Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Toulouse and the rejuvenation the Indo-French space alliance

Pranav Sharma

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with then-President of CNES, Jean-Yves Le Gall in Toulouse. [2015]
Credit: PMO Twitter Page

Space technology in the purview of the contemporary world is projected as synonymous with the greater good of humankind. It has become a voice of humanity’s conscience which could be justified by the fact that the realm of space requires the world to work together for a common goal and the results of which serve humanity equally. I am of the opinion that Space is a textbook case of diplomatic triumph, global political reconciliation, and will of the bureaucratic won’t.

The space industry of the twenty-first century is undoubtedly dominated by India. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a key stakeholder in the enterprise, has gained the power to define the global space goals of the past two decades and I must say that it is of great diplomatic value. Having said that, it is of some value as well to admit that the Indian Space Program is not run by diplomatic mandates and procedures. The program is carried out in good faith and friendship by the scientists as it always has been since its inception.

France and India have shared an important partnership in space science since the beginning of the space age in 1958. The Indian space agency, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and its French counterpart Centre National de Etudes Spatiales (CNES) have a vibrant and voluminous history of cooperation and collaboration of over six decades. Systematically through years of cooperation, both the countries have a ‘pivotal relationship’ with each other, so much so that by August 2019, France has been called “India’s new best friend” by a researcher of the Hudson Institute.

Began in the early late 1950s and early 1960s, the Indo-French collaboration in space science took a formal turn when the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established. It was at this site ISRO launched its first sounding rocket with a Sodium Vapour payload manufactured by CNES. The technology of using solid propellant for the sounding rockets and eventually liquid propulsion technology for the VIKAS engine (that powers ISRO’s launchers even now, was a development on CNES’s Viking engine) empowering the Indian Space Program was developed with French collaboration.

The MeghaTropiques satellite for monitoring tropical atmosphere launched in late 2011 and the Satellite for ARGOS and ALTIKA (SARAL) launched in 2013 are key highlights of the Indo-French collaboration in satellites that continue to provide useful data for atmosphere & environment monitoring, and ocean surface topography.

ISRO and CNES continue working on cooperative programs on earth observation, space geodesy, human spaceflight, future launch vehicle technologies, and planetary exploration.

ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has launched 4 French satellites on a commercial basis. Arianespace, France has been the major provider of launch services to Indian Geo-Stationary satellites. Subsequent to the launch of the APPLE satellite on a co-operative mode in June 1981, 23 Geo-Stationary satellites of India have been launched by Arianespace on a commercial basis including the advanced communications satellite GSAT-30 launched on January 17, 2020.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with then-President of CNES, Jean-Yves Le Gall in Toulouse. [2015]
Credit: PMO Twitter Page

We witnessed something important when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Toulouse in 2015. His interest in strengthening the space enterprise of the realm was a statement that marked India’s global leadership in space sciences. This visit was taken as an act of PM’s great respect for the space science enterprise by French scientists and as reassurance towards making the Indo-French relationship in space sciences build ambitious programs. 

The responsibility of this alliance has mostly rested in the chair of the Space Secretary who also heads the Indian Space Research Organization. The power to imagine new programs and negotiate has always stayed within the organization. Prime Minister, who is also the Minister responsible for the Dept. of Space, took upon himself to backs the program with the required political will and personal interest of the government. This fueled the enthusiasm of the program to a great extent.

The aspect of this personal interest of the Minister responsible is new and PM Modi ensured state’s unconditional support to foster the ambition of the program. The government wants the program to work on a human space flight program. This is unprecedented and exciting.

In order to understand the relationship better, I had a discussion with Prof. Jean-Yves Le Gall, the former president of CNES who worked very closely with the current Indian government and was the host of the Prime Minister during his Toulouse visit.

Le Gall was the president of CNES from April 2013 to April 2021. He stepped down six months ago. He considers himself very fortunate as the President of CNES to witness and participate in enterprising Indo-French relations in space technology. During his tenure exponential progress was witnessed, and we shaped aspiring joint missions. It is not only an exceptional advancement for the partners involved but for the science itself in terms of innovation.

He reinstates that the relationship between CNES and ISRO has been of solid trust that has influenced the technological and strategic alliance that spreads over several fields of space activities. This alliance changed the scale of cooperation and led to several social implications of these technologies.

When Le Gall became the president of CNES in 2013, the cooperation focused on climate change. We had two satellites in orbit, MeghaTropiques SARAL Altika. It was decided during his tenure (based on the relationship shared between Presidents François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi) to build much larger cooperation in the field of satellite constellations, space and planetary explorations (especially Venus and Mars), and of course, human space flight with Gaganyan.

It was about the same time when space became an important aspect of the strategic dialogue between France and India. Le Gall also hailed the development of ‘New Space’, an innovation hub for creating opportunities for the upcoming space industry. Bangalore has a second hub (after Silicon Valley) of this ‘New Space’. The Indo-French alliance in space technology has made it easier for all stakeholders to work for a common goal and have created crucial tools to make this new cooperation between industry and the space agencies fruitful.

He was impressed by the PM’s visit to Toulouse Space Center in 2015 where he hosted him. He says, “I think that the visit of PM Modi to Toulouse was a very important milestone in cooperation. The visit to France was very short, despite which he decided to travel to Toulouse to spend more than two hours in the Toulouse Space Centre. I had the privilege to speak to him, and he asked me a lot of questions. He is very curious. For me, it is, let us say the pinnacle of this cooperation, of course, it occurred in 2015 but I am sure that in near future, the visit of PM Modi, the Indian PM in France or the French president will be of great value to the cooperation. The visit of such a high-level politician was a demonstration of the fact that this cooperation is very very important.”

During this visit of PM Modi to France, he had extensive discussions with his counterpart on bilateral, regional, and global issues reflecting their convergence in world views. We saw a reaffirmation of their commitment towards Indo-French strategic partnership. There was also a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Indo-French space cooperation. To honour its fruitful and successful outcomes from joint research to joint missions, the two leaders welcomed the signing of a Programme between their Space Agencies for strengthening cooperation in space activities. This included addressing the realization of a third earth observation mission, earth observation applications, planetary exploration; MoU on Ka-band propagation experiment; and a document to extend the utilisation of Indo-French Joint Satellite, MeghaTropiques, for two more years. It must be noted that after this visit Indo-French relations in space triumphed and expanded unprecedentedly. This visit was not only a diplomatic triumph, it was also an important event in the history of science, a point of inflexion, the results of which India has witnessed already and will continue to see in the future.

Pranav Sharma is a Science Historian and the Curator of the project on documenting the history of Indo-French scientific partnership.

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