How to Catch a Star

A book that cashes in on the curiosity over India’s space programme after its successful Mars mission

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Published: December 13, 2014 1:26 am

Book: Reaching for the Stars: India’s Journey to Mars and Beyond

Authors: Pallav Bagla and Subhadra Menon

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 280

Price: Rs 899

If you were following the news of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), you would be aware of many of the oft-repeated facts by now: that it is the cheapest Mars mission ever, that it was prepared and launched in just about 15 months, that India is the only country to have got its Mars mission right in the very first attempt. And maybe, some more: that the mission will be looking for the presence of methane on Mars, that India will follow this up with a second mission to the moon; a mission to study the sun and also send a man to space. Each of these, and many more, factoids has a fascinating story behind it. The Mars Mission has generated an interest in India’s space endeavour like never before.

And it’s not just because MOM has reaffirmed India’s position in the top four or five space-faring nations. Over the last decade or so, ISRO has been reaping the harvest of the very far-sighted investments it made in the 1970s and 1980s. There were numerous launches in the last few years, both strategic and commercial. They used to make news but never generated the kind of excitement that was witnessed during Chandrayaan, the moon mission, in 2008. Just five years later, ISRO followed it up with the Mars mission. Unsurprisingly, there is expectation of more, and nobody thinks there is any space activity beyond the capability of ISRO.

Reaching for the Stars: India’s Journey to Mars and Beyond is a timely effort to satiate this curiosity about India’s space programme after Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan. This is the second book on ISRO by the authors, the husband-wife team of Pallav Bagla and Subhadra Menon. The first, Destination Moon: India’s Quest for the Moon, Mars and Beyond, had come immediately after the Chandrayaan mission and was lapped up eagerly. The latest one is a qualitatively better effort, not the least because it is a better produced book and carries some very good photographs (in fact, some of the photographs have been repeated from the previous book but look much better now because of bigger size and better printing). In fact, the photographs often tell a story of their own, like the one which shows one of the earliest rockets being carried on a bicycle to the assembling facility.

Mangalyaan has become the excuse for tracing the history of India’s space programme and also to take a peek into its future. More than being a MOM story, this is the story of ISRO. In that sense, this is a complete book, much needed and full of anecdotes from many of the scientists involved in the project. The two authors have made the effort to visit most of the ISRO facilities and it shows in their narration and in the details they have gleaned from the usually reticent scientists.

While the story of the Mars mission has been told quite eloquently and in great detail, the authors have only scratched the surface of an equally powerful and important narrative —  the individual stories of the men and women behind the success, not just of the mission, but of ISRO as well. None of them, probably without any exception, would, by their demeanour and behaviour, stand out in a crowd.

Simplicity, soft-spokenness and a quiet determination characterise most of the scientists in the top tier of ISRO. Almost no one comes from an IIT or an elite engineering background — most have graduated from very humble universities. That, probably, is also an indication of the kind of talent in our lesser-feted educational institutions.

The book could have done with some interesting anecdotes. The authors have devoted a full chapter to stories of these individual scientists, but , unfortunately, they are not enlivened by anecdotes and read more like elaborate curriculum vitae. There’s one instance that stands out. M Annadurai, who was involved with both the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions, did not have a regular water supply in his village near Coimbatore till very recently. The supply became functional well after Chandrayaan discovered water on the moon.

The book has come at the right time and is likely to capitalise on the excitement generated by MOM. With a number of blockbuster launches planned in the next few years, ISRO will continue to capture the imagination of the people, particularly the younger generation, and this would be the book that many would like to read to know how it all began.

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