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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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June 19, 2020

ISRO Launches India's First Communications Satellite

On 19 June, 1981, the European Space Agency launched an Ariane-1 rocket from their Guiana Space Center in South America. Among its payload was India’s first communications satellite, the Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment or APPLE, meant as a testbed for the technological capabilities of the Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO.

In India’s early years, space research was a patchwork endeavor involving astrophysicists, nuclear physicists and government engineers, without any semblance of a unified structure or vision. Over the 1950s, however, groups of physicists began congregating around India’s new scientific institutions. Homi Bhabha had founded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945 as a home for dedicated scientific research, and it soon attracted many of India’s most prominent scientists, including the physicist Vikram Sarabhai, who set up his own research laboratory two years later. In 1950, Bhabha was appointed secretary of the new Department of Atomic Energy; under him, the Department began funding space research across the country.

While progress was made in the study of particle physics and cosmic radiation in the following years, Vikram Sarabhai and his colleagues had begun developing a different vision of Indian space research. The Space Race between America and the Soviet Union began in earnest in 1957 with the Soviet launch of the world’s first satellite, and intensified in 1961 with the first human spaceflight. Great strides were made in manned spaceflight in the 1960s, but Sarabhai realized that poor, developing India couldn’t hope to compete with the Cold War powers at that level. His vision instead focused on the potential benefit of satellite technology for observation, communication, and navigation for India’s development. In 1969, the same year that the United States finally put a man on the Moon, ISRO was founded to centralize space research in furtherance of Sarabhai’s goals.

It took another 12 years for ISRO to be able to launch the APPLE satellite successfully, and the path wasn’t smooth. In 1975, ISRO’s first experimental satellite, Aryabhatta, experienced a catastrophic power failure four days after deployment. In 1979, ISRO’s first attempt at its own satellite launching system, SLV-3, spun out of control and into the Bay of Bengal. That same year, however, the Bhaskara-I satellite, containing cameras to collect hydrology and forestry data, made it to orbit aboard a Soviet rocket. With Bhaskara-I functioning as a proof-of-concept for civilian application of satellites, the next step was an experimental communications satellite offering the possibility of connecting the scattered cities and villages of India. On 19 June, 1981, APPLE was launched aboard a European rocket, and was positioned in geostationary orbit about a month later. Despite a minor solar panel failure, it worked.

ISRO wasted no time in trying to roll out the INSAT series of communications satellites over the next decade, but further mishaps complicated the way. INSAT-1A, launched in 1982, but was quickly abandoned after a number of equipment failures. INSAT-1B in 1983 was almost abandoned after similar malfunctions, but managed to deploy its solar panel array and come online. For the first time in history, India’s cities and remote villages had a means by which to stay in contact with the rest of the country without relying on fragile telephone and telegraph networks. INSAT-1C, meant to build on this by carrying All-India Radio and Doordarshan Television, functioned for a year before a power system failure knocked out most of its satellite transponders. The last of the generation, INSAT-1D, managed to suffer massive damage before its scheduled launch in 1989 when a crane fell on it. After repairs, it launched in 1990, replacing the ageing INSAT-1B.

With INSAT-1D’s multirole capabilities - including meteorology, communications, and imaging - the Indian government finally felt able to trust it’s indigenous communications capabilities. Though the Cold War had ended by this point, India’s position in the world remained precarious, and an independent satellite system was an important tool to have. To name just one benefit, the INSAT-1 series allowed India to stop leasing satellite bandwidth from the Arab countries’ ARABSAT network at both high cost and the pressure of constantly renegotiating renewals. That is not to say that the INSAT-1 series was a triumph of Indian engineering; the series’ satellites were largely built by the American corporation Ford Aerospace, and taken into orbit on foreign vehicles. The INSAT-1 series, however, highlighted for ISRO’s planners the problems inherent in relying on foreign, contract-based satellite design. The INSAT-2 series, launched through the 1990s, would be designed and built by ISRO in a trend that continues to the current INSAT-4 series of communications satellites. The reliance on foreign rockets - remember that the first APPLE satellite was launched on a European rocket - further spurred ISRO to develop its own low-cost launch vehicles, a science at which it has since become a world leader; through its commercial arm, Antrix, ISRO launched 239 foreign satellites between 2016 and 2019.

What all this means, in summary, is that the launch of the APPLE satellite on 19 June, 1981, was both a step in furtherance of ISRO’s goals and a new direction. Somewhere in the years since, ISRO changed from a merely functionalist agency to centralize Indian space endeavors into a genuine national project - not just a way for India to get Doordarshan to the villages, but a demonstration of Indian technological expertise in its own right. The planners behind the APPLE satellite may not have seen such developments coming, but given how important it was for India to develop its own independent space capabilities to survive in the modern world, they may have been inevitable.

Sahaj Sankaran

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