ISRO: It’s Not Just Rocket Science



Did you know that Krishi Darshan, a TV programme for farmers that runs on Doordarshan even today, was an attempt by noted physicist and space scientist Vikram Sarabhai, to convince the Government of India to invest in satellite technology? Or that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was able to establish its Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station near Thiruvananthapuram, thanks to Rt Rev Peter Pereira, the Bishop of Trivandrum, who agreed to surrender the St Mary Magdalene Church and the land around it to ISRO, for the greater good of the country?

With the recent non-stop coverage of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, ISRO has been in the public eye like never before. Such is the public interest in the organization that every project or new launch makes it to the headlines today. But it was not always like this. The iconic photo of a rocket nose cone being taken for launch on a bicycle (cover image) is one of the most viral images in India. Perhaps no other image typifies the humble beginnings of ISRO, an organization that today seeks to conquer “galaxies far, far away”.

Cover of the book and co-author  P V Manoranjan Rao
Cover of the book and co-author P V Manoranjan Rao

A recently released book Ever Upwards: ISRO In Images by P V Manoranjan Rao, B N Suresh and V P Balagangadharan, and published by Universities Press, gives us a fascinating insider’s account of ISRO from its earliest days to the present, through images. The book is filled with fascinating insights and anecdotes about the long journey of ISRO through the years. The story of ISRO is the story of a newly independent India daring to dream big.

‘You don’t start with objectives to fulfill, you start and then create new objectives which are in the spirit of what you wanted to do’

This quote by noted Indian space scientist E V Chitnis sums up the spirit of the Indian Space Programme when it made a humble beginning in 1963. In the 1950s, as the United States and the Soviet Union entered the ‘Space Race’, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai, dreamt of harnessing space technology for the development of India and in 1962, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was launched.

The story of how India’s first rocket-launching station was established is equally fascinating. Thumba was a sleepy fishing village near Thiruvanathapuram until it was discovered that it has a unique geo-physical phenomenon – its proximity to the equator and the equatorial electrojet (an electric current system 110 km directly above the equator). This made the Thumba village perfect for an international rocket-launching station.

 St Mary Magdalene Church
St Mary Magdalene Church

But there was a problem. When the Department of Atomic Energy acquired ‘one square mile’ of land in Thumba, there was a church, the St Mary Magdalene Church, right in middle of it. It was the Bishop of Trivandrum, Rt Rev Peter Pereira who persuaded the community to give up the church in the interest of the nation. A new church was built nearby, and the original one was used an office for the space programme. Today, it houses a space museum visited by thousands.

Overcoming the lack of resources and, more importantly, complete lack of experience in any form of space technology, India’s first rocket was launched from Thumba on 21st November 1963. While describing the situation, the authors of the book Ever Upwards, quote Oscar Wilde:

‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’

It was this spirit that took the Indian Space Programme from strength to strength. In 1964, the Tokyo Olympics were transmitted live across the Pacific by an American satellite, Syncom 3. This inspired Dr Sarabhai to set up the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES) in Ahmedabad. In his paper Television for Development, Dr Sarabhai would himself write: “We should consciously reach the most difficult and least developed areas of the country, and because they are in this state, reach them in a hurry.”

Inauguration of Krishi Darshan, a TV programme meant exclusively for farmers
Inauguration of Krishi Darshan, a TV programme meant exclusively for farmers

And there was no better way to do this than satellite television. The Indian TV programme Krishi Darshan, launched in 1967, was a part of this initiative. The following year, he signed an agreement with America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct Satellite Television Instructional Experiments (SITE), which were conducted in 1975-76. The renowned science writer, Arthur C Clarke would describe SITE as “The greatest communication experiment in history”.

ISRO was formally established on 15th August 1969. Dr Sarabhai had made many ambitious plans, such as the launch of India’s first satellite (Aryabhatta), construction of India’s launch complex at Sriharikota, and a roadmap to be followed from 1970 to 1980. Sadly, Dr Sarabhai passed away in his sleep on 30th December 1971.

The baton, to transform Dr Sarabhai’s vision into reality, passed to Satish Dhawan, who persuaded the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to establish the Indian Space Commission and the Department of Space in 1972. Indira Gandhi also held India’s ‘Minister of Space’ portfolio. It was Dhawan who set up the ISRO headquarters in Bengaluru, staffed by young and dedicated professionals handpicked by Dhawan himself. Aryabhatta was launched by the Soviet Union (free of cost) on 19th April 1975.

But with great wins also came losses. Of the four INSAT communication satellites launched by India, two ended in failure. But the most spectacular successes were Chandrayaan 1, which landed on the Moon’s surface in 2008, and Mangalyaan or the Mars Orbiter Mission of 2014. With a popular Bollywood movie made on it in 2019, ISRO is firmly in the public spotlight.

Vikram Sarabhai and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the latter’s visit to the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES) in Ahmedabad
Vikram Sarabhai and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the latter’s visit to the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES) in Ahmedabad

I spoke with veteran space scientist and former Group Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre – P V Manoranjan Rao – an authority on the history of ISRO and author of as many as four books on the subject. He shared his perspectives on his new book and on ISRO’s journey through the decades.

ISRO is in the limelight like never before. How did the idea of writing this book come about?

This coffee-table (CTB) book is really a visual complement to our earlier compendium of articles and interviews titled From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet published by Harper Collins in 2015. That compendium tells the story of ISRO right from its birth in 1963 to the Mars mission in 2014. That story was told through authentic voices of some of the pioneers of our space programme. I mean that most of the articles were written by people who had actually worked on these respective projects. For example, the SIV-3 story was told by A P J Abdul Kalam while U R Rao tells the story of Aryabhatta. As it was too voluminous (close to 900 pages), we could not include any photographs in that book. Now, our CTB fills that gap, with over 370 photographs with emphasis on people.

Vikram Sarabhai addresses a gathering. Sitting extreme left: JRD Tata, and extreme right: EMS Namboodiripad, India’s first democratically elected Communist Chief Minister (of Kerala). On his right, Indira Gandhi, and on her right, the Governor of Kerala, V Viswanathan
Vikram Sarabhai addresses a gathering. Sitting extreme left: JRD Tata, and extreme right: EMS Namboodiripad, India’s first democratically elected Communist Chief Minister (of Kerala). On his right, Indira Gandhi, and on her right, the Governor of Kerala, V Viswanathan

ISRO was established at a time when India was newly independent. For a developing country grappling with poverty, to think of a space programme was a huge leap. What were the founding ideals of ISRO?

When Vikram Sarabhai, with support from Homi Bhabha, proposed to launch a space programme, India was in a mess: we were importing food and the humiliating encounter with China had cast a pall of gloom over the country. Prime Minister Nehru never fully recovered from the shock of that encounter. And yet he lent his support to the space initiative of Sarabhai and Bhabha. Any other PM of lesser stature would have dismissed the whole idea of a space venture and we would never have had a space programme. I wish our youngsters take note of this. Since then, almost all successive PMs have fully supported our space programme. Thus, you see photographs of almost all our PMs, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, in our CTB.

APJ Abdul Kalam briefing the Space Commission members in SHAR (8 August 1978). From left: Col N Pant, Satish Dhawan, Kalam, (not identified), Manmohan Singh, (partially seen, not identified), MGK Menon, K Narayana and R Jayamani. It is interesting to note that later, Kalam became the President of India and Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister
APJ Abdul Kalam briefing the Space Commission members in SHAR (8 August 1978). From left: Col N Pant, Satish Dhawan, Kalam, (not identified), Manmohan Singh, (partially seen, not identified), MGK Menon, K Narayana and R Jayamani. It is interesting to note that later, Kalam became the President of India and Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister

People are fascinated at how much ISRO achieved with the limited resources at its disposal. Can you share some anecdotes from ISRO’s projects, in which great things were achieved despite limited resources?

Under the visionary and inspiring leadership of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, ISRO professionals felt they were partners in nation building. It is my guess that the same sentiment prevails among ISRO professionals even today. People feel it is a privilege to work for ISRO. With such emotional attachments to your work, the organizational goals take precedence over your personal problems. In those days of Sarabhai and Dhawan, there were no mobiles, no PCs, no Internet, no copying machines and even a landline telephone was a great luxury! Yet, people gave their best and ISRO was well on its way to international stature. Limited resources were never a problem with people committed to their work.

A famous example is the use of a bullock cart to create a non-magnetic environment for testing the APPLE spacecraft! See page 66 of our CTB. You may call it jugaad but I call it innovation!

Satish Dhawan (blue shirt) visiting Composites facility at Vattiyoorkavu, Trivandrum
Satish Dhawan (blue shirt) visiting Composites facility at Vattiyoorkavu, Trivandrum

While the contribution of Dr Vikram Sarabhai to India’s space programme is well known, the book throws an interesting spotlight on ISRO under Satish Dhawan. What, according to you, was the impact of Satish Dhawan’s leadership on making ISRO the organisation it is today?

Chapter 2 of our book is devoted to the seminal contributions of Satish Dhawan to ISRO. Without exaggeration, I can say that the organizational structure of ISRO today is exactly as Dhawan had designed it when leading the space programme.

The impact of Dhawan’s innovations is seen today in whatever missions ISRO undertakes, that is, the three committees he created: the Insat Coordination Committee (ICC), the Planning Committee for National Natural Resources Management System (PC-NNRMS) and the Advisory Committee for Space Sciences (ADCOS). These include all stakeholders from various government departments as members and continue to ensure transparency in what ISRO does in these fields.

Even the review systems in place today are the result of his vision.

During integration of the SLV-3 in Sriharikota. Satish Dhawan flanked by S Srinivasan (left) and APJ Abdul Kalam
During integration of the SLV-3 in Sriharikota. Satish Dhawan flanked by S Srinivasan (left) and APJ Abdul Kalam

What is your personal favourite anecdote from ISRO’s history that you find very inspiring?

In the 1970s, the most prestigious project of ISRO was the SLV-3, of which APJ Abdul Kalam was the Project Director. It was our first attempt to launch a satellite using our own rocket (SLV-3). The whole world was watching because, if we succeeded, India would be considered a space-faring nation. Its maiden flight on 10th August 1979 failed!

Owning responsibility for the failure, ISRO Chairman Satish Dhawan addressed the press. When the second flight of SLV- was a success, Dhawan pushed Kalam forward to address the press! Owning responsibility for failures and allowing people working under you to savour successes is the hallmark of a great leader. How many such leaders do you see today?

In politics, Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then railway minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, resigned after a train accident, owning responsibility. Since then, several train accidents have taken place, killing many people but how many railway ministers have resigned? You Google and see. Only one! Nitish Kumar.

NASA also supplied Nike-Apache sounding rockets (including the one for the inaugural flight) and some tracking equipment. Nike is the name of the booster (or the first stage) while Apache is the name of the second stage. The picture shows an assembled Nike-Apache at Thumba. Note the bicycle in the background; it was the only readily available mode of transport in TERLS in the 1960s
NASA also supplied Nike-Apache sounding rockets (including the one for the inaugural flight) and some tracking equipment. Nike is the name of the booster (or the first stage) while Apache is the name of the second stage. The picture shows an assembled Nike-Apache at Thumba. Note the bicycle in the background; it was the only readily available mode of transport in TERLS in the 1960s

If you were to name one thing that you consider ISRO’s greatest contribution to India’s development, what would that be?

Not counting the many technical achievements of ISRO and the space-based services it provides to the nation on a 24x7 basis, I would say the greatest contribution to the country is this: with a proper organizational structure and with freedom from political interference and bureaucratic stonewalling, a government set-up can deliver the goods. I do, of course, realize that in our democratic system characterized by rich diversity, ensuring such freedom is very difficult.

The prevalent idea that any government enterprise is necessarily inefficient and corrupt is wrong! There are many scientists in institutions other than ISRO who are doing great work but who do not get the media attention that ISRO gets. An example is our agricultural scientists who have ensured that our food production keeps pace with the explosive growth in our population. But they cannot provide us with visuals as striking as rocket lift offs. Hence no media coverage!

With the strong public interest in ISRO’s work, how do you see the organisation’s connect with young Indians?

ISRO and its various R&D centres have outreach programmes. Exhibitions highlighting ISRO’s work are regularly held across the country. All centres of ISRO organize programmes for children during Space Week (October4-10) every year. The most recent examples are (1) the Yuvika programme, which was a two-week residential outreach programme, in which over 100 children from schools form different states participated. Take a look at the end paper photograph of our CTB and (2) Chandrayaan 2 mission being watched by a selected group of youngsters.

I believe such outreach programmes will grow further to encompass the entire country!

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