From admiring spin tops to being acknowledged in space shuttles, veteran scientist N. Sivasubramanian tells his story

Nagaswami Sivasubramanian has never been to space, but his photograph has. “Science was always my first and only choice,” declares the veteran ISRO scientist. He went to school and learnt about science just like everyone else. But there was a difference. He had an insatiable curiosity that led him to learn much more.

It was his self-driven motivation to be ahead of his contemporaries that resulted in his photograph being flown in space aboard NASA's space shuttles – Discovery, Endeavour and on Atlantis which orbited the Earth this year.

Again in November, his “name” embedded in a chip will go to Mars. When Rover Spirit and Opportunity, designed as a six-month mission to measure Martian characteristics exceeded the time-frame by six years due to multiple challenges, Sivasubramanian gave his input.

“I commented on the use of higher revolution motor that would produce larger force to push a vehicle stuck in sand. My idea was accepted and as an acknowledgement, I have been informed, my name is now being sent on the next Rover Curiosity along those of several other scientists from all over the world who have contributed individually or as a team to NASA's Mars exploration programme,” says the scientist.

His love for science makes him an avid reader of books on technology, nano science, bioinformatics and everything about the universe.

“Making science-fair projects and reading science fiction as a child, continuously exploring and implementing theoretical concepts, spending hours in the library and now on the laptop, updating myself with every scrap of information is what constitutes me,” says Sivasubramanian, 63.

He breathes science, lives science. What fascinated him no end as a child, he recalls, was the simple wooden spin top. Since then, anything that spins has fascinated him. That is why on his first assignment as technical assistant with Indian Space Research Organisation, Trivandrum, in 1969, when Dr. Vikram Sarabhai asked him to develop a gyroscope to gauge the direction of rocket movement, speed and velocity, the challenge thrilled him. “In those days gyroscopes were manufactured only by America and Russia. There were no catalogues available either, and book knowledge was limited. I had special interest in instrumentation and successfully with other team members made the first prototype in 1971, with 24,000 revolutions per minute, which was thrice the speed of what we were importing.”

The indigenously-developed gyroscope marked a turning point in India's space history as it brought in self-reliance in ISRO's launch vehicle programmes. Subsequently, the Indian-made gyroscope was found useful not only in SLV3, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV but also for MIG-21 and MIG-31 aircraft and for the gun control system of Vijayanta Tanks.

By 1978, Sivasubramanian was working on second-generation gyroscopes, focusing on speed and accuracy, successfully making cryogenic engines for the country's GSLV programme. The ‘gyro man' soon came to be known as the ‘cryo man'.

During his four-decade long stint with ISRO, he was also responsible for introducing Beryllium components for rocket and satellite system. Extracted from Beryl ore and after special processing, this material turned out to be highly useful in nuclear reactors. “Our former President Dr. Kalam on a visit asked me to explore further use of the material and I was on the job. Now it is widely used in medical X-ray tubes. It helps in clear transmission of radio-magnetic waves.”

With an aptitude for techniques and precision engineering, Sivasubramanian was also instrumental in devising the stent used in cardiac surgeries. Having undergone training in aerospace at different laboratories and aerospace industries in France, Germany, UK and USA, he doesn't want his 40 years of learning and experience go waste.

“I feel the syllabus both at school and college levels should be dynamically changed. There should be more focus on personality development and our students should be initiated into rationale thinking. Everybody is into acquiring bookish knowledge, whereas it is only inspiration that can get youngsters hooked into science,” he says.

Sivasubramanian has held several positions but what he finds most interesting is the “power of tools and instruments that help scientists and researchers to be precise.” With the excitement of a scientist who is always waiting for his Eureka moment, he also talks about music in the same breath. “I love films with good songs and I am a great fan of S.P. Balasubrahmanyam,” he smiles.

He is now keenly working on the extra coating of solar cells to improve the efficiency of solar reflectors and also on using low cost bio-methanol as alternate fuel – these are projects he wants to submit to the State.

He is also worried about depletion of rare earth elements required for future alloys.

Some of these elements are present in Tamil Nadu and need to be preserved as a future resource instead of being allowed to get depleted due to sand quarrying, warns the scientist.

Sivasubramanian says even now he loves to do ‘difficult' things. “Dr. Kalam used to motivate us by saying, ‘I don't think you can develop this instrument, I would rather get it from outside' and we would be instantly on the job.”

LUMINOUS ACHIEVEMENTS

Received the President's Award for developing the high precision instruments like gyroscope and accelerometer for rocket, spacecraft and satellite.

Received appreciation and citations from Dr. Vikram.A.Sarabhai, Dr.K.Kasturi Rangan and Dr.G.Madhavan Nair for outstanding work towards ISRO's programme

Recipient of National Research and Development Council award in 1994

National Metallurgist Day Award from Ministry of Steel and Mines 1996

Award for developing Best Metallurgical Products by Metallurgical Society of India in 1993

Life Time Achievement Award from Society of Aerospace Manufacturing during 2008.

Has guided many research projects related to manufacturing methods and materials processing.

Published more than 100 research papers in both international and national journals and magazines

Is a life member of several professional societies including Astronautical Society of India, Aeronautical Society of India , Indian Institute of Metals, Material Research Society of India, Institution of Engineers,Society of Aerospace Manufacturing Engineer

Instrumentation Society of India

Presently,Mr.N.Sivasubramanian is functioning as Secretary, Nadar Mahajana Sangam S.Vellaichamy Nadar College, Madurai. He is also functioning as President, Nadar Mahajana Sangam Sermathai Vasan College for Women, Madurai