Buoyed by the success in co-developing the Vikas Engine, India struck a deal, in 1991, with its all-weather ally Russia to procure a handful of KVD-1 engines and the technological know-why, hands-on training for producing the engines within India

Now American President and then (1992) Senator from Delaware, Joseph R Biden played a crucial role in denying India the Cryogenic engine technology that powers India's GSLV series of heavy-lift rockets. The GSLV series of rockets are meant to launch payloads between 2 and 4 tons to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO), it is the heaviest rocket of this class, which will also launch India's Human Spaceflight mission Gaganyaan. "This is no minor sale; this is dangerous" he described the then Indo-Russian deal for the Russian 'KVD-1' Cryogenic engines, which are among the best in the world. Back then, America tried every dirty trick to scuttle India's rapidly progressing space program. It is widely regarded that the Americans did succeed in eventually delaying India’s march into Space. Joseph R Biden was among the overt contributors in this act, which India (to its own peril) refused to resist effectively or immediately overcome.

Barely 35 years after having established the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in a ramshackle church-turned-laboratory in Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram, on India’s Southern Coast, the country was able to launch its PSLV rocket in 1994. This was a significant feat for a country that had been launching experiments ‘sounding rockets’ akin to fireworks until the late 1960s, when America landed Man on the Moon.

A large part of the PSLV rocket’s success and reliability is owed to its Vikas Engine, that was co-developed by ISRO and French SEP Engineers. It was Princeton-postgraduate ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan(now regarded as the Father of Liquid Propulsion engine technology in India) who led an ISRO team in co-developing the engine (which the French call Viking-3 and India calls Vikas). Notably, this engine powers the PSLV and GSLV rockets, even today.

Buoyed by the success in co-developing the Vikas Engine, India struck a deal, in 1991, with its all-weather ally Russia to procure a handful of KVD-1 engines and the technological know-why, hands-on training for producing the engines within India. Such a deal was India’s best and fastest shot at entering the global league of heavy-lift rockets. Valued at Rs.235crore, this Russian deal was barely 1/4th the price that the American company General Dynamics had quoted for selling India inferior American Cryogenic engines. However, the American intelligence apparatus caught wind of the Russian deal and tried every trick in the bag to scuttle it and eventually delay the Indian Space program.

Among the methods used by the Americans included sanctions on the Indian and Russian Space Agencies, besides invoking an irrelevant ‘Missile Technology Control Regime’(MTCR) pact, that prevented the proliferation of long-range missiles. Ironically, Americans themselves had offered India the same Cryogenic technology for a higher price(which was then not objected under the MTCR). Also, it was well known to all military-powers that Cryogenic Engines found no use in missiles(which are powered by solid and not super-cooled fuels). When the sanctions did not impact the Indian or Russian space agencies, both of which did not do business in the US, the Americans started trying even harder to trash the deal.

The disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union had made matters easy for America to arm-twist and threaten Russia, by denying financial aid to the crumbling superpower. “I am confident that the Russian leaders will recognize the wisdom of stopping this sale once they see the risk of losing their economic aid. This is no minor sale; this is dangerous.” LA Times quotes Biden from 1992. The then Senate committee(of which Senator Joseph Biden was a member) threatened to block $24billion in aid to Russia, if Russians went ahead with the rocket deal with India. Despite all these threats, Russia and India went ahead with their deal and devised workarounds to circumnavigate American dirty tricks.

However, all of these efforts by India and Russia came crashing when compromised personnel of the Kerala Police and senior officials the Indian Intelligence Bureau, fabricated the famed ‘ISRO Spy Case’. The main victims of the case were those linked with India’s cryogenic engine project, specifically - Nambi Narayanan, Cryogenic Project Director at ISRO, who had also played a crucial role in developing India’s Vikas Engine. While Nambi Narayanan languished in jail and was tortured brutally by the IB and Kerala Police, the political fallout of this case in Kerala helped one faction of the then Kerala Congress to topple their own incumbent Chief Minister and install a new one.

After India’s Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI) took over the case, it was established that the ‘ISRO Spy Case’ was a conspiracy fabricated by officials of IB and Kerala Police. However, given India’s excruciatingly slow Judicial system and labyrinthine processes, those who conspired against the National Space Program are still scot-free(Court proceedings and probe ongoing).

The involvement of criminal elements in IB and Kerala Police might give rise to the question of how Joseph Biden or America are connected to this conspiracy. The answer is simple - the Americans were successful in delaying India’s Cryogenic engine project, to the advantage of their own Space Industry and global launch market dominance.

If all went as planned, had India developed its Cryogenic engine and deployed it on a GSLV rocket by the end of the millennium, India would possibly have had a significant share of the pie, in the US-dominated (then $330billion) global space economy. This would have enabled India to progress throughout the decades of the 21st century and grow into a significant space player. While India eventually did develop its Cryogenic engine, it is noteworthy that - as of 2021, India’s share of the $447bn global space economy is less than 2%.

In the last three decades, the India-US bilateral relationship has improved so much so that, ISRO and NASA will be launching a joint mission NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) in 2022. These days, the US Government dubs India as a “strategic partner”. What remains to be seen is, if the US will mean this in earnest and compensate the Indian Space Research Organization for the precious years lost and the significant damage done. Would the US, under Biden-Harris be open to involving India in high-end projects pertaining to the International Space Station, Space Force or advanced exploration missions, technological collaborations that could enable a quantum leap for India. Or will these projects remain open only to allies?

Whichever way it heads, it wont be an excuse to forget the bygone chapters of American evils perpetrated on India and also India’s own pathetically lackadaisical and sluggish responses to these historical injustices.