Triumphing over trials, ISRO ready for giant leap

When India fires the high thrust cryogenic engine CE-20 to launch GSLV Mk-III in its first experimental flight from Sriharikota, it will propel ISRO’s biggest dream albeit about 13 years later than it was originally planned. ISRO would have used the CE-20 powered GSLV Mk-III in 2003 if not for the US sanction and a foisted case. The launch, a culmination of a long and arduous journey spanning more than three decades, will set the ball rolling for ISRO’s future projects including Chandrayaan-2 and the manned mission. It will also be a first step towards setting its foot in the global heavy payload market. “If there was no sanction, we would have operationalised GSLV Mk-II in 1999. By 2003-2004, we would have launched what we would be witnessing,” said former ISRO scientist Mr Nambi Narayanan, who was the project director for the development of cryogenic engine in the early 1990s. Even as the Indian space agency struggled over the years to get a cryogenic engine for its heavy launch vehicles, the delay also helped it in mastering the technology. A cryogenic engine involves a tricky job of using liquid hydrogen at -253oC and oxygen at -183oC as fuel and oxidiser. Only the US, Russia, China, Japan and the European Space Agency have achieved this feat. ISRO began work to build indigenous cryogenic engine in the 1970s, though it gained momentum after Russia denied transfer of technology. But it was delayed as the space agency had to focus on their immediate requirements including development of Vikas engine, which now powers both PSLV and GSLV. “With limited resources, manpower and budget, we had to give priority to immediate requirements including projects like SLV, ASLV and PSLV. It was the same team working for all,” said Dr K Sivan, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. In the late 1980s the erstwhile Soviet Union offered three engines and a technology transfer at a reasonable price. Talks with Japan, US and Europe to borrow cryogenic technology had failed due to prohibitive costs. But after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia backtracked on its pact. Finally when Russia sent seven KVD-1 engines to India after re-drafting the contract post the US sanctions, it was a mix of enthusiasm, confusion and uncertainty, as it was only a supply of hardware and not a technology transfer. “Our technology related questioned were not going to be answered. We were neither able to continue nor able to drop the project,” Mr Narayanan recalled. But soon Mr Narayanan, who was in the thick of things, was arrested on charges of espionage, which further affected the team’s morale. ISRO launched a project to build a cryogenic engine in 1994 and the knowledge their engineers acquired through pilot projects like the development of a 12-tonne thrust engine, one-tonne and seven-tonne engines in the 1980s came in handy. According to ISRO scientists, the engine CE-7.5 can be called an indigenous version, working on a staged combustion cycle, with Russian design. While work to develop a high thrust CE-20 engine began in 2002, the technical issues of its predecessor delayed the project. On April 15, 2010, the engine failed 800milliseconds after ignition during the launch of GSLV-D3 carrying GSAT-4 satellite. ISRO used one of the last two Russian engines for their next launch, but the liquid fuel boosters failed. Another attempt at launch using an indigenous cryogenic engine on August 18, 2013 had to be aborted.


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