On 15th February 2017, a significant chapter in space exploration unfolded as The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) orchestrated the remarkable "PSLV-C37" mission. The mission commenced with the precise deployment of Cartosat-2D, an Earth observation satellite designed to enhance India's understanding of its terrestrial domain. After this, it went into a series of orbits and released 103 co-passenger satellites within just 18 minutes, setting a new world record for the largest satellite constellation ever launched into space in a single mission*. The culmination of this endeavour not only showcased India's burgeoning prowess but also ignited a global conversation that thrust the nation into the forefront of the global space arena.
At the time, I was living in New York and vividly recall observing how the media broke the story. The coverage expressed a combination of astonishment, admiration, and acknowledgment of India's space capabilities, particularly in terms of the precision and cost-effectiveness showcased by this intricate mission. Central to the discourse was also it’s international significance with the co-passenger satellites belonging to a multitude of nations including India, the United States, the Netherlands, Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates, painting a portrait of collaborative endeavour that resonated profoundly amongst a global audience. The media's spotlight, focused keenly on this unprecedented feat, accentuated the enduring and universal cultural force of SPACE, a force that effortlessly transcends borders and ignites the collective spirit of exploration.
The allure of SPACE, it seems, lies not only in its scientific mysteries but also in its symbolic resonance.
It represents the ultimate frontier, an expanse upon which humanity projects its boldest dreams and aspirations. It symbolizes our innate yearning for discovery that has driven us to explore the unknown on Earth and now propels us toward the stars. Growing up with a constant stream of NASA's historical achievements portrayed in popular culture, I found myself wondering why my awareness of my own nation's space history was comparatively limited. This realization inspired us at BISKIT to delve into SPACE exploration from a fresh and distinct perspective, seeking to uncover the lesser-known facets of India’s space history.
Series of Four Artworks
As ISRO's Chandrayaan 3 achieves what no other mission has accomplished before - conquering the uncharted frontiers of the high latitude, near polar region of the Moon (near the Moon’s South Pole), I felt it was the right time to reflect on India’s voyage into the cosmic realm through the lens of four artworks I created for our first concept, SPACED OUT. Each piece is a visual manifestation and celebration of one of India’s space missions whose stories sparked our imagination and acted as triggers to explore the concept of SPACE and a world on the brink of interstellar migration.
To my surprise, one of the first things I discovered was that India's venture into space also dates back to the Space Race of the cold war era, a period characterised by intense rivalry between global powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. During this time, the global space industry was witnessing rapid progress with the Soviet Union making history by launching the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. One year later, The United States responded with the launch of Explorer 1 by the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), sparking the dawn of the space age.
Against this backdrop, India, under the guidance of visionary scientist Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, recognised the importance of space technology for the country’s socio-economic development and established Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). On November 21, 1963, it successfully launched a sounding rocket from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, marking its maiden voyage into space research and exploration. However, it was on August 15, 1969, when INCOSPAR was restructured and renamed the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), that India formed an official government space agency led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai himself, often regarded as the father of the Indian Space Program.
During the early years of space exploration, India's space program was at its infancy compared to the well-established agencies of the United States, the Soviet Union, and a few other countries in Europe. However, from its inception through to the 1970s, ISRO continued to build its expertise in space technology and satellite development, which led to the country's first satellite, Aryabhata, named after the ancient Indian mathematician and astronomer.
Launched in 1975 using a Soviet launch vehicle, the spacecraft was designed as a 26-sided polygon draped in solar cells on all sides except the crown and base. Equipped with instruments to explore X-ray astronomy, aeronomics, and solar physics, Aryabhata was a symbol of India's quest to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. However, as often happens in the grand narrative of exploration, challenges emerged. A mere four days into its orbit, a power failure struck, casting a shadow over its scientific experiments and a day later, all communication with Earth ceased. Yet, despite the setback, Aryabhata’s legacy transcends its lifespan. It was a beacon of India's emergence on the global stage of space exploration.
* The launch of 104 satellites by ISRO surpassed the previous record of 37 satellites set by Russia's Dnepr rocket in 2014.
Artwork # 1 - View of Mars / Aryabhatta
This work uses an image of Mars captured during ISRO's historic maiden mission to the Red Planet in 2013/14 (explored later in the essay) and juxtaposes it with the Aryabhatta, India’s first unmanned Earth satellite built in 1975. This piece simultaneously reflects two moments in time, acting as reminder of the distance the Indian Space Program has travelled since its first mission.