Despite being tedious in parts, The Leapfroggers offers a view into the workings and history of ISRO that any enthusiast would enjoy.
The Leapfroggers: An Insider’s Account of ISRO. Ved Prakash Sandlas. HarperCollins. 2018. 224 pages. Rs 399.
In a country, where secrecy is the norm in critical areas like space technology and defence development, the release of a book by an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) insider stoked my curiosity. The prospect of learning about the storied past of what is perhaps India’s most cherished public institution today was hard to resist. But The Leapfroggers: An Insider’s Account of ISRO underwhelms, turning tedious in the description of technical matters and shining through only when the author, Ved Prakash Sandlas, allows the reader to get up close and personal with him as he documents his rise from humble beginnings to eventually leading one of the SLV-3 launch programmes in the 1980s.
The title of the book, especially the reference to the term ‘leapfroggers’, draws from Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s memorable call in the early days of India’s space programme, of which he was an architect, to show “the courage to leapfrog to state-of-the-art engineering and technology pursuits rather than step-by-step scientific developments”. This ‘leapfrogging’ Sarabhai deemed critical if India were to eventually be counted among the big players of the time. This slice of history, the leapfrogging stage, over two decades from 1963 to 1983 is the subject of this “storybook”, as Sandlas calls it, preferring the term over “a history or chronology document”.
The Leapfroggers starts where it all begins for India’s space odyssey, in a fishing village near Trivandrum in Kerala, called Thumba — home to the early Indian space age settlers in the 1960s. Sandlas warmly recounts his initial struggles with adapting to the culture of small-town Kerala. He gets caught off guard especially with respect to the position of women in the state. “Learning about the matriarchal or matrilineal system in Kerala was particularly surprising and pleasantly revealing—women enjoying high status, higher sex-ratio and literacy, women controlling the household, respect for the girl child, no dowry, no concept of the saas-bahu, perpetual bickering seen in north India.” Several anecdotes help highlight the significant cultural shift, revealing the irony of space executives having to learn to find their feet in a corner of their own country before reaching for the stars.
Amidst this cultural readjustment, Sandlas describes his interaction with various other members of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in the late 1960s. There weren’t many at the time — the serial number on the author’s identification card read “sixty-eight” — but many in this small club would eventually go on to become heroes of India’s space journey. Dr A P J Abdul Kalam dominates the pages, but others include Satish Dhawan, G Madhavan Nair, H G S Murthy and E V Chitnis, with Dr Sarabhai’s overarching presence being felt through the pages. The author’s account of his time spent interacting with these “Rohini engineers” — Dr Sarabhai’s term for his younger colleagues, after ‘Rohini Nakshatra’; also the name of the early sounding rockets — gives the reader more than just a glimpse into the crucible where these future ISRO leaders were formed. This is one of the more satisfying parts of the book to read.
Since ISRO largely remains closed to the world outside, the “ISRO culture” as described by a long-term insider came as a pleasant surprise to me. We may have our conceptions of what it’s like to work at ISRO, but Sandlas writes that the emphasis is on being “really true to oneself and to the organisation...to be totally individualistic—not self-centred, but uninfluenced by collective thoughts.” It is impressive to think that an organisation with so many brilliant minds working together can afford an ‘individualistic’ attitude among its employees — surely that’s been a factor in its success over the years. But Sandlas lets us know that it wasn’t all love and peace — meetings at ISRO were like battles in a war. But they would end in a truce each time before the next contentious issue got leaders butting heads with each other — all in the right spirit.
The chapter on the development of Sriharikota Island as a rocket-launching station is insightful. “The location was identified in March 1968 by Chitnis and U.R. Rao during a visit to Hyderabad... and was finalized after an air survey of the place by Dr Sarabhai in August 1968,” writes Sandlas, as he describes in detail how the island — “basically a jungle and reserve forest of planted eucalyptus and casuarina trees” — looked in those days and how it felt to be there.
The centrepriece of The Leapfroggers, however, is the author’s account of the SLV-3 programme, of which he was a key member. It is this ambition — to develop an indigenous satellite launch vehicle (SLV) — that holds the rest of the book together, but is also where the language sometimes turns technical and the information dry. But between these difficult parts is a story that needs telling. India’s success in satellite launches and space exploration found its start here, in the development of the SLV-3 programme, led by its project director, Abdul Kalam. Sandlas himself had a key to role to play as he was initially “responsible for managing the SLV-3 Project Cell in the Electronics Division... involved in the design of telemetry, tracking and other onboard electronic subsystems” and so, we learn up close about the key SLV programme details, culminating in the early triumph of ISRO’s launch technology with the successful launch of the SLV-3-E-02 on 18 July 1980. This had paved the way for the development of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), and the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which are today in common parlance when referring to Indian space missions.
Sandlas explains why that launch was important: “The event signified India’s entry into the exclusive space club of nations with satellite launch vehicle capability; the other five countries were Soviet Union (Sputnik-I launch by Sputnik-PS on 4 October 1957), United States (Explorer-I launch by Juno-I on 31 January 1958), France (Asterix launch by Diamant on 26 November, 1965), Japan (Osumi launch by Lambda 4S on 11 February 1970) and China (Dongfanghong-I launch by Chang Zheng-1 on 24 April 1970).”
India’s SLV development programme kicked on and eventually led to the PSLV and GSLV technology, onboard which many of India’s triumphs have come over the last couple of decades, including the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan), the lunar exploration mission (Chandrayaan), and the incredible feat recently of launching 104 satellites in a single flight. India is now proceeding to send a three-member crew into space as part of its first human spaceflight programme, Gaganyaan, as well as its second lunar exploration mission (Chandrayaan-2). To appreciate where we have come as a space exploring nation, we have to know how we got here, and The Leapfroggers, though scratchy and tedious in parts, gives us a front-row seat.