ISRO: A Personal History
R Aravamudan & Gita Aravamudan
256 pages; Average reading time 3 hours 37 min
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ISRO has indeed come a long way from experimental launching of sounding rockets to setting a world record by launching 104 satellites into orbit on a single mission. A team of young engineers ably supported the space program of India as envisioned by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. R. Aravamudan was one of the handful of engineers who helped set up the foundation of what is today one of the most cost effective and efficient players in space science. This book is an enthralling tale of how ISRO germinated from a vision and made its way into creating history.
Job hopping & lure of NASA
I began my career in the reactor control division of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in Trombay, where I had relocated from my birthplace Madras. The initial excitement of my first job soon wore off and by 1962, two years into my job, I was looking for options. One day, my colleague informed me that Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, a scientist at the Physical Research Laboratory, was recruiting young engineers for setting up a rocket launching pad in India. These recruits would be sent to NASA for initial training and would then be posted somewhere in South India. NASA and south India were alluring enough for me to volunteer.
While still on the payroll of DAE, I was selected by Dr. Sarabhai, after an informal discussion with him. I was sent to NASA to be trained in building telemetry ground station mounted inside a trailer. Being the first in my family to travel abroad, the excitement of the entire family was palpable.
I was joined by three other engineers at NASA and all of us were under the guidance of Ed Bissell. We worked at the Beltsville unit, which was small, and our work was more of a technical operator nature. Although there was no technology transfer, we enthusiastically participated and volunteered in launching operations. The enthusiasm enabled us learn lot of techniques on our own.
In mid-1963, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and few other engineers joined us in NASA. They were being trained in rocket assembling, launching and explosive safety. By December 1963, the entire team returned to India to set up base station in Thumba near Trivandrum, Kerala.
Middle of nowhere- also called Thumba
Despite being a Madras resident and studying in IIT Madras, I had never visited Kerala. Thumba was chosen as the base station because its geographical location, being beneath the magnetic equator, would facilitate study of upper atmospheric wind properties. We were just in time for two consecutive launches of Nike-Apache sounding rockets. Despite appalling telephone connectivity, scanty resources and no facilities of canteen and offices, we were successful in these sodium vapor release launches.
Amidst these launches, we received our Doppler Velocity and Positioning System (DOVAP) – a 40 feet long trailer housing a ground station from NASA. Logistics was a critical issue in mid-1964, Thumba having no connectivity with rest of the country. I sought my father’s help in Chennai and managed to arrange for the transportation of the DOVAP successfully.
Our launch pad was set up on a land patch that belonged to a church. We worked inside the church and the bishop’s home. Scientists from US, France, Russia visited us and used our facility to launch sounding rockets. While there was no technology transfer with these countries, we were given various range equipment like telemetry receivers, tracking systems and computers. We even received a brand-new military helicopter from the (erstwhile) USSR.
Since I was responsible for telemetry equipment, I was also responsible to explain the equipment when high profile visitors came over to Thumba. I got a chance to meet Dr. Homi Bhabha, JRD Tata, Hideo Itokawa and political stalwarts like Indira Gandhi during my stay at Thumba.
The vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai
By mid 1960s, Dr. Sarabhai had roped in many scientists and engineers and looked forward to expand the launch station. The team was now a balanced mix of fresh out of college young minds and experienced Indian scientists from abroad. We zeroed in on Sriharikota, a remote island off the Andhra coastline, 100 km from Madras, to set up Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Traveling to Sriharikota and exploring the island, inhabited by handful of ethnic groups unaware of the world outside, was quite an adventure. The modest Sriharikota range got ready by 1971.
By the time we developed the expertise in launching sounding rockets like the Nike-Apache, NASA had sufficient success in solid launch vehicle called the Scout. Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Homi Bhabha planned to build Scout type of rockets and requested for technology transfer from the US. However, since the rocket had military capabilities and potential, purchase of Scout rockets was prioritised over technology transfer.
Meanwhile the entire ISRO team focused on building an indigenous satellite from the scratch, to be launched from Indian soil. After several brainstorming sessions, we zeroed in on the SLV-3, which was an all-solid propellant four-stage rocket with a capacity of orbiting 30-40 kg satellite into 400 km circular orbit.
Benchmarking against excellence
In the early 1970s, Ramakrishna Rao, Y.J. Rao & I travelled to all the significant significant space stations across the world to gather experience that could be used for our indigenous satellite-launching program. We visited Germany, London, France and the Kourou facility in French Guinea. We were overwhelmed with the exhaustive R&D program undertaken by these facilities, with a flourishing budget.
Our visit to NASA was sufficiently enriching. Their professional expertise with huge hardware and cryogenic propulsion development got us floored. We had never seen such skillful exhibition of assembling of large rockets. NASA left a lasting impression with its avant-garde technology and state of the art communication equipment. Japan had a modest facility for space research quite similar to the one we had back in Sriharikota.
Gee whiz, we launched a rocket
Because there were stringent foreign exchange regulations in place in 1970s, we had to buy dismantled satellite telemetry and tracking station in an auction from Australia. We travelled almost across the world to get those dismantled parts at 10% of their original price and got them shipped back to Sriharikota to set up our first telemetry ground station.
With Russian collaboration, we launched M-100 rockets that were used to collect data for meteorological forecasts. They were systematically launched every Wednesday from Thumba and attracted big crowds of school and college going children, as well as others.
Meanwhile, NASA’s sending rockets carrying men to the moon was a delight for all space researchers across the world. The moon mission astronauts had carried back some rock samples from the moon, which were showcased around the world. These travelled all the way in a glass box to Trivandrum, where large crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the rocks from the moon.
Rocket scientists also take a break!
Many of our colleagues, who came to the sleepy town of Thumba with families, did have initial adjustment issues given that they had left behind a vibrant city-life. Therefore, we built the Rocket Recreation Club with badminton court, table tennis table and a card playing room. We also hired a cook who would serve us various delicacies. Alcohol, however, was kept at bay.
In 1971, I got married to Gita, a journalist. She contributed in her own way to our space research by writing an article about ISRO in The Illustrated Weekly. The entire team was like a family and I was particularly close to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, and so was Gita.
Under the stewardship and vision of the forever-energetic and charismatic Dr. Sarabhai, we were cherishing success intertwined with failures in our program. Dr. Sarabhai had a magnetic personality and a watertight schedule, and yet gave patient hearing to each one that he met. People from various walks of life often queued up to meet him owing to his amazing personality. We were literally shaken by his untimely demise on 29 December 1971. His death was like a passing away of the patriarch of the family. A loss deeply mourned by the entire nation.
Change of guard
The small team of engineers and administration working in Thumba was all set to spread wings and design indigenous space program with homegrown equipment and machineries. In the absence of Dr. Sarabhai, the mantle was passed to the much-experienced Caltech-trained aeronautical engineer, Professor Satish Dhawan. Prof Dhawan had a very different style of working and streamlined every department of ISRO.
The transition was inevitable and done in a professional manner, in line with business management style. This strategic shift in ISRO’s way of working was much required at a time when ISRO was growing in both size and scale. Prof Dhawan also asked the department heads of ISRO to start working from Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Trivandrum and Sriharikota. Various departments like the indigenous satellite team were shifted to Bangalore in order to get better infrastructure support from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited. ISRO’s mission was now infused with greater accountability and clarity.
Gate crashing into the elite club
The D-day for launching our first homegrown satellite was 10 August 1979. However, a glitch in the rocket caused the rocket and the satellite to nose dive into the Bay of Bengal amidst lot of despair and disappointment. In less than a year, the entire team picked up its lost morale to launch another homegrown satellite from Indian soil on July 18, 1980 into a 300 km by 900 km orbit. History was created when the spacecraft zoomed into the space majestically. The entire ISRO team was ecstatic.
India was now the sixth member of the elite club of space rocket launching nations. This was followed by both success and failure of the Augmented satellite vehicle (ASLV).
Rocker scientist or municipal chairperson?
In October 1981, I had to relocate to Sriharikota as the director of ISRO. It was not an easy journey to make from a place where I had spent 25 years of my life. It is difficult to imagine the Sriharikota of 1960s. Now, this island is home for close to 10,000 people with a central school, a hospital, basic shopping facilities and a large security establishment, apart from the ISRO facility. I was in charge of the entire establishment, which sometimes made me feel like a municipal chairperson.
Days were quite busy given the campaigns and daily programs. Our little island buzzing with activities was fast transforming into a major spaceport with world class illustrious facilities While in SHAR, we had to deal with the tragic news of the deaths of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and my long time senior colleague Brahm Prakash.
Crash, boom and then, whoosh!
After successful launches of homegrown satellites, we shifted our focus to build Augmented SLV (ASLV) flights. By the early 1980s, the management team at ISRO had seen quite a few changes, a key change being Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam moving out to the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and similar other postings.
Using closed loop guidance system along with new telemetry system and latest tracking facilities, we launched the first ASLV on March 24, 1987. It ended up in a disaster minutes within the launch and left a devastating impact on the entire team. The nation and media, however, stood by us during the tough times. After a thorough investigation by a committee set up under my supervision to identify the exact cause of failure, we decided to go ahead with the second launch on July 13, 1988. We did a course correction but to our utter dismay, this too was a failure, although the cause of failure was different.
Never before had we witnessed such experienced scientists plummeting into the depths of darkness and despair. We were accountable to the nation for the huge project cost and the second failure was not taken too kindly by the nation. After a rigorous and robust introspection, we undertook the launch of ASLV for the third time on May 20, 1992. We took all the remedial measures that were necessary from the accumulated data collected from previous failures. This time it was a huge success and boosted our confidence largely.
Our success and subsequent confidence was rattled again with the failure of Polar SLV (PSLV) launch. It was worrying more so because this PSLV failure in 1993 involved a total project cost of Rs 415 crores. Subsequently, we carried out the second PSLV launch on October 15, 1994 and this time it was a ‘perfect textbook launch’. The jubilation of the team at ISRO knew no bound.
Our Geosynchronous launch vehicle (GSLV) was associated with development of cryogenic upper stage. Cryogenic upper stage involves nuclear technology. We tied up with Russian firm Glavkosmos for technology transfer. We were aware of the embargoes that could be imposed on India, as India was signatory of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The project ran into troubled waters when the USA pressurized Russia to call off the contract for technology transfer and built up several clauses to be applied in retrospect to stall ISRO’s GSLV program.
This embargo did delay our program for a few years but could not deter the moral strength of the ISRO scientists who launched GSAT-1 on April 18, 2001 successfully. The satellite INSAT-1 was put in orbit in a collaborative effort between Russia and India, despite the hurdles created due to the breaking up of the USSR in the 1990s. For the period 2003-2014, seven missions of GSLV were put into orbit in a series of successes for ISRO
Helping the Indian society
The ISRO founding team’s mentor, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai always believed that space technology could be made beneficial for the nation and her people. He wanted to use space technology to take TV broadcast to the remotest areas of India. For him, TV was a means to educate and spread awareness across the sections of Indian society. His vision shaped up into the ‘Krishi Darshan’ program on TV that informed farmers about agricultural knowledge.
Similarly, the then largest sociological experiment of the world was undertaken using Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) in 1975. This program organized development oriented programs for 200,000 people across 2400 villages in 6 states. Although Dr. Sarabhai did not live to see these successes, it was his vision that was put to using satellite communication technology enabled by ISRO.
Over the next few years, ISRO launched various communication satellites that helped India in terms of connectivity, disaster management, defense and emergency communications. Direct to home communication, that is very much in vogue, also uses very small aperture terminals VSAT, that were made possible by ISRO’s communication satellites.
Reversing the brain drain
I retired from ISRO in 1997. However, the umbilical cord with the centre is like a lifeline flowing in our veins. Many retired senior engineers have formed a part of Mission Readiness Review (MRR) team along with the aspiring scientists to help develop space technology and contribute to the national growth. MRR collaborates with the ISRO team in careful planning of budget, reviewing progress, designing layout, doing a quality assessment and taking care of recruitment. Transparency in the process of recruitment and promotion is handled with utmost care.
ISRO’s annual budget of just a few lakhs in 1963 has seen a staggering growth to reach a few thousand crores over the decades and the number of employees has swelled to 20,000. There was a sudden phase of brain drain in the late 1990s when India witnessed the Information Technology boom. Brilliant engineers and prospective science researchers shifted to IT industries that offered higher salary. The Government did take initiatives to revise the salary and provide lifelong benefits unmatched in the private sector that resulted in a reverse brain drain with our human resources finding their way back to the fascinating industry of space science.
The team at ISRO has a fair amount of job satisfaction owing to the stimulating work culture put in place by consistent effort of all of team members.
The sky is no longer the limit
ISRO has not limited itself to launching and operating national satellites, but gone beyond in launching international satellites through its commercial wing Antrix Corporation. By 2015, since its inception in 1963, ISRO has launched seventy-two complex satellites into orbit and created history. It is a commendable feat given that it was achieved with humble resources. The Chandrayan mission along with other cost effective and reliable rocket developed indigenously by India has garnered tremendous respect from all nations.
ISRO has given us more reasons than one to hold our head high. We remember the days when it was considered a commendable task to launch just one complex satellite in 2-3 years. Today, ISRO has achieved the feat of launching 31 polar satellites of 15 countries in space on a single mission. Moreover, the tremendous success was repeated again, within months, by launching 104 commercial satellites February 2017.
ISRO made its way into the elite club of space science through perseverance and technological acumen of its several dedicated scientists guided by the vision of Dr. Sarabhai.Today, ISRO stands tall with state of the art launch towers, excellent facilities and sharp thinking team of individuals with extreme dedication to serve the nation using space technology.
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