India's space program hitches a ride with NASA

India's first operating satellite is soon to blast into space from Cape Canaveral, riding piggyback on a NASA rocket.

Next year, a second will follow, hitching a ride aboard the United States space shuttle Columbia.

Together the satellites will greatly expand India's communications and weather watch systems and make possible direct satellite television broadcasting.

The ''made in USA'' label is an anomaly for India's space program. The third world space leader has tested homemade experimental satellites since 1975 and launch rockets since 1979.

Indian space scientists say they are learning by doing so that when the lifespan of the US-made satellites is completed in seven years, India can replace them with its own.

The $250 billion price tag for the two Indian national satellites (INSATs), launches, launch insurance premiums, and accompanying ground systems has also ignited a soaringcontroversy.

Critics charge that India should launch programs to raise living standards rather than satellites to boost its prestige. India is the world's 15th poorest nation and has a high rate of illiteracy.

Some scientists reply that India should have bought these multipurpose satellites from the West years ago when prices were lower instead of channeling funds into do-it-yourself test efforts.

India's satellite and launch-vehicle experiments have broken no new ground, according to a Western scientific observer. Most have repeated tests long since set aside by the world's space leaders.

But these arguments ignore India's desire to catch up with Western technology , and its urge for self-reliance in knowledge and resources.

India also seeks the prestige that comes from achieving third-world ''firsts'': The country delighted in the world's astonishment when it exploded a nuclear device in 1974. National pride swelled in 1980 when India joined the exclusive fraternity of nations that had successfully launched their own satellites.

Not surprisingly, India's space budget will soar during the next decade. From 1963 to 1980, $325 million was spent on space programs. For the 1980s, $1.1 billion is budgeted.

Plans include building India's own multipurpose INSATs to replace the American models, designing and building a remote sensing satellite, and developing a new launch vehicle to put satellites into orbit. INSATs are now built for India by the Ford Aerospace and Communications Corporation of Palo Alto, Calif.

Because rockets that launch satellites can also hurl missiles, neighboring Pakistan is watching the Indian space effort with more than scientific curiosity. But Indian officials maintain that the space program is entirely peaceful and that there are no plans to tap its military potential.

According to a Western scientific expert, the solid-state rockets India has developed so far are too primitive to deliver missiles accurately. Indian launch vehicles managed to orbit only one satellite in three attempts, he noted.

At present two Indian experimental satellites are in orbit. They are the APPLE communications satellite launched for India by the European Space Agency last June and the Bhaskara II remote sensing satellite sent up by the Soviet Union last November.

With the new INSAT system, India will switch from satellite testing to full-scale operations. Whether its payloads will bring a payoff to millions of impoverished Indians, in the form of better communications and weather forecasting, is a question yet to be answered.

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