‘Our space mission failure rate is only 5%, when it is 10% globally’

‘ISRO is resilient enough to spring back and come with a solution quickly.’

“It was my dream to have our own Earth observation satellite (EOS) and the project development started way back in 2006.”

That was former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair.

Naturally, ISRO’s failure to launch its first Earth observation satellite on August 12, 2021 came as a big disappointment for him.

But he is certain that ISRO will bounce back, G Madhavan Nair tells Shobha Warrier/

Is the failure to launch India’s first EOS a big setback for ISRO?

In space missions, failures are not uncommon. So, this is also one such failure.

You cannot say it is a big setback. Yes, we were really surprised by this failure.

The first cryogenic engine was a failure, but after that, we have had six launches, and they were highly successful. This is the eighth launch and the failure happened in the cryogenic stage.

Now, we have only some preliminary observations available as it happened only a few hours ago. So, we cannot say the exact reason why it failed. 

I am sure ISRO will dig into it and find the precise reason, and a solution for that too in a very short time.

The other launches planned like the PSLV and GSLV Mark 3 will not be affected because of this. GSLV Mark 2 using indigenous cryogenic alone may be delayed.

I think the next launch is only after a year or so. By then, they will be able to fix all these problems.

It seems this launch was also supposed to happen last year and everything got delayed because of the pandemic. Will this failure create further delays in the plan?

Yes, the long delay was a concern.

What I have understood is that ISRO has made a lot of tests before giving the clearance. Unfortunately, the cryogenic stage is a completely sealed and welded assembly. So, exhaustive test is not possible.

It was kept under perfect storage conditions and in the normal situation, nothing should go wrong. But you cannot rule out the ageing effect. It was ready more than one year ago and during this period, any component or part can get affected. In that case, it can lead to this kind of a situation.

It is said the indigenously built cryogenic engine is fuelled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at very low temperatures. Could that be a reason?

We had perfected the same cryogenic stage and the fact that we have had six consecutive successes in the past shows we have mastered the technology.

So, this failure could be due to some defect or due to storage ageing.

Is the indigenously developed cryogenic engine more complex?

This is similar to the engine that the Russians have supplied. It is not a copy because they didn’t give all the details. So, we have developed all the sub systems here in India to withstand the cryogenic temperature, etc and we have systematically qualified it on ground. It was cleared only after that.

Complexity-wise, yes, this cryogenic engine is more complex compared to the cryogenic engines used by Europe or America. They use a simpler process while we have a slightly complex process here.

In the upper stage, most of the launches are cryogenic only. Europe has their own engine and America has their own engine. In fact, both Europe and America have boosters also made with cryogenic engine.

The Russians have not been using this cryogenic engine for launches, but they are qualified to use the bipropellant system.

They had developed this engine for one of their lunar missions.

I would say the cryogenic engine we use is extremely complex, the most complex of the rockets which we can think of. That’s why many countries encountered several failures in the initial stages.

We were lucky that we didn’t have that many failures. Still, we cannot be complacent.

ISRO tweeted, ‘GSLV-F10 launch took place today at 0543hrs IST as scheduled. Performance of first and second stages was normal. However, Cryogenic Upper Stage ignition did not happen due to technical anomaly’.

The fact is, the upper stage ignition did not take place. There can be more than a dozen reasons for why it did not happen. This has to deciphered.

They must have received huge volumes of premature data at the ground station and it will take a couple of days to go through them to come out with some sort of a preliminary analysis.

Is the loss of the Earth observation satellite, a major setback?

EOS is a very special satellite for us

In fact, it was my dream project when I was the chairman of ISRO. In 2006, we had initiated the development and in four years’ time, we had more or less completed the development. Due to various reasons, the launch was postponed.

So, I was anxiously looking forward to its success. It is going to be a fantastic asset for the country as it will be able to observe the Earth almost 24×7. 

We can zoom in anywhere and get the finer details like the flood affected areas or a landslide or even borders.

Is it the first EOS that we were trying to launch?

Yes. Most of our EOS are in the polar orbit. For the Indian region, we get about 10 minutes coverage in a day which is a very short period.

There is nothing like having our own eye in the sky which we can be zoom in to any particular region.

This EOS was supposed to be over India at around 36,000 km orbit, as a geo-stationary orbit. So, when we look from the ground, it would be constantly above us.

And it can be commanded to take pictures of any region.

So, it would have been a big achievement for India if this was successful.

Yes. You are right.

More than the money spent on building it, we are losing the functionality of such a satellite.

How long will it take to build another EOS and launch it into the orbit?

If it is a priority, in two years’ time, it is possible.

You should understand that there is risk involved in space missions and several countries have had failed missions. If you take the global launch scenario, 10% of the launches have failed.

India can be proud that our failure rate is less than 5% when globally it is 10%. That way, our track record is quite good. 

Yes, from the point of view of national importance, this was a special mission. But it is yet another GSLV and it should perform like the previous ones.

Is it not sad that this happened on the Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s 102nd birth anniversary?

Yes, it is very sad. We would have been celebrating his birth anniversary with the success of this launch. It is disappointing that we could not do it.

Personally, you must have felt disappointed because it was your dream project.

Certainly. It was a project that was close to my heart.

But, then, failures are something we must face in space missions. I know ISRO is resilient enough to spring back and come with a solution quickly.

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