot be found wanting.

Author Brief Bio: Maj. Gen. Dhruv C. Katoch is Editor, India Foundation Journal and Director, India Foundation







[6] spearhead the space research,1969, in place of INCOSPAR.


[8] Ibid.





[13] second developmental flight of,pad at SDSC SHAR, Sriharikota.













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