India’s space program attracted international admiration in 2023 for becoming the first country to successfully land a craft on the moon’s south pole. The program is now in its sixth decade and stands as one of India’s most successful technology missions, not least for the hard currency revenues it generates. The reasons for this success are less well known: they include inspired early leadership, considerable foreign assistance, a strategic decision to leapfrog traditional “stages of growth,” and relative autonomy from India’s powerful state bureaucracy. Over the years, the space program has moved from being a developmental focus to serving as a lens through which the nation views itself and its place in the world. The essay closes by imagining what its founders would think of the space program today.

“India’s postcolonial leaders, regardless of political ideologies, have long identified technology and its mastery as the answer to endemic and structural problems of underdevelopment and poverty.”

On August 23, 2023, an unmanned spacecraft operated by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) touched down on the lunar surface, making India the fourth country to succeed in reaching the moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, and China. (Japan followed suit on January 19–20, 2024.) Chandrayaan-3 landed near the moon’s south pole, the first such craft ever to do so. (A Russian space vehicle had crashed during an attempt to land in the same area a few days before.) For the next two weeks, the spacecraft’s moon rover conducted a series of experiments, culminating in a “hop” by the 1,700-kilogram lander itself from its original landing position to another site about 30 centimeters away.

The announcement of the successful moon landing was greeted with predictable patriotic enthusiasm across India. Evoking Neil Armstrong in 1969, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the accomplishment as benefiting “the welfare of entire humanity.” In addition to the novelty and difficulty of landing on the south pole, the significance of the Chandrayaan-3 mission is linked to the possibility of setting up a permanent base on the moon. It also reinforced the Indian space program’s reputation for relative frugality: the mission was reported to have cost just $75 million. (It should be noted that independent assessments of ISRO cost estimates are not readily available.)

While this landmark achievement may have come as a surprise to many, specialist observers have long been aware of the Indian space program as a remarkable technological success story. In 2014, a decade before the Chandrayaan-3 moon landing, ISRO was able to send an unmanned vehicle into orbit around Mars, on the Mangalayaan mission. (Chandra refers to the Moon; Mangala is the Sanskrit word for Mars.) This was another rare feat: ISRO became only the fourth space agency to reach Mars, after its US and Soviet/Russian counterparts and the European Space Agency. The achievement also stole a temporary march over India’s archrival, China, which was finally able to land a craft on the Red Planet only several years later, in 2021.

The cost of the Mars “technology demonstrator,” as the Mangalayaan mission was described by ISRO, was reportedly under $100 million. By comparison, NASA’s Mars-bound missions are reported to cost roughly half a billion dollars each. Apart from planetary missions, in the past few decades India’s launch vehicles have become a commercial favorite for their reliability and low cost. ISRO has generated millions of dollars in hard currency revenues by placing satellites in orbit for numerous governments and private corporations.

Although the Indian space agency is now a familiar presence in the Earth’s atmosphere and beyond, these successes were far from guaranteed and did not happen overnight. It has taken decades of effort to reach and maintain such a lofty position.

Depending on one’s perspective, the origins of the space program in India can be dated back to United Nations–sponsored agreements designating India as an international (that is to say, neutral) rocket launch site. Thumba, in southern India, was chosen for a number of reasons, including its proximity to the magnetic equator and the competition among great powers to win over India to their sides during the Cold War. Beginning in November 1963, the French, Soviet, and US space agencies cooperated in Thumba to launch sounding rockets for collecting data on the earth’s atmosphere. Indian space engineers and scientists gathered invaluable skills and experience from this rare example of cross-bloc cooperation.

Alternatively, the Indian space program could be considered to have begun with a novel experiment in a country that had barely entered the television age. The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), first proposed in the late 1960s, utilized then–cutting-edge satellite broadcasting technology to transmit lessons on agriculture, health, and hygiene to large numbers of farmers scattered across northern India. Since the first Indian satellite was still in development, SITE transmitted its programs through a NASA satellite held in geosynchronous orbit over India, while Japanese technical aid helped build a local earth station.

Regardless of how we frame the beginning, whether as a rare example of Cold War–era international collaboration or in terms of the benefits of technology for development, neither origin story can be told without placing the prominent scientist-administrator and progressive scion of a large business conglomerate, Vikram Sarabhai, at the center of the narrative. For this reason, he is widely considered the “father” of the Indian space program. The Cold War, relegated to the distaff side, rarely receives a mention in the local narration of India’s space story.

There is an obsession with advanced technology as a measure of national progress.

Sarabhai’s insistence on what we now call “leapfrogging” was the critical strategic decision that would make the Indian space program a core state technology mission. When Sarabhai invested his political resources and cultural capital to get the space program off the ground, its extraordinary record of achievement, half a century later, could not have been predicted. What was crucial to the eventual success and distinctiveness of the Indian space program was his insistence that a relatively impoverished third-world country could and should begin such an effort, notwithstanding its small and unsophisticated manufacturing sector and tiny class of technical experts.

As his writings and speeches make clear, Sarabhai rejected the dominant contemporary belief that India (and other developing countries) needed to go through so-called stages of growth, working their way up the technological ladder of agricultural and industrial development and gradually catching up with advanced countries, before being able to deploy the latest technologies. Sarabhai saw no reason why India could not leapfrog to the global state of the art, provided it had the necessary technical assistance, financial resources, political commitment, and skilled manpower to do so. As the Chandrayaan-3 mission would show decades later, he was quite correct. But the path to the moon was not a direct one, nor would its lessons become a universal template.

If Sarabhai’s productive impatience provided the confidence that a country like India had every right to begin a space program even as rocket components were being transported to launch pads by bullock cart, much more needed to be done before the program reached any kind of maturity. The individual who, more than any other, was responsible for ensuring the institutional autonomy and organizational resilience of the space program was Sarabhai’s successor, Satish Dhawan, who held a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology and was director of the elite post-graduate Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

The space and atomic energy programs are unique in the Indian state sector for their functional autonomy and for being headquartered beyond the reach of New Delhi’s risk-averse bureaucrats. ISRO’s leadership is based in Bangalore because Dhawan insisted that he would accept the position as head of the Space Commission only if he also continued as director of IISc. Research excellence and technical expertise, rather than the desire for administrative control, would become hallmarks of the space agency’s founding and early consolidation.

Leapfrogging required access to advanced technologies, especially hardware. Building on their earlier collaboration, foreign agencies assisted India’s space program in several ways. The USSR/Russia and France, and to a lesser extent the United States and Japan, were critical partners, making available scarce and rare technologies to the nascent Indian program, from ground stations and microelectronics to computers and helicopters. Growing expertise in solid fuels and materials engineering also emerged from these collaborations. In the years before India had the capacity to do so indigenously, its satellites were launched from Soviet/Russian facilities and the European Space Agency’s offshore base in French Guiana. In 1984, the first Indian astronaut would travel into space in a Soviet spacecraft, a major symbolic gesture reflecting the close ties between the two governments.

The French continue to be key partners in India’s plans to begin manned space flight, training mission control specialists and sharing expertise on space medicine. In 2022, the two governments signed an agreement to set up a regular dialogue on space matters. Most important, partnership with the Soviet Union/Russia and France was vital in enabling the Indian space program to acquire the expertise for mastering cryogenic engine technology, used in India’s most advanced rockets, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles.

Beyond the good fortune of having independent and confident leaders with direct links to the prime minister’s office, an essential aspect of the space program’s early success was its ability to represent itself as entirely a civilian program. This would become particularly important after 1974, when India tested a so-called peaceful nuclear device, bringing international ire and sanctions on itself, and even more so after 1983, when the government announced that it would build a “family” of short-range and ballistic missiles as delivery vehicles for military purposes. It was obvious to specialists that the military’s “integrated guided missile” program, as it was called, relied on technologies that had originated in the civilian space program. With the announcement of the new missile program, experienced personnel moved from ISRO to the Defense Research and Development Organization. Prominent among them was A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who would ride these accomplishments to become a popular nationalist icon and, eventually, India’s eleventh president, the ceremonial head of state.

The 1974 and 1983 events led swiftly to international blowback focused on controlling “dual-use” nuclear and space technologies. The US-crafted Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) directly affected India’s space ambitions, since it restricted access to essential materials and technologies needed by the program. When the Soviet Union/Russia provided India with assistance for its cryogenic engine technology program a few years later, it bypassed MTCR restrictions by upholding the fiction that there was no overlap between India’s “civilian” space program and the military’s guided missile project. From the standpoint of foreign collaborators, the prevailing view appeared to be that if these technologies strengthened India’s military capabilities at a later stage, that was a problem for future policymakers to consider.

From the Indian standpoint, being confronted with international sanctions had at least one unintended benefit. As had happened with the nuclear program some years before, sanctions forced the space agency to deepen local expertise and become more self-reliant by largely removing the easier, if more expensive, option of looking abroad to acquire rare and scarce technologies.

The Indian space program was once entirely a state project. This is no longer the case. The growth of the country’s space sector exemplifies global trends—private space companies have proliferated in the past few decades. Through its subsidiary New Space India Limited (formerly called Antrix), ISRO has launched satellites for private companies and international government agencies, raising millions of dollars in revenue in the process.

While state-owned companies remain the dominant players in the Indian space sector, they are far from alone. Unusually for an Indian state agency, ISRO has self-consciously acted as a technology incubator for the domestic private sector. By transferring technologies to hundreds of small- and medium-sized contractors, it has encouraged local innovation and created an expanding public–private ecosystem that is both dependent on and allied to the fortunes of the state space program.

In the past few years, the space sector in India has expanded exponentially, ranging from companies specializing in launch-side hardware to others focused on processing data from space missions. Some Indian private startups have attracted funding from venture capital firms that expect this sector to be a lucrative growth engine in the future. According to unconfirmed media reports, investments in new Indian space-linked companies are now estimated to total $100 million.

The rise of Abdul Kalam—from serving as an obscure, if accomplished, project leader in the space and missile programs to becoming a hugely popular president of India—needs further explication. It speaks directly to the centrality of science and technology in promoting a postcolonial and nationalist vision of India that equates the quality of political independence with the extent of technological self-reliance. With the rule-proving exception of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s postcolonial leaders, regardless of political ideologies, have long identified technology and its mastery as the answer to endemic and structural problems of underdevelopment and poverty.

Centuries of colonization had produced an elite fear that without access to the most advanced technologies, India ran the risk of succumbing again to foreign control. When, in the wake of Hiroshima, and even before independence from Britain in 1947, the scientist Homi J. Bhabha made an unlikely appeal to India’s political leadership, proposing that a poor developing country should invest in a novel and expensive program to master nuclear energy, his message fell on receptive ears.

Technology demonstrators have become ends in themselves.

When Sarabhai proposed a strategy for the nascent space program based on the argument that technological leapfrogging would bypass decades of development, bringing India into the forefront of human achievement at one stroke, his vision immediately resonated with the prevailing worldview of the political establishment. In the decades to come, others would fill the position of national technology seer, including Sam Pitroda, who rebuilt India’s telecom sector in the 1980s, and Nandan Nilekani, a hugely successful infotech entrepreneur and founder of India’s massive identity database project, Aadhaar.

The Indian middle classes have been brought up on a vision equating technological achievement with national virility. The country’s first nuclear test in 1974, its establishment of a base in Antarctica a decade later, its ongoing missions to the moon and Mars, its much-vaunted prowess as a digital superpower, and its emergence as the world’s largest maker of generic drugs are all joined within a single emotional register—reinforcing the idea that India, through its technological triumphs, has gained membership in the world’s most elite club of nations. Technoscientific achievements are constituted as both proof and aspiration for the country’s international standing.

In such a technophilic environment, Abdul Kalam, no slouch when it came to self-promotion, represented himself as India’s “rocket man,” singularly responsible for the creation of a missile force ensuring the nation’s safety. Regularly reminding his audiences that he had received all his scientific training within India, making him entirely an indigenous product, Abdul Kalam became the epitome of what was possible if India fully adopted a technologically mediated future. His election as India’s president in 2002 reinforced this vision at the highest level of government.

Claims of self-reliance and wholly indigenous production chains are necessary foundations for the performance of this national technological vision. Even as these terms are regularly invoked in public discourse, what is less publicly acknowledged is their distance from facts on the ground. Most obviously, foreign countries and companies have delivered substantial assistance to India for many of its major technology missions. That India received foreign help with its nuclear and space programs should not be something to mask or deny; practically all countries, including the United States, have long relied on international assistance to build domestic technological expertise. But in the Indian context, given the obsession with technology as the unequivocal sign of international standing, admitting such collaboration runs against the dominant sentiment that indigeneity and self-reliance are the highest national values of all.

This territorialized contradiction is even more heightened today, due to the current government’s obsession with rewriting—indeed, imagining—historical facts to foreground the ostensible cultural and intellectual accomplishments of pre-Muslim and ancient India. The desire to confirm contemporary India as the inheritor of a great civilization makes all references to the outside world deeply suspect; more often than not, it requires the scrubbing of history to ensure that ancient Hindu civilization receives its alleged due. Some public figures now assert that autonomous flying machines powered by “Mercury Vortex” engines were a familiar feature of ancient times; others, including the current prime minister—who regularly employs the neologism Atmanirbhar (self-reliance) in his speeches—have proclaimed that genetic science and plastic surgery were widely practiced in the ancient Indian past, at least according to myth and legend.

The obsession with advanced technology as a measure of national progress is also apparent—albeit very differently—in a term that constantly recurs in the discussion of Indian advances: “technology demonstrator.” First entering the public lexicon when India conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE) in 1974, the term originally sought to finesse the question of whether this was a bomb test or not. (PNEs were once touted by both the United States and the USSR as being among the civilian benefits of nuclear energy, potentially useful for producing huge underground reservoirs or building artificial harbors, so the Indian claim was not implausible.) The 1974 PNE “demonstration” effectively sent the message, “We can do it, but it isn’t a bomb”—the intention being to demonstrate the ability to carry out nuclear explosions without violating the spirit of international law. Notwithstanding this legerdemain, India immediately faced international sanctions for its action, and the US Congress would soon pass the crippling 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

The term “technology demonstrator” continues to be used in relation to advanced technology projects today, though its meaning has changed significantly. This shift in meaning is indicative of a cultural shift in Indian strategic technology institutions, from a confidence in learning even from failure to what has become a deeply risk-averse standpoint. Formerly a boundary-marking term (meant to allow India to stay on the right side of the law while garnering the benefits of letting the world know it was nuclear-capable), “technology demonstrator” has morphed into a label that foregrounds caution and institutional survival.

Since 1974, the term “technology demonstrator” has been variously used to describe an unmanned “stealth” drone, a submarine capable of launching nuclear missiles, a nuclear breeder reactor, a ballistic missile, and, most recently, the Mars mission. What is common among all these examples is that the term was used at the prototype stage, when the artifact was still some way from becoming standardized. (Needless to say, all technologies begin as prototypes, and all prototypes require testing.) But as a result of the framing of technological achievements as a prime measure of India’s international standing, technology demonstrators have become ends in themselves; the demonstration has become a public performance of national credibility.

The “technology demonstrator” is no longer a prototype being tested but a one-off event, measured in political terms, not by technical standards. The technology demonstration has morphed into a public marker of whether India is continuing its historic march up the technological ladder, making it much more than just a test of prototype performance. Within such a calculus, mission failure goes well beyond a breakdown of the technology in question—it becomes a national debacle.

When large amounts of public funds have been sunk into the development of a particular technological object, the attribution of responsibility for success or failure is always a sensitive matter. Under these conditions, calling a prototype a mere “technology demonstrator” also becomes an exercise in institutional caution: it allows the personnel leading the organization to claim success if it works and to avoid accountability if it fails. What should be of much more importance—the large-scale rollout and the long-term reliability of the artifact—is of little interest, except to end users. The normalization of such caution through the language of the “technology demonstrator” marks a striking distance from the ethos that drove the space program in its early days, a moment when the political stakes involved in demonstrating success were far higher.

In closing, it may be interesting, if entirely speculative, to imagine what the founder of India’s space program, Vikram Sarabhai, would think of the program and its direction today. It is worth recalling that Sarabhai’s original justification for creating a hugely expensive and risky space program was to bring the advantages of the latest technologies to those Indians who were in greatest need—the vast rural population, farmers in particular. An added advantage of strengthening the agricultural sector would be a reduction in migration to urban areas, he hoped, once technology could be used to enhance the inherent “richness of rural life.”

Whether it was mastering solid fuel technology and rocket launches or building satellites and their ground-based infrastructure, Sarabhai insisted that these considerable public investments would prove their worth through the developmental benefits they would offer the country. Remote sensing of weather patterns and satellite mapping of India’s natural resources, including oceans, forests, and mineral resources, would be of tremendous economic benefit, as well as being more accurate and efficient than traditional methods. If these were the immediate returns on investment in a space program, indirect benefits would accrue from spillovers into other advanced technology fields, especially chemical and materials engineering and electronics.

As his biographer Amrita Shah puts it, “This was Vikram’s dream: linking technology with development, serving the needs of the masses while nurturing a highly sophisticated work culture and scientific abilities.” She goes on to quote his deep concern that, due to the example set by the world’s most powerful countries, there could be a far less desirable outcome: “Developing nations may adopt a space programme largely for…glamour, devoting resources” not for development, “but from a desire to create a sham image nationally and internationally.”

The Indian space program has moved on substantially from its beginnings under Sarabhai’s developmental vision. Today’s missions project a very different image in the public imagination. We can be fairly confident that Sarabhai would be very pleased by the current commercial success of the ISRO launch program, seeing India now in a position to share its home-grown expertise and technology with other states. He would be delighted at the ubiquity of satellites for remote sensing and communication, a complete vindication of his original idea of leapfrogging traditional stages of growth. As the head of a large industrial conglomerate, he would undoubtedly endorse ISRO’s efforts to transfer technologies to the private sector, and celebrate the resultant creation of numerous startups and a large and growing private–public space ecosystem.

These are the outcomes Sarabhai would identify with and be proud of. What he would be appalled by—as would Satish Dhawan—is the now-commonplace sight of high-caste ISRO leaders praying for mission success at the prominent Sri Venkateswara temple in Tirumala, not far from the country’s main launch site in Sriharikota, a practice begun by one of his successors, K. Kasturirangan.

It is less clear what Sarabhai would think of the “sham image” projected by what he dismissed as “glamour” space missions—putting a landing craft on the moon and orbiting Mars, spending a reported billion dollars to establish the infrastructure and skills to conduct manned space flights, traveling a million miles to study the physics of the sun—that now dominate ISRO’s most visible activities. Though these complex missions undoubtedly speak to India’s ambition to rank among the world’s most important states and are extremely popular among the urban middle classes, they represent neither major technoscientific advances nor the vision of integrated national development that Sarabhai stood for. ISRO’s own statistics paint a deeply disappointing picture of its global and regional standing as a scientific institution.

Probably the most troubling aspect of these glamour missions, from Sarabhai’s standpoint, would be their unabashed mimicry of what other states are doing. While he was always in favor of taking on new and ambitious projects and using the most advanced technologies to overcome pressing problems, Sarabhai never lost sight of the need to identify projects and problems from a distinctly Indian standpoint. His was a vision of indigeneity that did not draw a line separating India from the world when it came to international collaboration, or look back with exclusionary nostalgia to an imagined national past to bolster the country’s self-confidence. Its justification was couched in terms of the larger public good, not claims that India needed to “catch up” or emulate some imagined global standard. This was a vision earlier expressed by Sarabhai’s fellow Gujarati and Ahmedabad neighbor, Mahatma Gandhi: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”