ISRO: A PERSONAL HISTORY R. ARAVAMUDAN WITH GITA ARAVAMUDAN HARPER COLLINS INDIA 236 PAGES RS 399
Aravamudan was just 25 and a bachelor when he got recruited by Dr Vikram Sarabhai as a volunteer to “set up a rocket launch pad in South Kerala”. Dr Sarabhai, the architect of the Indian space odyssey was looking for a core group of bright minds to be sent to NASA. Thus starts a journey which is both personal and professional for Aravamudan, which also is the journey of an ancient nation and young nation-state to find its place in the space race in a way that is unique and through a path that is extremely challenging.
Aravamudan’s narration, written along with his journalist wife Gita Aravamudan, is gripping. The book will move not just his Indian reader but every citizen of post-colonised nations to recognise the kind of challenges that a developing nation will have to face when it wants to make itself self-reliant in science and technology.
There are interesting personal anecdotes throughout the book. In the US, a Christian group invites them for a community dinner and then the leader prays to the Lord to forgive the young Indian engineers for being vegetarians! During a rocket launch, Aravamudan had brought his newly married wife Gita to witness the launch. However, some problems crept up and the launch was stopped. Aravamudan forgot his wife and got his nose into the rocket. Gita found herself standing alone on a deserted beach in Kerala. Suddenly a jeep came by and out hopped Abdul Kalam. He asked her what had happened and he burst out laughing. Aravamudan writes: “‘Trust my buddy to forget he got married,’ Kalam said. ‘He must have buried his head in the rocket. Come let us go find him!’ Sure enough they found me with my hand inside the rocket trying to fix the switch which had misbehaved. Kalam packed me into the jeep with Gita.”
Then there was the televised launch from almost nowhere in the heart of Russia from where he waved his hand to his mother in Tamil Nadu. Such anecdotal events which spice up the book also have in them a connect of their own. Without the author consciously realising it, they show the reader the kind of dedication and spirit of commitment the ISRO scientists had in this grand national mission of which they have become a part. And you can also gather some interesting tidbits: that Kalam was a fan of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, at least in his initial days at ISRO, and that he liked egg paratha. And the eternally failed project of Aravamudan which was finding a bride for his eligible bachelor friend—Kalam!
At the same time, the Pakistanis too were at NASA for getting trained in rocket making. However, the different courses that the rocket programmes of the two nations took is in fact a salutation to the visionary in Sarabhai. “Without Sarabhai, India’s space programme might have ended in the same doldrums as Pakistan’s,” Aravamudan writes. Dr Sarabhai comes through as a great overarching personality. His vision and his superhuman efforts to realise it touch the reader deeply. When Aravamudan, who was “Dan” to Sarabhai, writes about the death of Sarabhai, one can almost be sure that the man gave himself up to build the institution ISRO. In the growing achievements of ISRO, the visionary Sarabhai lives on.
Sarabhai’s vision of the space programme was qualitatively different from the space programmes of the then competing superpowers. Aravamudan quotes those inspiring words of his mentor: “There are some who question the relevance of space activity in a developing nation. To us there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the explorations of the moon and the planets or manned space flights. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the comity of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, which we find in our own country.“ Aravamudan points out how Sarabhai also emphasised the important benefits from space research spin-offs.
The fishermen community of Thumba had graciously given the Church of Mary Magdalene for the space programme. A photo in the book shows the author in a vest along with an equally boyish looking Kalam preparing a payload inside the church.
Dr Sarabhai was scouting for talent, as well as any important available space technology which we could afford. He sends the author and another colleague of his, Ramakrishna Rao, to Australia to buy a second hand tracking system. These two inexperienced young engineers went and almost by luck got a tracking system and it becomes the first telemetric ground station in Sriharikota.
By the 1970s. the Soviet Union was increasingly becoming a major collaborator in our space endeavours. As part of a programme of the Soviet hydrometeorological services, India agreed to launch M-100 rockets from Thumba. “Although the Thumba scientists could carry out the entire operations themselves,” writes Aravamudan, “the Russian personnel were always in the rocket range supervising the launches. For a long time they would not let us Indians handle their equipment.”
ISRO’s struggle against the technological apartheid the United States unleashed is also covered in detail. Even as the US was trying to almost destroy ISRO with sanctions and prohibiting the signing of any new contracts with ISRO, Nambi Narayan, the brilliant scientist who was instrumental in ISRO becoming self-reliant in technology, was subjected to humiliation in public and torture, through false cases right here on Indian soil.
Aravamudan writes, “Thinking back, it seems almost unbelievable that within a couple of decades Nambi had successfully worked on rockets of magnitudes and complexities much beyond what we had envisioned.” And then, “Poor Nambi even spent time in prison. Ultimately he was cleared but by then the damage had been done to his career.”
Aravamudan recounts taking eminent Indians spanning across decades around the ISRO facility; from Kakkan the very simple and honest minister of Tamil Nadu state, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and then matinee idol of Kerala filmdom Prem Nazeer. Morarji Desai as Prime Minister visited the Thumba centre at a time when labour unrest was at its height. He went through the entire centre and made a cryptic remark “Where are they? And where are we?” Then he insisted on doing what the centre scientists wanted utmost to avoid. He wanted to talk to the workers.
Desai spoke to them and explained the importance of the national space mission and asked them not to hinder it through their labour unrest. Not just labour unrest, the ISRO also had to battle with Luddite rumours like an X-ray equipment causing everything from hair loss to impotency.
The book brings out how the ISRO developed its own organic solidarity through a fire of purpose and mission ignited by Dr Sarabhai. Whether it was Caltech returned Prof Satish Dhawan or U.R. Rao or Kasturirangan to the present day, Aravamudan points out that despite the individual differences in their styles of functioning, they all have been true to, and have carried forward the vision of Dr Sarabhai. And what a vision he had which is one that combined the space explorations with alleviating human suffering through technology. ISRO has lived up to its expectations and as the author points out has excelled and exceeded the initial scope of the organisation. Today the Mars mission and the launching of 104 satellites at a go—are all the result of decades of wonderful leadership, political non-interference and excellent synchronisation of human potential from across the land.
The ISRO success story is something every Indian should know about and should get inspired by.
Aravamudan has successfully brought out those emotions in his book. He has also given a timeline of major events in the history of India’s space odyssey and what is what of Indian spacecrafts. This book will be an inspiration for all Indians cutting across age and profession. This book, one that elevates every Indian soul space high, should be translated in every Indian language.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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