THE TAINT on S Nambi Narayanan had been washed way back in 1998, when the Supreme Court had ruled that the charges against him were false. Last week, the court also asked the Kerala government to pay him Rs 50 lakh as compensation for the false charges it had made against him and for the ill-treatment meted out to him.
There is, however, more to Narayanan, now 77, than being the target of a cooked-up espionage case in the 1990s that came to be known as the ISRO spy scandal. The former ISRO scientist can legitimately stake claim to a much more powerful and honourable description for himself. He happens to be one of the chief architects of the ‘Vikas’ engine that is at the heart of India’s rockets, the same ones that made missions like Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan possible and which will be involved in many more space voyages in future.
Until the time of his arrest in 1994, Narayanan had had a distinguished scientific career, with strong accomplishments.
An engineer by training who joined India’s then nascent space industry in 1966, Narayanan was one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of liquid propulsion technology for India’s rockets. At that time, India was just taking baby steps in launching rockets on its own, and could only handle solid fuels for its experiments. At a time when the main focus was on building capabilities to launch small rockets and satellites, investing in a futuristic idea of liquid propulsion was considered too ambitious.
Liquid fuels generate more energy and burn slower than solid fuels which, however, are more easy to handle and provide greater initial thrust to the rocket. Liquid fuel technology is also more complicated to master, and globally all space-faring nations have progressed to liquid fuels only after using solid fuels in their initial years.
Not everyone, including Narayanan’s senior colleagues such as A P J Abdul Kalam who was designing India’s first satellite launch vehicle, the precursor to PSLV and GSLV in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and top bosses such as Vikram Sarabhai or Satish Dhawan, was entirely convinced of the need of liquid technology at that time. But they did allow Narayanan to keep working on his passion. Sarabhai, in fact, ensured that Narayanan went to Princeton University for higher studies on rocket propulsion.
After his return from Princeton, Narayanan was able to clinch a profitable deal with French company SEP that allowed several ISRO scientists to work on the development of the French Viking engine that had liquid propulsion. The ISRO scientists, led by Narayanan, spent five years in France working on the French engine and mastering the know-how of liquid technology that was used to develop India’s own version of Viking, named ‘Vikas’, in the early 1980s. In his book Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case, Narayanan writes that Vikas, besides meaning development, also made up the initials of Vikram A Sarabhai, the legendary ISRO chairman whom he respected.
The ‘Vikas’ engine was integrated in the then still-under-development Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), India’s most reliable rocket in the last three decades, but its first flight ended in a failure. After that, however, the PSLV has made close to 40 successful flights, including the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions. In late 1970s, after the French deal, ISRO established the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) at Thiruvananthapuram for research and development in liquid fuels.
The ‘Vikas’ engine is also the one that powers the next generation GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) rockets that are used for placing bigger and heavier satellites deeper into space. The most modern version of GSLV, called Mk-III or LVM-3 (Launch Vehicle Mark-3), will be used for the recently-announced human space flight and many others.
At the time of his arrest, Narayanan was heading the cryogenics project, another key technology in rocket propulsion that is being deployed in GSLV. Cryogenics is the technology of low temperatures. For carrying heavier payloads and going much deeper into space, GSLV needs greater amount of energy. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen serve as excellent propellants but they exist in the liquid state at only extremely low temperatures — oxygen at -183°C and hydrogen at -253°C. Creating such low temperatures within the engine is an extremely complex job.
India had been using Russian-made cryogenic engines to power its earlier GSLVs. It is only now that it has been able to master the technology and started using indigenous cryogenic engines in its rockets.