01/15/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

One More Jewel in India's Space Crown

India has realized a decades-old dream by launching its first satellite into orbit last week, and doing it on a rocket built with its own technology. The launch is a major step toward placing India alongside the five other space powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Japan and Europe's Arianespace consortium -- in the lucrative market for launching telecommunications satellites. It also defeats, after almost twenty years of technology development, a block by the United States in the 1990s that pressured Russia to cancel a sale of rocket engines and other technology to India.

The rocket that India calls its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) lofted a two-ton communications satellite into orbit in what was a testament to India's political determination to overcome the U.S. obstruction. No fewer than at least six successive Indian governments sustained the funding that let the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to develop the GSLV. The rocket's ability to launch satellites promises to help India better meet its exploding communication needs.

This launch was supposed to have taken place many years earlier had Russia followed through with its promised delivery of three cryogenic engines and other technological transfers in the 1990s. India, which pursued a nonalignment policy during the Cold War, had a friendly relationship with the Soviet Union and benefited from Soviet technological transfers. The United States, by contrast, was close to India's most important rival, Pakistan. Although India insisted that the cryogenic engines would be benefit a strictly civilian program, the United States feared that their real use would be for military purposes. Russia and India complained that the United States was more interested in excluding Russia from the Indian space market rather any than in any ostensible violation of an international agreement. Russia was deeply reliant on U.S. funding and international support during its difficult political and economic recovery from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and President Boris Yeltsin buckled under U.S. pressure after the United States began to sanction Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency.

After the Russian deal fell through, India persisted with developing the cryogenic engines indigenously and mastering the technology in spite of U.S. sanctions on ISRO. In India's case, U.S. technological sanctions have made the country even more determined to acquire technology.

The Indian space program dates to 1950 when the Indian National Commission for Space Research, then under the jurisdiction of the Department of Atomic Energy, set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station with assistance from the Soviet Union, the United States and France. Over the past four decades, the Indian space program has had a systematic and phased approach to building knowledge, technological capacity, and an organizational system to ensure effective application of sophisticated technologies to national development. The Indian space program's endeavors have been predominantly civilian, and have focused on developing remote sensing, communications and a reliable launch capability.

India's impressive fleet of remote sensing satellites has been delivered by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), while India has had to depend on Arianespace for the delivery of its telecommunication satellites. The PSLV, which has delivered sixty-four satellites in orbit with a success rate of 92 percent, has remained the mainstay of the Indian launcher program. The PSLV has not only helped India pursue its objectives when it comes to low earth orbit satellites, but also has positioned India to compete commercially.

While it is premature to say whether GSLV will add to the competition in the commercial global launch market, this launch at least signifies that there exists another player in the long run. So far, ISRO has only partially succeeded in two launches out of the seven GSLV launches. However, as far as India is concerned, the recent launch will be a welcome addition to its growing telecommunication sector, both for its rapidly increasing civilian market and its nascent national security domain. Indian armed forces have been using the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) for communication at least since the 1990s. India aims to increase the number of its transponders by around 500 by 2017, as an increasing population will demand an increase in its bandwidth for communication. Meanwhile, India's armed forces are pursuing a modernization program that will demand much greater satellite communications for weapons systems such as remotely piloted aircraft and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. These requirements will have to be met at least incrementally. ISRO is India's only satellite builder, apart from several universities that have built small satellites. The agency would be required to increase the frequency of its launches or build satellites that can cater to the increasing demands. GSLV is still a welcome jewel in India's space crown.

Bharath Gopalaswamy is the deputy director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.