It is the mother of all start-ups. Launched amidst primitive facilities and far from prying eyes on a remote beach on the southern tip of India, the cash-starved venture has blossomed into one of the biggest success stories of modern India. It is the stuff dreams are made of; yet eminent historians who relentlessly feed the nation tales of our follies, either real or imagined, hardly acknowledge it.
Indeed what an unforgettable, awe-inspiring evening it was in Bengaluru recently when current and retired stalwarts who proved to the nation that the sky was not the limit, regaled the audience with enthralling anecdotes of their battle against implausible odds.
India’s incredible journey from being a technology back water to a world leader in space was being celebrated through the book launch of R Aravamudan, the award-winning scientist who was associated with India’s space programme from its very inception.
The many stars who had thronged the hall for the event included current Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chairman Kiran Kumar and former bosses UR Rao and Radhakrishnan. There were dozens of other colleagues who held the audience spell bound with anecdotes that brought out the camaraderie, pride and sense of accomplishment in these brilliant men of Isro.
In fact, the book release of Isro: A Personal History by Aravamudan and his journalist-author wife Gita, was like no other simply because the Q&A was made extraordinarily unorthodox. Questions from laymen were answered not just by Aravamudan from the stage but often by the many dazzling scientists who too formed part of the audience. This often triggered off reminiscences and the tales they told were enormously fascinating and their unguarded banter gave rare glimpses of the making of a staggering modern legend.
To start with, the tales behind the nicknames of these scientists were hilarious. For instance, Aravamudan came to be known as 'Dan' because guys at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre at Beltsville, Maryland where he was trained in 1962 couldn’t pronounce his name. But the funniest part was when his colleague Ramakrishna Rao was one day asked by the NASA guys as to where his buddies were.
“We had never heard the term ‘buddy’ until then. The name stuck to Ramakrishna who came to be universally known as ‘Buddy’ after that,” said Dan.
Tellingly, the irony at the book release was the excessive security detail as current chairman Kiran Kumar fell in the Z+ category. In contrast Dan recalled the early days, right up to the '80s, when all and sundry from Trivandrum would freely roam around the Isro facility even as scientists were busy with their work.
He recalled how he would drive right up to the tarmac of the airport in Trivandrum to receive guests or take the flight, with no emphasis whatsoever on security.
“In the early days, before the Gulf boom, anybody wearing a pant and shirt in Trivandrum was presumed to be a ‘Rocket man’ as the locals wore only a ‘mundu’ (dhoti) and baniyan (vest),” he said. Additionally, Aravamudan's wife Gita was the centre of amazement as she was the only woman who could drive in all Trivandrum!
Dan further revealed how simple, casual dressing, complete with a pair of sandals or slippers became the norm at Isro. It was not just because of the hot weather conditions in Trivandrum, Bombay and Ahmedabad but due to the trend set by the hugely charismatic Vikram Sarabhai.
“The first time I met him, he wore white shorts. Later he always wore white khadi kurta-pyjamas and Kolhapuri chappals. He’d have only a simple black felt pen in his pocket and an HMT watch on his wrist. His PA would carry his wallet. On very special occasions he’d wear shoes, a formal, dark brown bandhgala coat and pants. Even scientists who had worked abroad and were used to wearing suits would soon switch to casual attire following the trend set by him," said Aravamudan.
“In the mid-1960s, Sarabhai was like God to us. We all loved, respected and looked up to him. He was like the central pillar of a big circus tent holding the whole structure up. He had this gift of making each person seem very important and wanted. His presence had an electrifying effect on the teams. He also endeared himself further by taking on-the-spot decisions to our issues,” he added.
Dan gave an instance of how Abdul Kalam and he had travelled for two days by train from Trivandrum to Ahmedabad and went straight to Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Sarabhai’s office. They were chatting with fellow scientists while waiting for Sarabhai to finish his meeting when an administrative staff head shooed them out of the room while telling them to not disturb work. Dan said:
“We were furious. We had dropped our busy work in Thumba and had come only because Sarabhai had summoned us. We said we were returning to Trivandrum right away. We were immediately ushered into a makeshift visitors’ room and were still seething with anger when Sarabhai finally came in. He was his usual enthusiastic self and all our anger and frustration melted away in his presence..."
“He had amazing energy, was a terrific visionary and was in a hurry to get things done. In 1964 he signed an agreement to supply Centaures Sounding rockets to France at a time when we barely even knew what went into making of a rocket!”
Dan had a first rank from the Madras Institute of Technology, was employed by Department of Atomic Energy in Trombay and was awfully bored with his repetitive work when he learnt over a meal in the office canteen that a scientist in Ahmedabad, Dr Vikram Sarabhai was recruiting youngsters to form a core team for a rocket launch pad in Kerala and that they would be sent to NASA for a year to get trained.
“I grabbed the opportunity, although at that time the facility at Thumba had not come up, and wasn't a government one. Four of us went to the Maryland while HGS Murthy, Abdul Kalam and Easwardas were sent to Wallops Island Virginia to be trained in rocket assembly, launching and explosive safety. Sarabhai was spearheading a project envisioned by scientists from all over the world to study the magnetic equator using sounding rockets. Thumba in Kerala was identified as the best location in India for the project,” he said.
One of the scientists in the audience revealed how primitive the conditions were at the site. They had relocated local fishermen to a different part of the beach and used the existing church building as their office.
“The church was the only solid building. The rest were fishermen’s thatched-roof shelters. So amidst pigeons, sweltering heat, humidity, constant power failures and non-existent roads we set to work to achieve Sarabhai’s catch-phrase plan of ‘leapfrogging technologies’.”
“When Sarabhai learnt I was a trained journalist he encouraged me to write on the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station and the work being done. Isro came about only much later, in 1969,” said Gita Aravamudan.
“I was paid Rs 10 per article by The Hindu newspaper. In one article I gave all the credit for a launch to Dr Abdul Kalam and somehow overlooked the tremendous contribution made by HGS Murthy. He took me to task for that. I knew that it was my fault and fearing such inadvertent repetitions, decided not to ever write anything about Isro or its achievements for any publication,” she added.
Gita and Dan also related an amusing anecdote of Doordarshan wanting to cover live an SLV-3 rocket launch from Sriharikota High Altitude Range (SHAR, now renamed Satish Dhawan Space Centre).
“DD did not have the requisite equipment. Thus we decided to improvise by having a transponder floating high on a giant balloon at Gummdipoondi which was half-way between SHAR and Madras. I was to ask layman’s questions to Dan while Prof Yash Pal of Space Applications Centre would ask the technical ones on the live televised show."
“The rig was promptly set up but no one had factored for the strong winds in Gummidipoondi. The balloon was just blown away 24 hours before the launch and thus we finally had to tape the interview and dispatch it over road to Madras DD!” they recounted.
Indeed, procuring equipment was always a challenge for the fledgling Indian space programme. Sarabhai had repeatedly cautioned his team of youngsters that rocket technology was a closely guarded secret and no nation would part with it for love or money. Thus everything had to be painstakingly learnt on a trail and error basis.
“We had lucky breaks en route. In the early days the Europeans after a series of failures decided to abandon their plan to build an all-European Satellite Launch Vehicle. They were scrapping their brand-new satellite tracking and telementry stations in Australia when Sarabhai sent ‘Buddy’, Murthy and me to lay our hands on the equipment. We got in at 10 per cent of the cost,” said Dan.
Radhakrishnan, ex-chairman for Isro, recalled how they had to use water from their tea kettle to temper some equipment and how it came out stained tea-black!
To another question, current chairman Kiran Kumar remarked that Nano satellites could perform only some tasks. Giant payload-delivering rockets were still needed as “there are laws of physics from which there is no escape”.
On another layman’s question as to why Isro was so successful with rockets but not HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) with LCA (light combat aircraft), Dan shot back “I can’t speak for others. Isro is damn good because we work damn hard to be good at what we do.”
An LCA chief test pilot in the audience defended HAL saying that it only executed a project. The design and other elements were with the Defence Research and Development Organisation, etc. “But I think the crucial difference is we have to bring the pilot safely back to ground each and every time we fly,” he told the layman tersely.
Another, a doctor of Indian origin practising in the US asked if Isro could not make things “cheaply”. He was unaware of Isro’s cost benefits but Radhakrishnan from the audience took that question to state: “Isro scientists worked 18 hours a day for years together. In France, their scientists do not work for more than 36 hours a week. For them it is a job. For us it is a passion... We were given three years' time to launch the Mars Mission. We did not recruit a single extra hand and accomplished the task only because we worked excessively hard to see the project through.”
Asked how they arrived at plans to launch satellites or rockets, Dan said that Sarabhai had emphasised on planning and executing projects for the decade ahead. “Thus we planned for the '70s, '80s, '90s and so on. There would be a lot of discussion where even the junior most scientists would be given freedom to articulate and question plans. That’s the culture that has seen us grow to fulfill Sarabhai’s ‘leapfrog technology’ plan.”
Indeed it was that sort of evening. Never ending with astonishing anecdotes, poignant nostalgia and filled with dreams.
Buy the book, gift it. This personal history of Isro is the sort that will inspire the nation. Thanks for the journey, Dan, Gita.
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