The Indian government maintains that its space program is purely peaceful, but most outside observers believe that a possible future military use underlies the drive to develop rockets.

The one rocket that India has designed and built so far -- a four-stage, solid-fuel launcher called the SLV3 -- is, however, too unreliable to have military application. It has failed twice in three attempts to put Indian satellites into orbit, for instance.

"You can just look at the Indian space program and assure yourself that at this time it does not have any military use in mind," said a Western expert, who added that India chose to develop a solid fuel rocket because it was the cheapest.

"No one would do it except India, which is only interested in getting a few satellites up there to establish a reputation and build confidence."

Nonetheless, India's successful launch 18 months ago of a Rohini satellite aboard its own rocket brought cries from neighboring Pakistan that New Delhi was developing a missile delivery system for nuclear weapons.

These fears were underscored because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also holds the portfolios of space, defense and atomic energy.

Pointing out that all launch vehicles have the potential to be missiles, Satish Dhawan, director of the Indian Space Research Organization, insisted that "the government of India's policy is that it space is a peaceful effort.

"But," he added, "the rocket is like a knife in the kitchen. It could be a murder weapon or a thing to cut vegetables. The rocket doesn't know the difference. It's the hand that uses it."

He acknowledged that the launch vehicle SLV3 could be used to deliver military warheads.

"However," he continued, "we have not done anything like that. We can get a payload into orbit. To bring down a payload from orbit to a specified point on the ground, which is a military target, requires another form of technology, which I hasten to add can be developed by the space engineers."