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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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GOING UP IN SMOKE

There is something unsettling about incidents happening in a series. The consecutive failures of two high-profile Indian space missions ' the long-range Agni-III missile missing its target last Sunday, followed the next day by the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle going haywire in its path ' have thus evoked more alarm than usual. As senior scientists never tire of pointing out, such setbacks are routine in space programmes the world over, and India, by that count, has had a fairly good success rate. Even then, it is not entirely pleasant to behold Rs 260 crore go up in smoke. More so, because the incalculable loss in prestige can take the cost up to staggering heights. After all, the GSLV, in its operational stage, was supposed to 'make the Indian space programme a self-reliant one', and Agni-III, with its capacity to deliver a one-tonne warhead 3,500 kilometres away, was to provide a credible nuclear deterrent to both China and Pakistan.

In more immediate commercial terms, the GSLV failure is, in fact, the most costly. It was supposed to launch a communication satellite ' INSAT-4C ' into orbit that would enable companies which had signed up, both Indian and foreign, to improve their direct-to-home broadcasting services besides enabling other services like digital imaging and assistance to the National Informatics Centre. Subsequent investigation, protocol and scheduled programmes may put all this in limbo for a while, although the Indian Space Research Organization has promised that it will live up to its commitments and get the GSLV going within a year. With ISRO, the Defence Research and Development Organization (which fired the Agni) too will have to look seriously into the flaws of the new technology that may have been responsible for the hitches ' the latter, perhaps, a little more seriously. For Agni-III, like the short-range Agni-I and medium-range Agni-II, will ultimately be added to the arsenal of the army, which is said to harbour doubts about the DRDO's reliability.

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