R SwaminathanFeb 16, 2017 08:53:42 IST
The PSLV C37 is a manifestation of a highly potent engineering thought: Powerful, precise and frugal. PSLV C37 is also a projection of mindset derived from a highly distilled worldview: again powerful, precise and frugal.
There is a quietness that’s endearing about the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientists. Come to think of it, it’s the same for the scientists of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It was precisely these qualities that made Dr APJ Abdul Kalam possibly the most popular President of India.
Beyond the standard trope of ‘Bata kabuli chappals’, ‘half-hand’ shirts, ‘ill-fitting’ pants, neatly combed hair and typical Indian accents, Isro scientists represent a worldview that stands in direct competition to a strident narrative that ties in science with brightly lit and impossibly antiseptic labs and celebrity scientists.
It builds science as a forbidding and elite frontier, impossibly complicated, that can be entered only by the chosen few. In more ways than one, Isro scientists represent the original essence of science and the spirit of scientific enquiry that architected a right balance of human curiosity and rigorous execution. When Isro scientists transported their first communications satellite ‘Apple’ on a bullock cart, it shed light on the shape of things to come: Functionality over bells and whistles, and an innovation that was distinctly earthy, homegrown and effective.
Later on, scientists would routinely carry critical components on a bicycle and strip down to their vests and work on rockets like how garage mechanics would dirty their hands repairing leaky motorcycles. Abdul Kalam did that. The only other nation that had a similar ethos was the erstwhile Soviet Union. Their world beating cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, once they had done their bit, became normal citizens travelling by bus to work.
Isro insiders have a more recent story that underlines the same point. Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari came up with an idea to make public transport buses in all major cities electric, and at an affordable price point. Bureaucrats and experts said that the biggest constraint in making such buses cost effective was the cost of batteries. Gadkari is known as an intrepid minister with a sharp mind and he asked them a question: How did Isro Mangalayan mission cover so much ground [I am sure he meant space] on battery packs? The bureaucrats scrambled and got in touch with Isro.
Isro sent one man, their top man who had cracked the relatively complicated technology behind the 36 Ah Lithium-ion battery aboard the orbiter. The story goes that he was dressed like how Isro scientists are usually dressed, and introduced himself like how Isro scientists usually introduce themselves: Politely, quietly and in a low key manner without any fanfare. Gadkari’s officer ignored him, till the minister came out to find out what happened to the appointment. Profuse apologies later, and a good two hours later, Gadkari was a satisfied man.
Last I heard, the technology has been customised, adequately down-rated and tropicalised, prototypes built and cost about 1/10 the price of commercially available electric batteries.
In all this, it’s easy to miss the worldview driving the frugal engineering of Isro, as it’s equally easy to focus on the astoundingly low costs that Isro is routinely able to pull out of its hat, much like an accomplished magician. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM) aka Mangalayan cost about Rs 450 crores, the lowest cost ever. For perspective, China lays about three kilometres of high speed railway track for the same cost. In American dollar terms, Rs 450 crores is about $73 million. The Sandra Bullock-starrer Gravity cost US$ 100 million to produce.
Isro’s quiet confidence, technical prowess and its ability to consistently build a low cost model of operations is bound to raise the hackles of several interested parties who are finding their comfortable world being shaken by one uncomfortable question: How is Isro able to do this so well and at such prices?
Now, with a world record under its belt, Isro should prepare itself for several below the belt attacks. The space mafia [and I take full responsibility for using such a strong word] will attack Isro in three ways.
The first attack will be through the bilateral route, where countries that have the technical know-how would ‘lean’ on the Indian establishment and deny them critical technologies. There is precedent for such arm twisting. The way in which the US pushed the Russian administration to cancel the transfer of technology for cryogenic engines is still fresh in Isro’s mind.
DRDO has suffered a similar fate with some of its critical aviation projects. But the Isro of today may not be impacted too much by such steps, as it has invested heavily in developing almost all the critical technologies in-house. The indigenous GSLV Mark III using the C25 cryogenic engine is only a couple of steps away. The engine has been tested for 50 seconds, and would be tested for a full duration of 640 seconds in a few days.
The second attack will be through the ‘economics of launch’ route, where dominant agencies in developed countries, particularly NASA, will mount a strong internal campaign educating [read lobbying] the senators and the Congress that Isro’s costs are low because of the so-called subsidies provided by the Indian government.
Creative economics will be used to show how the actual cost of the launch is 3X the publicised cost. This kind of education will lead to two things. First, bilateral pressure on India to reduce subsidies, backed by stories by a pliant media of how Isro’s space programme is nothing more than a military programme in disguise to develop Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). Second, more support and subsidies to Nasa to make it competitive in the global satellite launch market.
The third attack will be the most insidious and will be led by the private space exploration and launch companies. These companies will offer jingles, whistles, bells and fancy salaries to attract the Isro cream. It will be done in a bloodless manner, and without anyone even realising it. A public institution like Isro will be bled dry and made hollow.
There are enough examples of superb Indian institutions raided mercilessly by corporate lobbies and private companies. Just ask Sam Pitroda and he will tell you all about how the cream of C-DOT and C-DAC were poached by multinational companies and private Indian firms to kick-start the Indian telecommunications revolution.
PSLV C37 is a big moment for Isro and the institution deserves all the credit and kudos it’s getting, and some more. However, its stupendous success is both a blessing and a curse, making it particularly vulnerable. The government needs to be aware of the dangers being faced by Isro and should play an active role in fending them off. Isro is a national treasure and needs to be protected.
Swaminathan is a Consulting Editor for Firstpost
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