To understand the extent of damage caused to India’s space programme because of the ISRO spy case, one has to first look at how close India was to mastering cryogenic rocket technology.

Cryogenic rocket technology involves the use of super-cooled liquid fuels to produce massive amounts of thrust in order to lift heavy payloads into space. It will be at the heart of India's GSLV rocket, which will carry future Indian astronauts to the moon. Without a reliable GSLV India will continue to pay heavy launch fees to foreign space agencies. Because it takes several hours to fuel up a cryogenic rocket, such a rocket cannot be used as a ballistic missile.

This leads to two questions. One, if the United States is really concerned about India developing long-range ballistic missiles, then shouldn’t it try and stop the guys at the Defence Research & Development Organisation, which makes the Agni missiles? Secondly, why would the United States want to delay the development of India’s heavy lift commercial rockets?

It doesn’t require a rocket scientist to figure that out. India is the only developing country with heavy lift ambitions and its ultra-low cost model could one day put the likes of NASA out of business. That’s an eventuality that the United States wants to delay for as long as it can.

Birth of a rocket

Author and broadcaster Brian Harvey writes in his exhaustively researched book ‘Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier’ that in the late 1980s India was looking to develop a massive rocket to launch satellites into 24-hour orbit. India first talked to Japan but nothing came off it. Hearing of these overtures, the Indians were approached first by General Dynamics Corporation, which offered an American engine. But the cost was prohibitive as was an offer shortly thereafter from Europe's Arianespace.

“Just then a third approach came, this time from the Soviet Union, offering two engines and technology transfer for the more reasonable price of $200 million,” writes Harvey.

The Russians were offering a secret engine, the RD-56 or KVD-1, built by the Isayev Design Bureau. The KVD-1 had unsurpassed thrust and capabilities and NASA had nothing that could match the Russian engine for years. In fact, the rocket engine was originally developed as part of the Soviet manned moon landing programme as far back as 1964.

Over to Moscow

On January 18, 1991 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) inked an agreement with the Russian space agency Glavkosmos for the transfer of cryogenic technology. Following the collapse of its Soviet empire, Russia was under considerable American influence. In this backdrop, both Glavkosmos and ISRO anticipated the United States would try and stymie the deal.

So Glavkosmos and ISRO drew up Plan B – outsource the manufacture of the cryogenic engines to Kerala Hi-tech Industries Limited (KELTEC). The arrangement was designed to get around the provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) – a Western cabal that aims to deny ballistic missile technology to non-Western countries, especially India.

The space czars of the two countries – Aleksey Vasin, officer-in-charge of cryogenic technology in Glavkosmos, and ISRO Chairman U.R. Rao – reckoned that if Russian cryogenic technology was passed on to ISRO via KELTEC, technically it would not be a violation of the MTCR.

Rocket row

The arrangements were denounced by American President George Bush as a violation of the MTCR. In May 1992 the United States slapped sanctions on ISRO and Glavkosmos. “India objected strongly to the American actions, pointing out that high-powered hydrogen-fuelled upper stages which took a long time to prepare were of little military value,” writes Harvey.

India also pointed out the Americans had offered them the very same technology and had made no objections throughout the years 1988-92 when the arrangements had begun.

So does that mean the Americans were trying to achieve the dual aim of crippling both the Indian and Russian space programmes? Well, here’s Glavkosmos’ version.

Glavkosmos official Nikolai Semyonov accused Washington of attempting to destroy Russia's space industry. “When working out the contract, we used the MTCR guidelines in reaching the contract with India...what is more, Indian partners said at the start and later confirmed that they would use our technology exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Glavkosmos Chairman Aleksandr Dunayev said both Russia and India had called for an international inspection to determine that the deal did indeed comply with the terms of the MTCR. However, the United States did not respond to the proposal, but sent a US team to Russia to examine the situation.

Clinton: Playing hardball with India

Former US President Bill Clinton and his hawkish wife Hillary Rodham Clinton are for some inexplicable reason considered friends of India. It was under President Clinton that Russia backed off its proposals to transfer technology to India and suspended its agreement, invoking force majeure (circumstances beyond its control).

Under the revised Russia-India agreement in January 1994, Moscow agreed to transfer three, later renegotiated by India to seven fully assembled KVD-1 engines, without the associated technology. The United States also inserted a humiliating clause, according to which India would “agree to use the equipment purely for peaceful purposes, not to re-export it or modernise it without Russia's consent”. No blueprints were to be given to India.

Duma fury

The Russian Parliament, however, was in no mood to let President Boris Yeltsin bail on India. On July 21, 1993 it passed a resolution declaring that international negotiations and agreements regarding the MTCR must be ratified by the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation.

A day later, Glavkosmos upped the pressure on Yeltsin, saying a decision to alter the Indian contract needed a special decision of the government. “We shall not stop fulfilling our obligations under the (Indian) contract until there is a government decision to the contrary,” said Glavkosmos’ Semyonov.

Really friendly scientists

Russian scientists sympathetic to the Indian cause realised the tech transfer window was about to close, and decided to transfer the production technology to their old friends.

However, with American spies crawling all over Russia during the early 1990s, transferring such a large cargo wasn’t going to be easy. “ISRO first contacted Air India but the airline said it could not transport the equipment without customs clearance. And that was not possible without the American lobby in Russia coming to know about it,” J. Rajasekharan Nair reveals in his book, Spies From Space: The ISRO Frame-Up

So ISRO entered into an agreement with Russia’s Ural Airlines, which was ready to take the risk for a little extra money. According to Harvey, “The appropriate documents, instruments and equipment were allegedly transferred in four shipments from Moscow to Delhi on covert flights by Ural Airlines. As a cover, they used 'legitimate' transhipments of Indian aircraft technology travelling the other way to Moscow for testing in Russian wind-tunnels.”

This was confirmed by cryogenic team leader Nambi Narayanan who told the Indian media he was on board the flights that transported the technology to India.

The knife turns

The United States knew further arm-twisting at the diplomatic level would not be productive, says Nair. “So the CIA was entrusted with the job of aborting the circumlocutory transfer of cryogenic rocket technology through KELTEC, and of stalling or discrediting the transportation of raw materials and spare parts to ISRO.”

Who’s working for the CIA in India?

The first hint there was a foreign hand trying to destroy – or at the very least slow down – India's space programme surfaced in 1997 when five leading scientists – Satish Dhawan, U.R. Rao, Yashpal, Rodham Narasimha and K. Chandrasekhar – along with former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan wrote a joint letter to the government, saying the espionage charges against Nambi Narayanan and Sasi Kumaran were fabricated.

These were not ordinary people – they were public figures who clearly knew a thing or two about the inner workings of ISRO and the law and order system. And yet despite their plea, the IB tortured Nambi Narayanan to get him to implicated higher ups at ISRO. If Narayanan had cracked and acquiesced, perhaps the entire organisation would have collapsed.

It is a measure of how successful the CIA was in this spy game that its agents in the Kerala Police and Intelligence Bureau (IB) were able to have a swing at just about everyone in the cryogenic project.

For instance, the IB had Vasin of Glavkosmos interrogated at Moscow, and tried to link him to the case. “The IB implicated Ural Airlines after airing the lie that Ural had, as part of the espionage activities, transported documents from ISRO to Glavkosmos,” says Nair.

(Nair also claims because of pressure from above, his book was made to disappear from stores and was never reprinted.)

That the policemen who went after India’s top scientists and the IB men who guided them have been either cleared of all wrongdoing or remain unquestioned hints at their connections way up in the political leadership. The big question is who are these people who aided the CIA in scuttling India’s biggest space project?