Isro: A look at the history of India's space agency by one of its first rocket scientists

Editor's note: The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) set a record by launching 104 satellites on board a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) flight on 15 February. Amid the keen interest all over the globe in ISRO's feat, a new book, published by HarperCollins India, promises to further illuminate the space agency's history.

Narrated by ISRO pioneer R Aravamudan, ISRO: A Personal History, tells the gripping story of the people who built India’s space research programme and how they did it — from the rocket engineers who laid the foundation to the savvy young engineers who keep Indian spaceships flying today. It is the tale of an Indian organisation that defied international bans and embargos, worked with laughably meagre 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 those of other countries too. This is a made-in-India story like no other.

The following is an excerpt from ISRO: A Personal History, in which Aravamudan and his wife and co-author Gita Aravamudan, describe how Sriharikota became the site for the organisation's launches. Sriharikota's Satish Dhawan Space Centre was the site for the recent PSLV-C36 launch as well.

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...By the mid-1960s, our sounding rocket launches were increasing in frequency and we were on a major expansion programme. Exciting new plans for the development of satellites and satellite launch vehicles were on the anvil. The team in charge of finding an east-facing site for launching big rockets had zeroed in on an island off the southern coast of Andhra. The new site, Sriharikota, was about 100 km north of Madras city. In the 1960s, Sriharikota was a remote, almost unapproachable island occupied only by the Yenadi tribals who lived in the forest. The Andhra government used this island for planting eucalyptus and casuarina trees which were then transported to places like Madras for use as firewood.

Photo courtesy: HarperCollins India

Photo courtesy: HarperCollins India

An east-facing site was sought so that we could get some additional impetus from the earth’s rotational movement while launching satellites. The Andhra government provided large tracts of reserve forestland for the launch activity. They also actively helped in the acquisition of the required private land for the experimental launches as we would need a large safety zone to be cleared of human habitation in view of the
hazardous nature of the proposed activities.

It was at this juncture that Sarabhai’s first formal visit to Sriharikota was arranged in coordination with the Andhra government. Preliminary work for the visit, such as coordination with the state government, liaison with the local authorities, clearing of temporary jeep tracks in the
forest area and so on, was undertaken by the civil engineers under the guidance of RD John, our site engineer. Since the legendary Buckingham Canal was to be traversed by the visiting team, the waterway traffic had to be suspended for a few days and a temporary bridge strong enough to allow the passage of jeeps had to be rigged up. This was done by stacking boats abreast and fixing sturdy wooden planks over them. This caused a pile-up of boats laden with cargo on either side of the temporary structure until the visit was over.

On the morning of the visit the retinue assembled at Sullurpeta where Sarabhai and other dignitaries were met by the Andhra government officials. Our team included senior personnel from Thumba, engineers and officials from DAE, Sarabhai and his close advisors including Chitnis, MGK Menon, MA Vellodi and a host of other specialists. Somehow all our major ventures in those early years were destined to be baptised in churches, for it was in a church property that we first assembled even in Sullurpeta.

After a hearty breakfast, the team piled into a number of jeeps and moved in a convoy towards Pulicat Lake. It was summer and the water level was low. The vehicles could actually pass over the dry lake bed. The tough patches had been filled with dry leaves and branches by the advance team and the jeeps could pass through easily.

After a few kilometres we reached Buckingham Canal. The entire team had to get out of the vehicles so that the empty jeeps could cross the temporary bridge. We walked across and boarded the jeeps again to resume the trip. It was like a jungle safari. The freshly created track was made of logs hewn out of the forest trees, and the path was reinforced with branches and foliage cut and spread by the advance party. It was quite an adventure for our young and energetic city crowd. The most enthusiastic was Sarabhai, who was in his late forties at that time. Many times the jeeps got stuck in the sand and we had to get out and push. A few vehicles broke down and had to be abandoned. One even caught fire and had to be doused with sand.

R Aravamudan with colleague and former president, the late APJ Abdul Kalam. Photo courtesy: HarperCollins India

R Aravamudan with colleague and former president, the late APJ Abdul Kalam. Photo courtesy: HarperCollins India

At long last, the Bay of Bengal sparkled before us. We had covered just 20 km, but we felt as if we had battled through miles of jungle! We had got used to our little coastal station in Thumba with the gushing Arabian Sea and the lines of swaying coconut palms. But this beach was very different — and equally beautiful.

There wasn’t too much time to savour the scenery, though. We got out of our jeeps and were given a quick briefing. Then we started walking along the seashore, surveying possible locations for the launch pad and other associated structures. I was quite tired and so were my colleagues, but Sarabhai was as fresh as a breeze. Actually we found it difficult to keep pace with him as he covered almost 10 km by foot in the sand!

The coastal length of our new area was almost 40 km. The place had sporadic fishing activity. The local Yenadi who were native to the area were hunter-gatherers. For generations they had lived mainly on forest produce. Although they were a small group, they had to be protected and kept safe from the proposed launch activities.

The forest had a large acreage of casuarina plantations developed by the forest department and a wide variety of natural vegetation, mainly consisting of bushes and wild trees. A number of birds and animals including monkeys, jackals, rabbits and wild pigs roamed the forests. There were stories of occasional sightings of leopards and cheetahs. But what was remarkable was the presence of huge herds of wild cattle. Thousands of them roamed around freely all over the island. At that time we didn’t know about the huge flocks of flamingoes and other exotic waterbirds, such as the painted storks and pelicans, which came to Pulicat in the winter.

We spent a few hours on the site and started back inland. After a gruelling drive we reached a forest rest house. A small gathering of tribals and local forest workers had been assembled by the local collector who had briefed them of the proposed visit of the VIPs.

ISRO: A Personal History, by R Aravamudan and Gita Aravamudan

ISRO: A Personal History, by R Aravamudan and Gita Aravamudan

The Yenadi were a totally isolated community. Many had not even seen a bicycle, as they had never gone out of the island. It was difficult to believe that this was the 1960s and we were standing on an island not too far from Madras. In retrospect I think the sight of so many vehicles and city folks must have been quite overwhelming for them. The Yenadi had been told that someone very important would address them. He would tell them about the great things the government would bring to the island and how it would benefit them. I think they assumed that Sarabhai was some kind of raja!

Sarabhai’s English speech was translated for them by the district collector. He described his plans to them and told them that Sriharikota would become a nationally important place. They listened with great attention but I wonder if they really understood what he said! The Andhra government had arranged a ceremonial lunch in the local school building. It was like a grand wedding feast. Since Dr Sarabhai was a
vegetarian the meal had the choicest of Andhra vegetarian delicacies.

Sarabhai asked the well-known architects Pithavadian and Partners to design the facilities and the associated housing colonies. Since Sriharikota was a cyclone prone area, the colony had to be built to withstand heavy winds and rain. Interestingly, the Yenadi who had lived there for generations had perfected their simple thatched structures by modifying their shapes to withstand the cyclones. Soon, RD John began work on the basic amenities on the island. The Sriharikota Range was ready by 1971. It was a modest facility by international standards; no one at that time would ever have imagined how rapidly it would grow, transforming into one of the most important spaceports in the world.

ISRO: A Personal History, published by HarperCollins India | Paperback | 256 pages | Rs 399

R Aravamudan is an award-winning senior scientist who served as the director of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota and of the ISRO Satellite Centre, Bengaluru. Gita Aravamudan is a veteran journalist and author.


Published Date: Feb 18, 2017 10:40 am | Updated Date: Feb 19, 2017 08:07 am

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