Front seat on a nostalgia trip

ISRO: A Personal History R. Aravamudan, Gita Aravamudan Harper Collins ₹399  

Some weeks ago, the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched a record 104 satellites; a feat so amazing that a top defence official in the Donald Trump administration was reportedly “shocked” on hearing of it. In the last few decades, ISRO has been able to launch hundreds of satellites and assorted payloads for government and international customers. This is due to the unswerving dependability of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that has traversed as far as the moon and Mars.

There is now a generation of adults who haven’t seen a plummeting PSLV, and Ramabhadran Aravamudan, who was among ISRO’s first recruits in 1962, takes the reader on an idyllic flashback into the space agency’s childhood and adolescence. ISRO: A Personal History, jointly authored by Aravamudan and his wife Gita—a journalist— begins with the suave, workahalic Vikram Sarabhai, convincing a 20-something Aravamudan to give up a safe job at the Department of Atomic Energy, to be among pioneers who would take India into space.

For Aravamudan, it was career that involved conceiving rocket design in church-parsonages with pigeons on the rafters for company; going around the world and figuring out how NASA and Arianespace (The French space company) put together rockets, and looking out for global auctions where international, outdated space equipment could be bought cheap and re-used to make India’s first home-grown rockets.

That was a time, Aravamudan reminisces, in efficient prose, when noted photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would be ambling along the beach in Thumba, Kerala, that was also the cradle of ISRO’s early rocket facilities. Bresson clicked Aravumudan, in a vest, and future Indian-president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, cobbling a payload for a sounding rocket and that became one of the iconic photographs of Indian space history. In those days ISRO’s rockets were temperamental and could go awry. Major accidents have involved workers being blinded and sometimes killed. The Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) so frequently wilted from the skies that school-children monikered it the Sea Loving Vehicle.

There is now a sizeable literature—academic and journalistic—on ISRO, including memoirs from former chairmen, biographies on Sarabhai, spy-scandals, its tangles with Cold War politics and the crippling impact of sanctions on India’s technological progress.

For the most part, the authors adroitly fuse nostalgia, engineering technical-ese and loads of anecdotes (especially about Aravamudan’s close friend Dr. Abdul Kalam) that make the book an extremely enjoyable read. For instance, who, other than a confidant would know that the president of predominantly-socialist India was a fan of John Galt, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and literary hero of first-year engineering students world-over. President Kalam, known as India’s ‘missile man’ and steerer of satellites, was himself unable to cycle.

Eschewing pontification and self aggrandisement—a weakness of several memoirs—Aravamudan describes his unabashed admiration of Sarabhai, his terrifying experiences with trade unions, meetings with Prime Minister Morarji Desai and a colleague’s quip that a planned rocket-launch would be safe as long as “it didn’t go the way of Sanjay Gandhi’s [doomed] flight.” There are discussions on how failure-analysis committees are set up to determine what exactly caused a particular mission to fail but to the non-specialist reader, these are no more edifying than ISRO press-releases on the same. Given the length of Aravamudan’s tenure and that he’s been operationally away from ISRO for at least two decades, the book could have done with some disinterested reflection on the paucity of women space scientists and the secret-sauce of the recruitment process in the organisation that consistently manages to turn engineers (not always from India’s storied schools) into outstanding technologists. ISRO, as a source of study, remains only superficially tapped.

ISRO: A Personal History; R. Aravamudan, Gita Aravamudan, HarperCollins, ₹399.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 3:39:55 AM |

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