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Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Sky Isn’t the Limit

The Indian space project, which began as a practically artisanal industry, is now a pioneer admired by peers the world over.

Written by Gopal N. Raj | Updated: April 29, 2017 12:06:41 am
Indian space project, ISRO, Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO startup, Vikram Sarabhai, books, book review, indian express ISRO: A Personal History

Name: ISRO: A Personal History
Author: R. Aravamudan with Gita Aravamudan
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 256
Price: Rs 399

Home was a nondescript lodge with other bachelors, one of whom would later become President of India; meals were eaten at the railway canteen; getting to work meant a ride on a rickety state transport bus; and office was a church by the beach, shared with generations of pigeons. The job? Launching rockets carrying scientific instruments!

In this book, Ramabhadran Aravamudan, known to friends and colleagues as ‘Dan’, along with his journalist wife, Gita, tell a rollicking tale of joining the Indian space project, which began in the early 1960s with launching rockets from a fishing village near Trivandrum, to study the upper atmosphere. As one of the early recruits to what soon became a full-fledged space programme, he provides an insider’s perspective on how the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a “start-up”, took root and flourished.

The book, as its title indicates, is “a personal history,” not an impersonal account of what ISRO did and why. It’s replete with anecdotes that create memorable vignettes of a space effort driven by the vision of its founder, Vikram Sarabhai, and powered by the enthusiasm and dedication of those he gathered around him. However, the years that have gone by may have cast a warm glow over events, making sharp disagreements and intense rivalries seem far less consequential now.

In 1962, Aravamudan opted to move on from his “rather boring job with [nuclear] reactor control” in Mumbai with the Department of Atomic Energy, after hearing that Sarabhai was “looking for volunteers to set up a rocket launch pad in south Kerala.”

Aravamudan and half a dozen other men were sent to a NASA facility in the US to be trained in assembling and launching sounding rockets, tracking them in flight and collecting data that was radioed down. This group of Indians, almost all staunch vegetarians, had to adjust to life in an unfamiliar country, living mainly on “mashed potatoes, boiled beans or peas, bread and lots of milk.”

Aravamudan and Gita also bring alive another culture shock — settling down in Trivandrum, “a sleepy, slow town” with a provincial outlook,in the early 1960s. Despite rudimentary facilities at the nearby fishing village of Thumba where a launching station was established — a church, the adjacent bishop’s house and a few other brick structures housed the early efforts at modern rocketry — the first sounding rocket, US-made, was fired on November 21, 1963.

A 1966 black-and-white image by Henri Cartier-Bresson captured the spirit of those days. It was a scene that might easily have taken place in, say, a small roadside workshop — one man, shirtless, is working intently on a piece of equipment on the ground in the front of him, while another squats nearby. It was Aravamudan and his close friend, APJ Abdul Kalam. It was unbearably hot that day, recalls Dan.

“We had no fans, let alone air-conditioning”, as they laboured in front of the church altar to get a payload ready to fly on a sounding rocket.

For much of his working life, Aravamudan was intimately involved with ISRO’s efforts to develop launch vehicles that could put its satellites into orbit, first during his years in Trivandrum and subsequently as director of the launch complex at Sriharikota on the east coast in southern Andhra Pradesh. So his book is able to take readers on a remarkable journey, from making sounding rockets in India through to the elation of success, the heartbreak of failure and the many problems that had to be overcome in producing a series of launchers, each more powerful than the one before.

The SLV-3, the first such launch vehicle, had failed during its maiden flight. But the following year, on July 18, 1980, “a made-in- India rocket launched from Indian soil had injected an Indian-made satellite into a 300 km by 900 km orbit. It was an ecstatic moment.”

Then came the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), each bringing with it tales of trial and hard-won success. The PSLV, in particular, turned out to be extremely reliable, a rocket that has now launched over 220 spacecraft, including India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe and the Mars mission.

Several factors, such as openness and transparency, have contributed to ISRO’s success, according to Aravamudan. During technical reviews, no voice is stifled and issues can be raised even by someone quite junior in the hierarchy. Profiles of activities for a decade are prepared in advance, and, once cleared by the government, become the basis for detailed plans and projects with proper cost estimates.

Moreover, “the ISRO family has considerable job satisfaction because we can see for ourselves the application of our contribution to national development,” he says.

There is more to come. “Manned missions, bigger rockets, more complex satellites, assembly line launches … when the sky is no longer the limit, anything is possible,” Aravamudan concludes.

Gopal N. Raj is a journalist based out of Trivandrum

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