The successful launch of GSLV-D5 on Sunday, powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine, is a major milestone for the country considering the challenges Isro has had to face in developing it over the past three decades.
The quest to acquire cryogenic technology faced not just technological challenges but also geopolitical sanctions. In fact, the US had at one point tried to scuttle India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) project.
A decade before that, in December 1982, India had formed a cryogenic study team to focus on the development of an engine which could generate a thrust of 10 tonnes. But the project did not take off because Isro realized indigenous development of such engines would pose major technological challenges. It then decided to import these engines from Russia to expedite its GSLV programme.
In 1991, Isro signed a $120-million contract with Glavkosmos of Russia for seven cryogenic rocket engines and also a complete transfer of technology. Isro officials said India had to approach Russia because no other country was willing share this technology fearing it would be used for military purposes.
As the India-Russian agreement was being put in place, the US, in July 1993, arm-twisted Russia into stalling the engine supply saying it flouted the Missile Technology Control Regime ( MTCR). The US sanctions on Isro and Glavkosmos were a huge setback to the GSLV programme.
However, these sanctions caused by geopolitical factors gave a boost to the indigenous cryogenic programme as Isro was forced to develop its technology. The space agency then fast-tracked research at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu. A few years ago, Russia brushed aside American apprehensions and supplied seven cryogenic engines to India.
Over the years, some of the tests on the indigenous engine went off flawlessly. Isro officials were fairly confident about the success of the maiden launch of GSLV with its own cryogenic engine.
But, their dreams were shattered on April 15, 2010, when the GSLV plunged into the Bay of Bengal within minutes after take off from Sriharikota. A study later revealed that the turbo pump supplying fuel to the cryogenic engine had stopped working.
In the past two-and-a-half years, critical modifications were carried out both to the engine as well as the rocket.