Space pioneer R Aravamudan was among the very first individuals to be recruited by the legendary Dr Vikram Sarabhai in 1962 for the Indian space programme, then in its nascent stage. Along with APJ Abdul Kalam and a couple of other early recruits, Aravamudan was sent to NASA for training. On their return to Trivandrum, where the first space station Thumba was set up, Dan (as Aravamudan was dubbed by the Americans) and Kalam became close friends.
The pioneers were a small group of mostly 20-somethings, and the most complex and challenging task before them was to build the first SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) from scratch. Tensions ran high as it had taken them several years to bring the rocket to the launch pad and they didn’t know what to expect.
This is the story of the launch of the first made-in-India rocket and of how the young men who worked on it learnt to use its failure as a stepping stone to success.
Kalam moved away from ISRO after they launched a successful SLV 3 in a later attempt. He moved on to the DRDO and would become the most popular President of India. Dan stayed on in ISRO and continued to be involved in every aspect of India’s exciting journey into space. He became associate director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Trivandrum where the launch vehicles were built, then took over as director of the Sriharikota Launch Facility and finally retired as director of the Satellite Centre in Bengaluru. He continues to be associated with ISRO in an advisory capacity.
As for Dan and Kalam they remained close friends all through.
The following excerpt, from ISRO: A Personal History (R Aravamudan with Gita Aravamudan), details the challenges (and ultimate triumph) in launching the SLV-3 — a timely reminder of how ISRO grappled with setbacks to create success stories, just as it has with Chandrayaan 2. The excerpt has been reprinted here with due permission from HarperCollins India.
— Gita Aravamudan
10 August 1979
By the second half of the 1970s, we were on a high — we were getting ready to launch SLV-3, our first home-grown launch vehicle. We were not a battle-hardened team of professionals with scores of successful rocket and satellite missions behind us. But we were young, highly motivated and hardworking. None of us had been part of an actual satellite launch, and now we were thirsting to realise our pre-flight dreams. There were quite a few sceptics, in our midst and around us. Indians had never done such a thing on their own ever before, they said. What could a bunch of youngsters do? Besides, weren’t we reinventing the wheel? The organisation and the government were solidly behind us, and supported our teams morally and materially.
Finally, a good five years after the date originally proposed by Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the SLV-3 was ready and assembled for flight on the pad at Sriharikota. Abdul Kalam, a close friend and colleague, was on tenterhooks. This was his first major project. Whenever Kalam was asked to define the success criterion of the project, he would say that the very act of bringing the assembled vehicle on to the launch pad constituted 50 per cent success. He would go on to assign success percentages to various events, such as the take-off, first stage function, second stage function and so on until the actual injection into orbit of the satellite. Would this, our first launch, score on all counts? The launch was scheduled for the early morning and I was seated in the control room in front of a console, monitoring the status of the tracking systems the team had built from scratch and installed. Senior colleagues were anxiously watching the progress of the countdown from behind. Kalam was at the mission director’s console, busily talking on the telephone to various subsystem specialists. The countdown clock was ticking and Kalam had given the mission director’s clearance for the launch. Things were moving smoothly. The umbilical cable was pulled out and the vehicle was on its own batteries. The countdown edged towards the dramatic last ten seconds. Right on the dot, at count zero, the first stage ignited and the vehicle majestically lifted off. Those of us involved with the launch were intent on our consoles and did not go out to see the take-off.
We heard the mighty roar of the vehicle a few seconds later as the sound took its time to reach us. The burning of the first stage seemed normal. I was watching Kalam for some sign. Had the rocket performed well? After some time, I saw a blank and fixed expression on his face, followed by disappointment. He turned around and made a thumbsdown gesture. Something had gone wrong. The vehicle went out of control and splashed into the Bay of Bengal at a distance of 560 km from the coast, about five minutes after take-off. Our very first attempt to launch a satellite launch vehicle was a failure, although it was officially dubbed a ‘partial’ success.
18 July 1980
The second SLV-3 launch was scheduled on 18 July 1980, almost a year after the first one. The payload was Rohini 1, a satellite weighing 40 kg. The mood was very tense this time around and not just because of the launch.
Sanjay Gandhi had died in a plane crash just a month ago even as we were putting the finishing touches to our vehicle. He had been trying out some acrobatic maneuvers in his training aircraft. Delhi was in chaos as Indira Gandhi tried to come to terms with the loss. In Trivandrum and SHAR this had a trickledown effect, but we were determined to go ahead with our launch. This time our chairman Dhawan had decided to allow Doordarshan to telecast the launch. The press was still not to be allowed inside until after the event.
Since Doordarshan was not yet equipped to do a live telecast, some engineers from SAC had come up with an ingenious idea. They had tethered a huge balloon with a transponder halfway between SHAR and Madras. Gummidipoondi was the chosen location for the balloon which floated at a height of about 1 km above ground. A long strong cable secured it firmly to the ground. The distance as the crow flies from SHAR was about 80 km. Experts from TIFR’s balloon facility at Hyderabad had been roped in for this project. Yash Pal and I were to do the commentary in-house. Gita had also been invited to join us and ask questions from a layperson’s point of view, and so she came with me from Trivandrum for this historic launch. We had left our small kids with Gita’s parents in Bangalore. They were very excited at the prospect of seeing their parents live on TV. Bangalore still didn’t have TV coverage in those days and so their grandparents had arranged to watch the launch at the house of a friend who had rigged up an extra-powerful antenna to catch Madras Doordarshan’s telecast.
Everything was ready and the nervousness was palpable. The press at the gates had been baying for information for over three days. Inside, during one of the meetings, a senior scientist doodled loops and a crash on his notepad and remarked to his neighbour, ‘As long as the rocket doesn’t take the trajectory of Sanjay Gandhi’s plane, we’ll be fine!’ Yash Pal, Gita and I were rehearsing our questions the previous day when we heard some bad news. The blimp had flown off! This kind of balloon was usually used in events like carnivals which took place in areas where there was a benign breeze that created just a gentle oscillation. No one had accounted for the strong winds which roared through Gummidipoondi and wrenched the balloon off its tether. Nothing could be done about it as the launch was scheduled for the next day, at dawn. We decided to record the commentary and rush it to Madras by road.
The launch had its moment of nail-biting suspense. A few minutes prior to take-off the command was given to detach the umbilical cable from the rocket. There are two types of umbilical cables connecting the rocket to the ground. One set comes off automatically during take-off and the other set, which is much heavier, is detached remotely with an electrical command. The remote-controlled cable just refused to come off! For a few minutes no one knew what to do. Obviously the launch could not take place with a stuck cable so we had to call a ‘Hold’. The vehicle was fully armed and it was quite unsafe for anyone to venture near. The saviour 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 60 ft high, which was about the same height as the rocket. We had no other option but to let him try, with the safety officials turning their backs for a 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.
The flight was a maiden success — a milestone in ISRO’s history. And so on 18 July 1980, almost seventeen years after the first foreign Nike-Apache sounding rocket was launched from TERLS, a made-in-India rocket launched from Indian soil injected an Indian-made satellite into a 300 km by 900 km 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 the Sea Loving Vehicle. And now their father’s organisation had been vindicated! The successful SLV-3 flight was a real morale booster to ISRO. India had become the sixth member of the exclusive club of space-faring nations. Decades have passed by since then and this club has not increased in strength!
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.
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