Falling to earth
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Internal skirmishes aside, the underlying issue at ISRO is a lack of vision on national and commercial interests
Just a couple of years ago, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched Chandrayaan-1, the country's first ever moon probe, and detected water on the moon. Around that same time, ISRO announced that it would land an Indian on the moon by 2020 through a low-cost space flight programme.
From such morale-boosting highs, it has been quite a fall for ISRO. In 2010, two consecutive GSLV rocket launches turned out to be duds. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the government's Department of Space banned four prominent former ISRO scientists, including its former chairman, accused of wrongdoing in a deal, from holding any government-related posts. The confidence at India's space research organisation could not have plummeted any lower.
For decades Bangalore-based ISRO was a symbol of India's self-reliance and its pride for the first-rate indigenous technology development. Support for India's space programme transcended partisan politics and governments of every hue backed it through the decades. ISRO was not just another science organisation but a passionate mission where exceptional, motivated scientists converged and worked on innovations in sparse working conditions and with shoestring budgets.
ISRO was an organisation known not just for its high-calibre talent but also exceptional leadership. It is amongst a handful of global organisations that built and launched satellites, and at prices that make its competitors weep. But recently, a series of setbacks beg the bigger question: is ISRO in the doldrums because of India's lack of articulation and formalisation of a space policy?
The controversy which has divided India's scientific community is the government's ban on the four space scientists including former ISRO chief G. Madhavan Nair in the face of a controversial deal. ISRO's commercial arm Antrix Corporation signed a deal to lease transponder capacity on the valuable S-band spectrum for 12 years to a private company called Devas Multimedia for $300 million. That agreement was signed in 2005 but was cancelled by the government a few years later before it became operational.
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