|An Indian PSLV rocket with a record payload of 104 satellites blasts off from the Satish Dhawab Space Centre at Sriharikota.|
You probably missed it. I know I did. This past Wednesday, February 15 as those of us in the U.S. were transfixed with horror with the Cheeto in Charge and his imploding maladministration, India leapt to the forefront of commercial space technology when it launched a rocket that deployed a record 104 satellites in Sun-synchronous orbit. The payloads included three satellites from India, one each from Kazakhstan, Israel, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates along with 96 from the U. S. That right, India, the teeming giant that most Americans associate with the Taj Mahal, Bollywood, customer service call centers, and vast urban slums. We were largely unaware it even had a space program. Now it has impressively joined an elite club with space capabilities and effective delivery systems for commercial and scientific satellites that includes the European Space Agency, Russia, China, and Japan in addition to the U.S.
But the American space program, once the envy of the world, and symbol U.S. technological and global supremacy in the 20th Century, is floundering and beginning to lag behind its international competitors. NASA without a sexy manned space exploration program, its aging Space Shuttle fleet in mothballs, high profile deep space probes now sailing out of the solar system, and an ill-defined and under-funded “mission to Mars” proclaimed by Barack Obama now in doubt simply because it was his initiative, is in trouble. NASA now launches satellites with nearly obsolescent rockets and has to send astronauts to the International Space Station hitching a ride with the Russians.
It is also in the cross hairs of a deeply anti-science Republican Congress because its research satellites were amassing tons of data confirming the effects of man-made climate change. For that matter, space exploration has destroyed the young earth fantasies of Biblical creationists, now a powerful GOP constituency even though they are a fraction of the population.
The American space program is under oblique attack in other ways as well. Funding for research universities—the one education area where the U.S. remained at the top of the world—is deeply threatened both by the general anti-science bias of the Republicans and because universities are now despised and distrusted as hot beds of liberalism. And most recently Trump’s anti-immigrant rampage threatens top talent international professors, researchers, and students.
|On September 1, 2016 a SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded during pre-launch preparation at Cape Canaveral, a big set back to the American private launch industry.|
With NASA floundering, America has put its faith in good ol’ capitalism. Private enterprise has gotten in to the satellite launching business with mixed results. Elon Musk’s highly touted SpaceX rocket exploded at its Cape Canaveral launch pad last year destroying a multi-million dollar Israeli internet access satellite for use by Facebook.
American and international users are also building all manner of satellites much faster than the launch capacity of American companies. They have turned increasingly to international competitors. Now India has entered that race spectacularly with a particularly low cost and efficient launch vehicle.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is an expendable launch system developed and operated by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It was first the launch of developed for the launch of its Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites into Sun-synchronous orbits. That capability was previously commercially available only from Russia. PSLV can also launch small size satellites into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
In 2015 India successfully launched 17 foreign satellites belonging to Canada, Indonesia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. It also impressively launched India’s first lunar probe Chandrayaan-1; first interplanetary mission, Mangalyaan, Mars orbiter; and first space observatory, Astrosat.
These early successes sent American commercial launch companies into a full blown panic. They rushed to Congress to demand restrictions be put on the ability of American satellite producers from using the cheap Indian system or any other potential international competitors. They argued at hearings last April that, “Indian launches are subsidized by the government to a degree that other market actors would be priced out of the market.” Of course all international space programs are subsidized by their governments. It what modern governments do. And the U.S. commercial industry is itself subsidized in dozens of overt and covert ways not the least of which is being able to build on the technological base laid by NASA and employing many former NASA and NASA contractor scientists and engineers.
Congress did not act at that time and as a result the Indian launch this week included 88 CubeSats were owned by Planet Labs, an Earth imaging private company based in San Francisco and Eight Lemur-2 satellites belonging to Spire Global which will provide vessel tracking and weather measurement services. Planet Labs operates the world’s largest fleet of private satellites. Both highly satisfied customers are likely to continue to use ISRO launch services. Other customers are eager to sign on the dotted line.
So it goes in the waning days of a fading empire and its frothing, fiddling emperor.