Overconfidence Fails Cryogenic Engine
By Dr Nandkumar Kamat
Many-a-time political objectives overtake demanding testing schedules. Countries that developed and mastered cryogenic technologies have spent several decades before achieving success.
Overconfidence was seen twice during the Chandrayaaan-1 mission, when ISRO had belatedly admitted its failure in understanding the special conditions of orbiting the moon. Fortunately, some of the Chandrayaan-1 mission objectives were achieved and that cushioned the criticism of a grossly truncated mission. GSLV-D3 failed and with just one splash hundreds of crores worth of investment was lost in the Bay of Bengal. Of course, such mishaps and failures are common in technology development.
ISRO will be able to troubleshoot and learn a lot of things before it achieves success. That the first launch failed without any damage to foreign customers’ payloads is a blessing in disguise. Otherwise it would have affected ISRO’s credibility.
There was unprecedented hype generated over the test of India’s first cryogenic engine fitted to the GSLV launcher. Cryogenics deals with very low temperatures. India is a newcomer to cryogenics and cryogenic technology. It is difficult to work in areas of super coolants and superconducting materials like liquid Helium. ISRO was safe as long as it was importing and using Russian cryogenic engines. Because there was a fear of technology denial the Government of India took a policy decision to indigenise the cryogenic technology. But basically it is a dual use technology and no country in possession of this knowledge is prepared to offer all the secrets. GSLV-D3 failure also means that India would have to wait for development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit targets beyond 5-10,000 kms. There was so much hype about India’s so called indigenously made ‘cryogenic engine’ that people forgot the origin of the technology.
India needs to thank erstwhile Soviet Union and present day Russian republic for the design and blue prints of cryogenic engines. When foreign countries transfer such designs and blueprints there is always a risk in replicating them. Theoretically it is possible for every country to be technologically self reliant. But, practically, it is not possible.
Americans imitated the Germans. Japanese imitate the Americans. Chinese imitate every other country. India is good in reverse engineering foreign technologies. What’s the meaning of indigenisation? It is not an absolutely new design for a cryogenic engine. Indigenisation means fabrication or assembly of the engine indigenously but we really don’t know the extent of foreign components incorporated in an Indian cryogenic engine. Why did the cryogenic engine not start in space? It was supposed to fire for 720 seconds but it went absolutely cold. Earlier, ISRO claimed successful firing of the same engine on ground at its engine testing centre.
Billions of rupees have been invested in developing the cryogenic engine. Since no sabotage has been suspected the country has every right to know why the engine tested and fired successfully on land failed in space. ISRO itself is bit bewildered with this failure and has projected a time span of one year to give the indigenous engine another try.
But not all may be well with the original Russian design and India may not have got all the top secrets of super-cooling technology under low gravity space conditions. Testing the cryogenic engine on the ground is not same as firing it in space after coupling it with the launcher. When hard experiments are not possible computer simulations are relied upon. Did ISRO engineers simulate the firing of the cryogenic engine using computer simulations? And if ISRO discovers a simple programming/software error then what happens? As NASA’s experience shows simple computing errors, even one digit or one unit, can destroy a very expensive space mission. It was just a faulty ‘O’ ring that resulted in the space shuttle accident. Did ISRO learn everything from Russian cryogenic engineers who tested their engines? India has no experience with such complex technology. A simple error in programming, computation and simulation can lead to wrong results and wrong conclusions.
Although ISRO has come a long way after learning from several failures during India’s quest for satellite launch technology this time it is probably the overconfidence over the ‘indigenous’ cryogenic engine that resulted in the launch failure. India’s nuclear and space establishments are treated as holy cows and unlike NASA or ESA (European space agency) are seldom subjected to critical public scrutiny. Many a time patriotism may prove to be costlier.
ISRO was evasive about the Chandrayaan-1 mission failure. But still people backed it, hoping that mistakes do happen in such missions. But this time the facts need to come out because there is something disturbing about the nature of dual use technology. If Chinese hackers can compromise India’s major establishments then what about cryogenic engine technology? It has both commercial and defence implications. ISRO would not deny that the same engine can be fitted on an Indian ICBM. That changes the power symmetry in South East Asia.
Therefore more rigorous tests should have been conducted by ISRO, equivalent to what all other cryogenic engine developers have done, before using the engine in space. But considering the time and cost overrun already taking place ISRO might have rushed to launch GSLV-D3 earlier than considered necessary. Only a full independent investigation would reveal the truth. The moot point is what happens if the second launch next year also fails? ISRO may hope for the best but not before all the facts are made public instead of hiding under just politically correct technical data and excuses.
Every launch costs a lot of money and the failures cannot be justified, especially after making heavy capital investments in giving ISRO the best. It has always got whatever it had asked for without any cut in the budget. Indians have wholeheartedly supported ISRO. They would continue to do it despite failures of missions but this time the claims of indigenous cryogenic engine development have proven false. The engines impressed the media on ground but failed to perform in space. So really what was then accomplished? Some other mission would come up and people would soon forget this launch failure.
GSLV-D3 the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle failed because of ISRO’s overconfidence in its quality control and validation programme. These are still to match the precise, demanding, global standards.