Based on the book- ISRO- A personal history by R.Aravamudan with Gita Aravamuda
On 28th September, 2014, Mangalyan , India`s first home grown mission to Mars was a spectacular success. No other Mars Mission had succeeded in its very first attempt. ISRO had developed all the technology required for the launch from scratch. It was undoubtedly a remarkable achievement for the Team of scientists at ISRO
Thirty five years earlier it was a different story. On 10th August, 1979, the launch of SLV 3, the first home grown launch vehicle of ISRO went out of control and splashed into the Bay of Bengal, about 5 minutes after takeoff. `The very first attempt to launch a satellite launch vehicle (SLVs) by ISRO was a failure` reported Abdul Kalam who was in charge of the project. He was disappointed but was not disheartened. He called it a `Partial success`. Abdul Kalam and Aravamudan, `Dan` to his friends in ISRO, were colleagues right from the inception of the small Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), established by the visionary Vikram Sarabhai in mid Sixtees, at Thumba, near Trivandrum in Kerala. TERLS is where the story of India`s space odyssey began.
In the book, `ISRO – A personal History`, Aravamudan (Dan) narrates a gripping story of the people who built ISRO and how they did it, from the rocket pioneers who laid the foundation to the savvy young engineers who keep Indian Spaceship flying today. It is the tale of an organization that defied international bans and embargos, worked with laughably meager resources, evolved its own technology and grew into a major space power. Today, ISRO creates, builds and launches gigantic rockets which carry the complex spacecraft that form the neural network not just of our own country but of other countries too.`
This is a made- in -India story like no other told by a man who had a ringside view of the happenings at India`s space programme from the first year to this day. After graduating with a First Rank from the Madras Institute of Technology Ramabadran Aravamudhan had been directly recruited into DAE where he spent two years before quitting a secure job to join Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, in his visionary project to take India into space. He is an award winning senior scientist who had served as the director of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota and of the ISO Satellite Centre, Bangalore.
`Doppler Velocity and Positioning System (DOVAP), a large container like long trailer built by NASA came to India as a part of the initial collaborative agreement with NASA, in 1964. Transporting the equipment from Madras harbor by road to Trivandrum, a distance of 800kms, posed a big challenge at a time when container trailers were a rarity in India and there were no good roads to transport such big equipment. Since Dan was from Madras and familiar with the equipment he was sent to Madras to get the job done. With some help from his father, he found a contractor who agreed to take on the assignment.
`The DOVAP had to pass on the highway in front of my father`s house in Chrompet, in Chennai. On D-Day, all my brothers and sisters, their friends and other extended family members gathered to watch the vehicle as it rolled majestically by. All along the route, the local police had to be kept informed as it had created considerable excitement among people gathered along the way who mistakenly thought it was a giant rocket being transported.
By the mid-1960s space scientists from all over the world started coming to conduct experiments with sounding rockets at Thumba. Those were simple times when there was an extraordinary amount of goodwill amongst the international community of scientists. Russia (or the USSR as it was known then) contributed a military helicopter for range safety and a computer called Minsk- the only computer TERL had those days.
Dan had an interesting experience with the Russian chopper. Dan who was a fairly good photographer with his Yashica camera was given the responsibility to fly over the range in the helicopter and take some pictures which were to be pieced together to form a survey map of the TERLS area. Abdul Kalam, Dan`s lodge mate who also had a good camera accompanied Dan on the Chopper. Though it was an exciting ride, the photos that they took proved to be totally useless in the absence of zoom lenses. The Team had to wait for several more years before they could get their range properly mapped.
The launch of the first sounding rocket from Thumba on 21, November 1963 marked the official beginning of the Indian space programme . But it was the formal dedication of TERLS to the UN on 2nd February, 1968 that gave the real impetus to developmental activities. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India visited Thumba to dedicate TERLS to the U.N. which had formally sponsored TERLS as international scientific facility open to all its members. ` As I was earnestly explaining telemetry to her as a part of my assignment that day, I was disconcerted to see Mrs. Gandhi`s gaze fixed steadily on the top of my head. Why was she looking at the top of my head instead of listening to me? As soon as I finished she asked me her first question, “Did NASA measure your height before building this trailer?” Seeing my stunned look she burst out laughing. I am 6 feet 2 inches tall, and my head was brushing the top of the trailer which had a low ceiling. While I smiled bashfully, I wondered whether she had actually listened to any of my technical explanations.`
When Sarabhai took over DAE after the untimely death of Homi Bhabha in 1966, the tempo of space research in India gained tremendous momentum. Sarabhai`s famous `Profile for the Decade 1970 to 80 for the DAE`, the space research programme came out in 1970. This clearly spelled out the need for indigenous capability to make our own launch vehicles and satellites and to launch them from our own soil by the mid -1970s. The exciting new plans for the development of satellites & satellite launches required an East facing site. The Team in charge of finding the site zeroed in on an island off southern coast of Andhra. The new site, Sriharikota, was about 100kms north of Madras city. Simultaneously, under instructions from Sarabhai, efforts to identify the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) configuration was also on . Among the alternatives suggested the third one was selected and designed as `SLV-3`. This was an all -solid propellant four stage rocket capable of orbiting 30 to 40 kg satellites into 400km circular orbit. It was around this time that Indian Space Research Programme (ISRO) was formally notified under the DAE.
In 1969, the Americans landed on the moon at a time when TERL team was still launching sounding rockets. Little did they know then, that one day they themselves would launch spacecraft to the moon and to Mars and beyond; then they heard that a piece of moon rock was coming to Thumba in a glass case. It was the size of walnut. It was put up in the foyer of SSTC on top of Veli Hills. A programme was planned for a formal inauguration of the exhibition. While the team thought that the event will be of interest to only employees of TERL, a large local crowd turned up for the event stirred by announcement of moon rock by local newspapers. It became a law and order problem. Local police and civil authorities had to be called in to help control the crowd.
Kalam and Dan had become close friends as they were the only bachelors from the original group. In 1970 Dan got married to Gita, a young journalist. Kalam and other friends of Dan hosted a dinner for her at Mascot hotel. On his first visit to Trivandrum after Dan got married, Dr.Sarabhai threw a party for some visiting dignitaries and Gita was introduced to him. In typical Sarabhai style he asked her all about herself and what she wrote, ` May be you can also become part of our programme in some way` he said. Gita came away glowing and feeling very special. Trivandrum offered Gita excellent writing opportunities. Gita, driving around the narrow roads of Trivandrum was a source of great amazement and amusement to the locals who would exclaim,` Ayyo. Sthree car Otikinnu`
There was an unforgettable episode for Gita when Kalam came to her rescue at the first ever launch she witnessed in Thumba. Dan had dropped Gita off at control centre where wives of two other colleagues were also present. There were some people watching from the beach as well. Dan was in his tracking station. However due to some problem the rocket didn`t take off. Dan rushed from his tracking station to the launch pad and became immersed in trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Meanwhile, Gita soon found herself all alone on the terrace of the control centre as the other husbands had collected their wives. As the security person was waiting for her to go out of the centre so that he could lock the door, she went out to the beautiful beach and realized that she was in a totally deserted place not knowing where to go. Just then a jeep drove and Kalam hopped out.
`What are you doing here all alone?’ he asked. When he heard her story he burst out laughing `Trust my buddy to forget he got married. He must have buried his head in the rocket. Come, let us go find him` They did find him with his hand and not his head inside the rocket to fix the problem!
Dan describes Dr.Sarabhai as a handsome man, a brilliant and charismatic person with a fantastic memory. He never bothered about the usual social formalities and was easily approachable. He always wore white khadi kurta pyjamas paired with well-worn Kolhapuri chappals. He never carried a wallet and always turned to his PA or some other aide, if he needed money. Only on very special occasions one could see him dressed in a formal dark brown bandhgala coat worn over pants. Inspired by Dr.Sarabhai even the scientists at ISRO took to casual bush shirts and pants. He had the gift of making each person feel very important and wanted. He listened to whatever proposals were presented to him with total attention and encouraged the scientists to experiment.
During one of his visits to Thumba, on 29th December, 1971 Sarabhai died of a cardiac arrest in the hotel room where he was staying. The entire young team of scientists was devastated. Next morning Dan walked into the room where the body was lying. Dan says, ` I stood there for a few moments mourning my mentor, I could almost imagine him jumping up and saying, `Come on, Dan, there is work to be done. Now what do you have for me this time?”; Sarabhai was in his late forties when he died. Government decided to appoint Professor Satish Dhawan with experience and track record to succeed Sarabhai.
While Sarabhai`s style of management was that of a patriarch dealing with a small well-knit family, with no formal systems in place, Dhawan`s style of management was quite businesslike. He followed the HQ type of structure by hiring management educated and experienced young men as shadow teams. They would function from the HQ and make a technical and budgetary analysis of each programme. The change in style was difficult for the original team to deal with at first. Soon they realized that this kind of change was inevitable given the increasing complexity of the projects and the size of the budgets involved. Dhawan was very particular that local industry and academia should be associated with the programmes. So he inducted organizations like HAL, HMT and BEL and institutions like IISc and government research laboratories to partner ISRO. Under the Respond programme small grants were given to various research organizations to undertake specific projects for space research. Though ISRO as an entity was formed just before the passing away of Sarabhai, the ISRO we know today began to take shape only after Dhawan took charge. Under him four distinct geographical areas emerged: Trivandrum, Bangalore, Sriharikota and Ahmedabad.
Dan led the team that developed the `C` band tracking radar installed in Sriharikota. This radar was the first indigenously built one in the country. TIFR, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Electronic Corporation of India Limited ( ECIL) partnered with the ISRO team for this project. By 1979 the radar facility at SHAR, at Sriharikota, was ready, well in time for the first experimental launch of country`s first indigenous launch vehicle, SLV-3. Kalam was in charge of the launch. After the failure of the first effort, a second attempt was made.
Dan says, ` The second launch effort also had its moment of nail-biting suspense. A few moments prior to take-off the command was given to detach the umbilical cable from the rocket. However the remote controlled cable just refused to come off. For a few moments no one knew what to do. Obviously the launch could not take place with a stuck cable. The savior of the day was a technician named Bapiah. He volunteered to climb up the launch tower and manually coax the cable off. The tower was around 60ft high. We had no other option but to let him try with the safety officials turning their back for the short while. Bapiah quickly climbed the tower and gave the cable a hefty kick and it mercifully came off. The rest of course is history. And so, on 18th July, 1980 almost seventeen years after the first foreign Nike-Apache sounding rocket was launched from TERLS, a made-in-India rocket was launched from Indian soil, injected an Indian made satellite into a 300km by 900km orbit. It was an ecstatic moment. Kalam was hoisted on the shoulders by his colleagues. In Trivandrum we were all welcomed as heroes when we stepped off the plane. My little sons were thrilled. In their school the SLV had been dubbed as Sea Loving Vehicle. And now their father`s organization had been vindicated`.
Significantly out of the 1200 scientists and engineers who worked on the SLV 3 project, hardly a handful had had foreign education. Our homegrown engineers were the ones who built our first satellite launch vehicle.
After the successful second flight of SLV-3, Kalam had moved out of the project to join the Defence Research and Development Organization ( DRDO) and take up the challenge of developing ballistic missiles for the Defense services. By 1984 four SLV 3 launches had taken place and ISRO was now ready to focus its full attention on the development of the ASLV (Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle) project. By 1987 all the ASLV subsystems were ready, tested and validated, and moved to SHAR in Sriharkota. When the launch of the first vehicle under ASLV programme failed, a Failure Analysis Committee was appointed with Dan as the Chairman. It was named `Aravamudhan Committee`. In spite of the painstaking analysis and the series of recommendations made by the committee, the second ASLV flight on 13th July, 1988 also failed, breaking up spectacularly in mid air leaving the entire Team devastated. By the time ASLV vehicle was assembled on the launch tower for the third time in 1992, Dan had taken charge of SHAR. ASLV-D3 was launched on 20th May, 1992 almost three years after he took over the project. The mission was a perfect success. Dan says, ` There were many who questioned the need for developing ASLV, which by itself had no application. But in my opinion ASLV provided ISRO with invaluable experience in rocket technology. It was a low- cost precursor to the more important and expensive Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which became the workhorse of ISRO, capable of launching remote sensing satellites of more than 1 tonne class into polar orbits. Most importantly the teams learned that rocketry is unforgiving and called for a totally disciplined approach to ensure quality and reliability.`
When Dan became the director of SHAR in October, 1989, his family moved with him to Sriharikota. By then his elder son had already left for Bangalore to join an engineering college. His younger son joined the SHAR central school. Dan says, `SHAR was a total contrast to Trivandrum. It was home to a rather insular space community that lived in peaceful isolation far from the madding crowd. Surrounded by Pulicate lake, the Bay of Bengal and Buckingham Canal, Sriharikota was an island with a 50km coastline and area of about 44,000 acres. There were thousands of employees, temporary and permanent living in the housing colonies. And I was the Big Boss. My friends and colleagues dubbed me the `Sultan of SHAR`, although I must confess I sometimes felt more like the Count of Monte Cristo imprisoned in an island.`
Sriharikota had a population exceeding 10,000 and hence all the civic amenities had to be provided by ISRO. As the director in charge running the township, in addition to his professional responsibilities Dan also felt like a municipal chairman. The first experimental launch of PSLV happened on 20th September, 1993 when Dan was still the director of SHAR. U.R.Rao was the then ISRO chairman and Madhavan Nair was mission director. While all the initial events which were visible seemed to have taken at the right time up to the second stage, the vehicle suddenly went into dramatic uncontrolled angular rotation. The first launch of PSLV vehicle had failed.
It took more than a year for ISRO to recover from the failure of the first launch. In the interim period Dan moved to Bangalore as the director of the ISRO Satellite Centre ( ISAC) and Kasturirangan took over as the chairman of ISRO from U.R.Rao. Kasturirangan turned out to be a lucky mascot for ISRO, his first mission as ISRO chairman was a thumping success. Madhavan Nair, the PSLV project director, was the man of the hour. The launch was an example of perfect coordination between a variety of agencies in India and abroad focusing on a single objective. Our own home grown PSLV became one of the most reliable rockets in its category in the world, earning global admiration. Nations vied with one another to get their remote sensing satellites launched by it; and ISRO never looked back
The next ambitious rocket that ISRO was to launch was the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle ( GSLV) which revolved around the development of a cryogenic upper stage and ISRO had to struggle hard against all kinds of political and other stumbling blocks erected by USA and Russia, before the launch became a reality on 28th March,2001. By this time Dan had retired after spending 35 long years with the country`s Space programme and was not at a console but seated in the VIP gallery along with some of his senior colleagues. Dan says, `I had grown with ISRO from the days when it was a mere idea in a visionary`s mind through its phenomenal transformation in more than half a century into the veritable giant it has become today. Although I formally retired from ISRO in 1997, my close, almost umbilical connection with organization can never be severed. I still sit in on important reviews and meetings and continue to keep track of all the developments; we are nowhere near the end of the story. ISRO has many more exciting milestones to cross in the years to come`
(The book published in 2017 by Harper Collins is co-authored by Gita Aravamudan, Aravamudan`s wife and a well known journalist. Edited version of this article appeared in Madras Musings issue dt April 16-30,2018)