India used bullock carts and high technology to become the only Third World nation to plant its own flag firmly in outer space.

One of the two "made in India" working satellites currently orbiting the earth was carried to an open field near the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) center here in an all-wood bullock cart so scientists could gauge its radio-magnetic emissions in a metal-free environment.

The space scientists here are proud of that mix of ancient and modern, which reflects Indian society itself, and they display the photograph of the spacecraft on the bullock cart as part of the research center's promotional slide show.

India's space experts justify the expenditure of $664.5 million on the space program during the past 19 years as part of the job of turning an underdeveloped country into a modern nation, a job they say must be accomplished by Indians, not foreign experts.

As a result of India's push to develop its own space program, 18 months ago it became one of seven nations to launch its own satellite into earth orbit with a domestically manufactured rocket. The tiny Rohini satellite spun around the earth for a full year, longer than expected, before falling into the atmosphere and burning up.

India has not done as well with two other tries to launch satellites into orbit atop its four-stage, solid-fuel rocket, SLV3. The first try, in the summer of 1979, was called "partially unsuccessful" after the satellite sputtered into the sea shortly after launch because all the stages did not ignite. The latest attempt, last May, stayed in space only 10 days instead of the planned 90 because the rocket failed to lift it into a high enough orbit.

Despite these problems, common to all fledgling space efforts, India's satellite-building program is rated by outside experts as a success.

Four Indian-made satellites are currently circling the earth, two still working while the others were turned off after having done their jobs.

They all were launched on other nation's rockets, three supplied by the Soviet Union and one by France. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is to launch two communications satellites now being built for India by an American company.

While India's satellites represent significant technological achievement, they still are a decade or two behind current technology. Space officials here agree with the observation of a Western scientist that "there is nothing India has done that has not been done elsewhere."

The Soviet-launched, Indian-made Bhaskara I, for example, was doing less-sophisticated remote sensing of the earth for India in 1979 than two American spacecraft -- Mariner 6 and 7 -- did 10 years earlier.

Nonetheless, ISRO director Satish Dhawan staunchly defended as part of the job of nation-building India's policy of making its own satellites rather than buying them from the world's technological giants.

"We are at a stage of development and our geopolitical position as a nonaligned nation is such that we have got to build our country and utilize our best talent and manpower," he said in a conversation with a group of foreign correspondents visiting the space facilities here.

"How do we utilize them if we go on buying satellites? There are many examples around the world that tell you if you don't build your nation yourself no one else is going to come and build it for you," he continued.

He and other Indian space officials maintained that the price is cheap compared to what India has attained, though other experts believe this country could have gotten more for its money sooner by buying satellites and technology.

Dhawan, however, insisted that India needs to learn how to use high technology to prosper.

Without it, he said, "we would not have the self-reliance, the strength . . . to influence world markets. You are merely the recipients of the results of world marketing."

Following that policy, Dhawan, 51, promised that the next generation of communications satellites will be Indian-made, and some time in the next decade India will be able to launch these large, complex and expensive satellites with its own rockets.

Experts doubt that India will be able to achieve those ambitious goals, especially the ability to loft a satellite into orbit with the needed degree of reliability on an Indian-made rocket fired from Sriharikota Island in the Bay of Bengal, about 50 miles east of Madras. The rocket that lifted an Indian satellite recently is not considered reliable enough for such an expensive load.

While ISRO follows the national credo of trying to make satellites and rockets itself, the space effort is not isolated from the mainstream of world technology the way India's flagging nuclear program is. India was forced to go it alone in its nuclear program because its diversion of technology and materials for India's 1974 atomic blast violated international standards.

The space effort plays a major role in India's campaign to project itself as the most developed of the undeveloped nations -- a leader in the Third World, a power on the South Asian subcontinent, a force to be reckoned with in international affairs and an incipient industrial giant.

The government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who also holds the portfolio of minister of space, would rather see India portrayed as a space-age nation than as the 15th poorest country, with half of its 650,000 villages lacking electricity and two-thirds of its 680 million people unable to read or write.

Some Indians, however, question the wisdom of spending India's scarce financial and technical resources on a space program.

In an article in the Indian Express last month, Jagan Chawla criticized the boasts made by press and politicians after the launch by France of the Indian satellite Apple, which Gandhi called "a symbol of our growing technological self-reliance."

According to Chawla, "Apple is not a fully Indian communications satellite as it was made out to be." ISRO officials acknowledged that half of its components were brought from overseas, though they said with more time India could have made most of them.

India is the seventh nation in the world to launch its own satellite into orbit, for instance, only because other, more technologically advanced countries decided it wasn't worthwhile to to so. The other six countries to have launched a home-made satellite with their own rocket are the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, France, China and Japan.

ISRO Director Dhawan said he sees space technology as a tool for the future development of India, a way to bring communications to the vast areas of the country that virtually are cut off from the world; to give television to remote villages -- helping teach the illiterate to read and write and the farmers to get better crop yields -- and to help manage national resources by providing up-to-date information about forests, crops and weather.

Putting a man in space -- an offer the Soviets made in 1977 and which is often repeated in statements from Moscow -- appears to have a low priority for Dhawan.

To make sure that everyone in the space program understands its real aim, a stark picture is posted in each of ISRO's four centers around the country.

It shows a poverty-striken young woman holding an undernourished baby, a familiar scene throughout India.

"That is to remind us that we are using very hard resources so we have every reason to be careful as to how we spend them," said T.N. Seshan, the ISRO secretary.