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Tales of India’s rocketeers

31 Aug 2017
Taken from the August 2017 issue of Physics World

ISRO: a Personal History
R Aravamudan and Gita Aravamudan
2017 Harper Collins 256pp £9.99pb

The launch of an Indian space rocket
The launch of an Indian space rocket

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has had a string of photogenic successes of late, following a relatively subdued decade of building, testing and marketing. From launching new rockets and building improved communication, weather-monitoring and resource-tracking satellites, to developing ambitious space science missions, the organization has demonstrated its ability to produce results using a shoestring budget. But viewing these successes as demarcating a distinct period of ISRO operations might be misguided because, arguably, they are the result of an invisible transition that took place in the mid-1990s.

In 1994 astrophysicist and space scientist Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan took over the leadership of ISRO from then chairman Udupi Ramachandra Rao (who died in July), ending a 30-year period during which the institute was led by visionaries rather than shrewd managers, as it has been since. This isn’t criticism: with the recent political and economic climates in India being what they are, good managers are crucial to sustain a costly and budding space programme. Yet, there has been a discernible shift in the choice of aspirations and the selection of priorities.

The pioneer of the early days and the “father” of India’s space programme was Vikram Sarabhai, who laid the foundations for space research in the country. He convinced the Indian government in the 1960s to fund the programme and helped set up its first facilities. He also persuaded the best Indian space scientists and engineers to move back to India from their cosy jobs in the West, as well as charting the trajectory and purposes of the programme itself. R Aravamudan, one of Sarabhai’s first colleagues in these endeavours, and his wife Gita, an author and a journalist, recount these years in their book, ISRO: a Personal History, with charming fondness and clarity.

The book has large overlaps with Rao’s India’s Rise as a Space Power (2014). But an important difference is that the Aravamudans offer a more emotional perspective on the history of ISRO – the book is a collection of memories, in contrast with Rao’s retelling through the lens of India’s strategic aspirations. In this sense, the Aravamudans’ book is a more important addition to the popular literature available on the Indian space programme.

Having been close to Sarabhai as his principal telemetry man, R Aravamudan enjoyed a ringside view of almost everything that happened at ISRO. As a result, there are many passages in the book that go beyond just the facts, instead delving into the people behind each project, their feelings and interpersonal relationships.

The early days of the country’s space efforts were centred around the Mary Magdalene Church in Thumba – a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala – where the first sounding rockets were launched in 1963. The church was located next to a small “spaceport”; its halls often housed makeshift workshops and the offices of scientists and engineers at work. Some of the first Nike-Apache engines for the sounding rockets were assembled by Aravamudan and Abdul Kalam – who would later become the 11th president of India – on the floor in front of the altar. Over time, with help from American and Japanese scientists, Sarabhai and his colleagues became fluent in more sophisticated areas of spaceflight, including fabrication, propellants, atmospheric physics, space science and satellite development. By 1967 three other R&D facilities had been set up. Three years later, a full-fledged spaceport was being established in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

On 30 December 1971, however, Sarabhai died, plunging the organization into despair. This is one of the more memorable parts of the book, which describes the deep and unshakeable sense of helplessness that descended upon the organization, with its members realizing that they were now on their own. Aravamudan recalls how a conflict with Thumba’s fisherpeople escalated around the same time, leading to a police firing and the death of a fisherman. “A case had been lodged and a judicial enquiry ordered which dragged on for many months. More importantly, various politicians who had been waiting like hawks in the wings began circling in. So far our little rocket station had functioned without political interference. In a way, this was a coming of age for the organization. Things were never the same again.”

The subsequent reorganization sparked a new period of growth that saw India take giant strides in launching communication and weather-monitoring satellites. ISRO also embarked upon Sarabhai’s resolution to build rockets that would be able to take any Indian satellite into orbit. For many of ISRO’s senior members, this phase was almost spiritual, as it required carrying forward the can-do attitude that their previous boss had inculcated in them more than anything else. In the 29 years from 1972, ISRO built its Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) and Augmented SLV, kickstarted its cryogenic engines development programme, built the Polar SLV and launched the first Geosynchronous SLV. Apart from the GSLV Mk III, which launched on 5 June this year, the first flights of all other rockets failed, frustrating the minds behind them, but leaving those people more determined than ever to achieve their goals. The Aravamudans’ book is the story of these people.

Its language is lucid and simple, and its succession of vignettes quite insightful and entertaining, especially for those interested in the backstage scenes. In one instance, the book describes what it was like to travel from the “humid pressure cooker climes of French Guiana”, where the INSAT-2C satellite was launched by the French, to the “temperate Bangalore winter” and the “bone-chilling cold” of Kazakhstan, just in time for the Russians’ launch of the IRS-1C satellite. Peeks behind the scenes like this have become harder to come by, as ISRO has become more closed off, and its researchers even more disinclined to talk freely about their lives and work. While this is sad, it is not surprising: many scientists in India don’t think public engagement is an important part of their work. On the other hand, the Aravamudans’ book – like Rao’s – steers clear of the politics surrounding the Indian space programme, as if unmindful of the broader circumstances impinging on ISRO’s place in the Indian growth story. Some blame for this can be laid at Sarabhai’s doorstep – although the layer of political insulation he provided had been more helpful than not, the leaders who followed Sarabhai seem to have emulated him fully, even though the times have changed.

Indeed, since the 1990s national and strategic needs have hemmed in ISRO’s priorities and left its leaders without the room to chart their own, broader course. Nothing exemplifies this more than the fact that ISRO has become more about rocketry than anything else. It is not clear if this is a phase that will pass once we can be completely self-sufficient in terms of launch capabilities, but for as long as it persists, it will be at the expense of the sort of experimentation and dreaming that Sarabhai’s, and Aravamudan’s, era championed.

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