The Sabotage of India's 'Cold Dreams, the Cryogenic death and revival'
History was written in golden words on 27th August 2015, by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). ISRO had flown the Indian flag high and had made the nation proud by fortifying its position in the 'Cryo Club'. ISRO successfully completed the launch campaign of GSLV – D6 carrying India’s latest communication satellite GSAT – VI to a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). Equipped with the indigenous Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS), the GSLV – D6 had a textbook lift off from the Second launch pad at SHAR. After a undergoing the preparatory 29 hour countdown, the 416 tonne, 49 m tall GSLV-D6 carrying the 2117 kg GSAT-6, blasted off towards the sky as the clock struck 16:52 Hrs.
At about T -5 seconds before the scheduled lift-off, the four external strap-on's powered by a liquid propellant were ignited signalling the launch of GSLV-D6. Assisted by the solid propellant fueled first stage core motor, GSLV blasted off carrying the dreams of ISRO high-up to the skies. With the HSS separating the control room at SHAR, glued its sight to the giant trajectory tracer. With the Second stage successfully burning out and separating, the wait for the CUS ignition had began. The indigneously developed CUS ignited, lifted the payload soaring up and separated following a flawless flight . Following this, GSAT-6 separated from CUS about 17 minutes after launch. The CUS or Cryogenic Upper Stage was a technology that took ISRO years to develop. The way CUS was constituted is no short of any thriller story!!! So what exactly followed in India mastering this technology?
|GSLV - D6|
The development of Cryogenic system is an extremely complicated process and often requires the best technologies available in the field to be implemented to obtain the most efficient result. ISRO worked years to master the technology which was denied repeatedly by the world powers just for the fear of a reverse engineered ballistic missile technology landing right in the doors of ever capable Indians. The GSLV program was constituted in the 1980’s by the Indian government to master the technology for launching Geosynchronous satellites to GTO. With the PSLV program being a great success, ISRO choose to retain junk of major components used on the PSLV and also decided to field the liquid fuelled Vikas engine. The barrier in attaining GTO was always the need to master Cryogenic technology.
The only nations that had mastered the complex cryogenic technology were USSR and USA. India approached both the nations for the complex technology to be in house and to be incorporated in its further mission. USA responding positively to the request had put in charge General Dynamics Corporation for gifting India it’s last piece in the space race. But the cost was a concern and America denied providing ToT, at certain key junctures, fearing a flank ISRO soon turned down the American offer. The next in the race was India’s trusted ally, Russia, which promised India the KVD-1, built by the Isayev Design Bureau. The KVD-1 had unsurpassed thrust and launch capabilities, the very same engine was developed as a part of Russia’s race to land men on moon. Russia offered two fully built KVD-1 and also promised a complete TOT, all a mere cost of US $200 million deal.
On 18th January 1991, ISRO and Russian Space agency Glavkosmos signed an elaborate agreement for the ToT of cryogenic engines. The ToT would India would join the league mastered only by Russia and USA and theoretically, India would also have a system that could be mutated to an effective IRBM system with sustained efforts. But the mutation was not an easy process, and the use of hydrogen as a propellant in the upper stages meant that the system could be launched at moments, as against ICBM system requirements. America actively pursued every possible way to curb this development and landed upon the ‘violation of MTCR’ agreements by Russia. With the collapse of USSR, and facing an economical downfall Russia itself was under the umbrella of USA.
With Russia and India not yielding to the international pressure, USA imposed sanctions on ISRO and Russian space agencies and chocked every development project implanted by ISRO with foreign collaborations. Under the pressure of Clinton, Russia finally backed down on the deal agreed to supply India seven fully built engines for further missions. With Russia denying the technology, the race an indigenously developed Cryogenic system was kicked off by ISRO. Very few breakthroughs were made in the years to come, India was forced to either work in incognito or acknowledge the project by seeking the help of international players. Rumours of Russia covertly transferring the technology to India are a common part of the developmental story.
The said deal is captured by Brian Harvey in his book ‘Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier’. With Russia agreeing to ratify the MCTR clauses, a small window for the transfer of technology opened up but that mandated the deal could never be acknowledged by both the nations. Harvey quotes ‘ISRO contacted Air India and requested to transport the components and blue prints without acknowledging the parcels’. Air India soon turned down the request raising concerns about the large CIA network that would be tipped at the slightest of the onset on Indian bound flights. The next in the list was Russian ‘Ural Airlines’, with Russia backing the deal Ural was soon to agree for the deal.
The risk was huge but the relationship between India and Russia was eternal, India was an ally Russia could never manage losing and it went the other way around. With America pushing diplomatically to seal all the loops, the transfer were shrouded in secrecy active spy ring of CIA was scouring Russia to catch hold of USSR’s technology. Russia then transferred the relevant documents, equipments and machinery on board covert Ural flights which were accounted as transferring Indian aircraft technology to be tested in Russian wing tunnel facilities.
Every single flight had to be meticulously planned, every component had to be accounted for and a perfect cover drawn, the slightest change and America would be catching up with the story. The transfers had to happen in the dead of the night, the biggest problem was when the components were being loaded in Russia. The aircraft was officially carrying aircraft components from India, so the aircraft had to be sent to India with minimal load, every cargo going on was personally being handled by 'Nambi Narayanan' who had made several trips to Russia. The risk of CIA or other intelligence agencies tracking the package was always a live threat, the way the components reached 'VSSC, Thriuvananthapuram' has been never revealed to the public. The risk was immense but Russia had covertly passed on the blueprints and basic technology to India for starting off with its indigenous cryogenic dream.
By 1992, the work on the cryogenic systems had started in VSSC, Thriuvananthapuram under secrecy but the constant visit of top space brains to the facility had set-off alarms in Washington D.C. CIA by then had confirmed the existence of a project being actively pursued by ISRO to develop a powerful launch system. CIA had thus got the wind of the project and soon tapped its sources in Russia, within months the free flow of technology to ISRO was confirmed and as an icing, CIA received disturbing news of India having achieved major breakthroughs in the development project.
It is strongly believed by the late 1994, ISRO had significantly mastered the technology and were in the process of implementing the complex tech barrier to attain the masterpiece. But by then a jolt had struck the project right at its heart, a major scandal involving key personnel of VSSC was aired in national news channels across India. Two eminent scientists 'Nambi Narayanan', Project Director (PD) of Cryogenic project and 'D. Sasikumaran', In-charge of Propulsion were charged of leaking crucial information to foreign intelligence agency agents. Serious charges of Espionage was levelled against the top brains of ISRO, they were accused of transferring key developmental data two Maldivian intelligence officers after accepting millions for the exchange. The charges were grave and on 30th October 1994, 'Narayanan' was arrested on charged of Espionage and falling for a well set honey trap.
|Narayanan, Frm. Deputy Director Cryogenic System|
A detailed investigation by CBI, Intelligence Bureau (IB) found the charges to have been purely fabricated at the behest of an unseen force. The whole case was dismissed by the Supreme Court, the apex judiciary body in India. A compensation of around Rs 1.5 crore was awarded to each individual and every charge leveled was subsequently dropped. They never returned to the developmental wing of ISRO, they were reinstated in 1998 and were transferred out of VSSC to a desk job in HQ, Bengaluru. Narayanan was the one who introduced the concept of liquid propulsion in India, a revolutionary technology which changed the course of space capabilities possessed by ISRO. India’s celebrated ‘Chandrayan’ and the ‘Magalayaan’ missions were centric around the Vikas liquid propelled engines, a pet project of 'Narayanan'. D.Sasikumaran was the men in charge of fabricating and manufacturing cryogenic systems but his designation today is in SAC, Ahmadabad.
The real target was always compromising India’s quest for Cryogenic technology, India was extremely close to realizing this dream, work was headed in the right way and India was not really far from realizing the dream. ISRO had succeed in setting up test facilities in Mahendragiri, TN where repeated tests had proved the project was headed down the right way. The GSLV was designed to be a three staged rocket, a solid propellant motor was to fire the rocket in the primary flight just after the external strap-on’s separated. Led by India’s most celebrated scientist ‘APJ Abdul Kalam’, India had successfully developed the solid motors, the technology was being actively used in SLV and missile systems.
|SasiKumaran; Fmr. In-Charge Cryogenic Systems|
The next up was the liquid propulsion systems, which was being mastered under the guidance of 'Narayanan'. The upper stage was to be powered by cryogenic system, which India had imported from Russia at a whopping cost of US $220 million. India was a rapidly developing country, placing satellites in the GTO was a sheer necessity to India. Further import from Russia was economical unviable and seeking the help of USA was humiliating, may this was the force that kept us driving. Cryogenic systems were being developed by VSSC under 'SasiKumaran', India after all had the blueprints from Russia. World had several times realized the capability of India, given a clean slate India was capable of putting up the best image. The case was complicated here, India had the know-how, and the answer was ready made only implication was to be made.
Given all the factors, India was bound to master the technology in less than a decade. The threat of India developing an IRBM was never a worry, global powers had realized DRDO was way ahead in the GMP and was bound to bring the world under its reach. But the real concern for global powers was the commercial interest, India was known to develop technology at the lowest possible production cost. The project rate itself would be extremely minimal, India was capable of offering extremely cost effective GTO missions to the world. A few nations had conquered this complex technology, the need was high, and every country needed a satellite for secure communications and for their forces. Losing the market to a third world country was a concern for some of the leading countries. The only way out was to block from India developing a cryogenic engine.
Countries had tried diplomatically to wind up the project, it had worked but the knife had turned, the diplomatic pressure had meant India had its free hand in tweaking the technology to its need. MCTR had worked initially but now the program was shrouded in secrecy even worrying it was being developed indigenously, there was no way India could be publically driven away from achieving a mile-stone. The only option was a surgical strike right at the heart of the program, India loved peace and the world had reciprocated the damage peacefully, any new drama’s a befitting reply was guaranteed. Hence the blow was struck silently as covertly as the project had started. Two of its top brain framed in a case that never had the base, a case that saw some of the ugliest faces of Indian politics coming out from the hiding shadows.
|The Cryogenic Engine|
The external force had succeeded in getting the top brains both directly in-charge of the cryogenic project being forced to abstain from work. Espionage was a serious allegation and demanded through grilling, at the end truth had prevailed. 'Narayanan' and ‘SasiKumaran’ were held back from their office for 4 years, before being reinstated. The ‘Cryogenic project’ had suffered, the damage was done, and the Project Director (PD) was in a jail and the In-Charge of propulsion and Cryogenic systems accompanying his PD in the cell. The case was nothing short of counter-intelligence operation, the eminent souls ‘Narayanan’ and ‘SasiKumaran’ were merely the collateral in a massive operation against Indian interests. India’s Cryogenic dream was put on a back burner, for once the motivational level of ISRO was questioned but there are no barriers for reasoning and developing minds. And there’s ample of it in the ever capable ISRO, the Cryogenic dream is a reality dream today. We’re a select few in the world to posses this complex technology, be proud we developed it indigenously but let there be remorse it was at the cost of the career of two of India’s brightest minds.
The question that will haunt us for years to come is the role of the foreign agencies. Was there no foreign agency involved in it, but everything a mere coincidence? Coincidence doesn’t play out in a organization, surely not in the case of two meticulously working scientist. So who was it really at the end who had partially succeed in sabotaging, India’s dream project? Was it the Russians? Surely not they worked with us, they transferred the technology right under the Scanner. How about considering Pakistan, India’s long time foe? Well the possibility is real, but could Pakistan really get to know something Indian agencies had shrouded in secrecy, the world’s best agency was yet to get a taste, ISI making a mark is really bleak. The other three in the list are a bit interesting, how about USA, France and China?
|Cryogenic Upper Stage being integrated with GSLV - D6; ISRO|
Well it sounds a bit like a power league story, but the one’s to really make anything out of the deal were only these nations. France was a nation that was still mastering the developed technology, the path an ahead for tasting success was pretty far. France is a nation that has stood by India’s side even during its toughest time, remember France is one of the only nations not to impose sanctions on India shortly after nuclear tests. China is a possible conspirator, tensions were high but China itself was still developing the technology and was on the path to prove the Asian power to the world. The rise of India would surely have been a concern for China, but the resources at its disposal were extremely minimal, was it really capable of pulling off such an orchestrated operation. The first on the list would be USA, America had successfully developed the cryogenic system and India relied heavily on their launch system, would you let your costumer develop on your technology and on the top take away your clientele? Sounds a bit realistic, justified and worrying, doesn’t it. Was it after all the world’s best spy agency CIA under the behest of Clinton, which had blocked the ToT that had momentarily sabotaged India’s cold dreams? The question will never be answered, its our imaginations our conclusions but for victims like 'Narayanan' and 'SasiKumaran', the question haunts, their future stares at uncertainty. But the lose is for ‘India’, isn’t it ?????
Article - Karthik Kakoor