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Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines

ASLV With the successful blast-off of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle-C1, India has stunned the world.

But it was not always a saga of sweet success and triumph for the Indian Space Research Organisation; lack of funds and technological failure were par for the course.

Monday's achievement is yet another vindication of the ability and commitment of ISRO scientists who have built the organisation from its humble birth in a Kerala church to a global technological power. This is how they did it:

Till 1963, Thumba would not have merited a second look. It was a typical Kerala fishing hamlet with boats stacked on the seafront and about 500 thatched houses set amidst coconut groves. In the midst of this cluster, about 25 km from Thiruvananthapuram, was the small Magdalene Church and the bishop’s house adjacent to it. It is in this unlikely setting that India’s soaring vision of harnessing space technology took shape.

The 1.5 sq km of Thumba was acquired in 100 days flat. The bishop’s office was converted into an office and the church became the workshop in which a handful of enthusiastic young scientists assembled their first rocket. In just about six months’s time, on November 21, 1963, India had launched the first rocket and put its signature on space. To the core group of scientists -- trained at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration of the US -- it’s still a matter of astonishment that so much was achieved with so little. The only equipment for transporting the rocket, they remember, was an old jeep and a manually operated crane that developed a leak during lift-off!

This is the stuff of legends that make up the history of the Indian Space Research Organisation. Set up with little funding and few facilities, ISRO has made India’s space programme the envy of the world, a feat that is hailed by experts as ‘success on a shoestring’. Even four years after that historic launch when India was building its Rohini sounding rocket, the facilities were primitive.

Vasant Gowarikar, who was wooed away from the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the difficult job of making propellants for the rockets, recalls what a shock Thumba was. “I knew we had to start from scratch, but was not prepared for what I saw. We were all sitting in this church building, and adjacent to it there was a cowshed. I was then shown my lab. It was this cowshed.” As an incentive, he was offered the use of a nearby cattle feed store!

Gowarikar, now vice-chancellor of Pune University, says it was a meeting with Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the space programme, that inspired him to leave the sophisticated Sommerfield Research Station where he was working on advanced rocket components, for the cowshed in Thumba. Thanks to the dedication and skill of scientists like Gowarikar, the space programme is one of the outstanding successes of the country.

One of just seven nations to have satellite launching capability, ISRO has given India launch vehicles, geostationary satellites (used for telecommunication, television transmission and weather forecasting) and some of the finest remote sensing satellites. In fact, IRS IC, launched in 1995, is the most sophisticated civilian remote sensing satellite in the world.

All thanks to one man’s visionary views on linking space technology with the development of a backward nation. Sarabhai was the moving spirit behind this endeavour as anyone in ISRO will vouch. Virtually every project ISRO has completed till now had been thought of by Sarabhai in the early sixties. Even the geostationary satellite launch vehicle that is expected to be ready by early 1998.

Magdalene Church at Thumba With this, India would have come to the end of a triumphant trajectory that began with the sounding rocket about three decades ago. The GSLV will be able to launch satellites weighing two tonnes to a height of 36,000 km, which means that India wouldn’t have to rely on other countries to launch its satellites. In principle, GSLV will also give the country the capability to go to the moon or the planets. The space programme, however, has been geared to more practical ends; to bring telephone and television to every home, to use space technology to forecast the weather, to provide disaster warnings. And the much-acclaimed remote sensing satellites are being used to find water, an application that few countries have used as extensively.

The wonder is that all this has been achieved with funding that, by international standards, is considered frugal. When ISRO was officially formed in 1972, its budget was Rs 100 million. This has increased steadily over the years to the current Rs 9.22 billion ($ 260 million). The US budgets more than $ 15 billion for its space programme which, of course, is more ambitious and includes projects like the space shuttle. China, which has a more comparable space programme, is estimated to spend around $ 5 billion.

But officials point out that the key factor in this success has been the unwavering support of the political establishment for the space programme. This has given ISRO a freedom rare for a government department and allowed it to develop a flexible management and administrative system. Much of the credit for this, according to the space community, goes to Satish Dhawan who, along with Sarabhai, enjoys a haloed reputation in ISRO. If Sarabhai was the visionary. Dhawan was the builder, but the latter, true to form, denies his stellar role in ISRO’s development. “It wasn’t my doing. I joined only in 1972, ISRO existed before that.”

The first decade was the toughest. When Sarabhai established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in 1963, few took the space programme seriously. R Narasimha, ISRO professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and Space Commission member, says the Americans were convinced the Indian space programme wouldn’t amount to much. Narasimha, who was at Caltech in the US in the sixties, recalls: ‘There were food shortages in India and the US was giving us grain. How could a country which couldn’t even feed itself start building rockets and satellites? They did not think that India would be able to develop the technologies.”

Sarabhai and his band of young scientists proved them wrong but it was a painstaking process, beginning with the simple sounding rocket. These lightweight rockets go up to a height of 100 km, and are used to study a phenomenon called the equatorial jet. Pramod Kale, who moved from the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad (Sarabhai was director of PRL) to the rocket technology group of TERIS in 1966, says: ‘It took us three years to build the first rocket. We had a large number of failures.”

Once a rocket took off when the warning siren was switched on, a full three minutes before the actual time for launch. Another day, a rocket took off horizontally without even being fired. Some of the rockets did not reach the required heights.

Bishop's house at Thumba But the sounding rocket was only a stepping stone to the real thing: the satellite launch vehicle. As Sarabhai conceived it, SLV was to launch a 35 kg satellite at a height of 400 km. The design, begun in 1970, was not original; it resembled the US rocket Scout closely. Sarabhai decided that the vehicle would have four stages, all of them using solid propellants.

A P J Abdul Kalam, now the defence ministry’s scientific advisor, has an interesting story to illustrate Sarabhai’s vision.

The French had a three-stage rocket called the Diamond PC. They wanted to add a fourth stage to this and were on the lookout for a suitable partner. Sarabhai wanted the fourth stage of SLV-3 to be the fourth stage of this rocket. Says Kalam, who was then in charge of the fourth stage: ‘It was amazing. India had never built a satellite launch vehicle before and the SLV was only on the design board. And still Sarabhai thought this possible.’'

It took quite some doing, but Kalam was able to convince the French of India’s capability. Unfortunately though, Sarabhai died a year later; and the French also dropped the Diamond PC project. Yet, in some ways, Sarabhai’s dream was fulfilled after a decade. The SLV’s fourth stage went on the French Ariane rocket, when it launched India’s Apple satellite.

Kind courtesy: BusinessWorld

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