Science Reviews

‘Space and Beyond, Professional Voyage of K. Kasturirangan’ review: Indian space odyssey through the eyes of a pioneer

If you want to know the nitty-gritty of India’s multi-dimensional space programme, and how it came to be self-reliant and world-class, the book you ought to read is Space and Beyond, Professional Voyage of K. Kasturirangan. Edited by B.N. Suresh whom Kasturirangan calls ‘engineer extraordinaire’, the volume traces the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) fascinating voyage which began by sending an imported Nike Apache rocket to the upper atmosphere that weighed a few hundred kilogrammes, from Thumba, Kerala, on November 21, 1963.

Cut to the 21st century, ISRO has launched its own 640-tonne gigantic GSLV-Mk III rockets from the spaceport at Sriharikota, and has ambitious plans, including the forthcoming Gaganyaan mission to send Indians to space.

Inspired by Sarabhai

Through Kasturirangan’s words, Suresh also highlights the dire need to sustain Earth’s resources for future generations, in the face of threats to its ecology and environment. The book offers solutions — from embracing nuclear power to adopting the measures outlined by the high-level working group’s report on the Western Ghats’ ecosystem. Kasturirangan gives fascinating insights into the extraordinary personalities of ISRO’s pioneers such as Vikram Sarabhai, M.G.K. Menon, Satish Dhawan, U.R. Rao and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. They were clear-eyed that ISRO’s goal should be to ensure that the benefits of space technology reach “the grassroots”. Sarabhai, ISRO’s founder, made no bones that self-reliance should be the “life current” of its missions. He founded the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, which became the cradle of India’s space progamme.

As ISRO chairman, Kasturirangan worked with five successive Prime Ministers, P.V. Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Manmohan Singh. They were keen listeners, good observers and had sharp minds. He says Prime Minister Narendra Modi was keen on leveraging the remote-sensing and communication capabilities of India’s satellites for Gujarat’s development when he was Chief Minister.

Kasturirangan (80) has an enviable curriculum-vitae to write on all these subjects. He was ISRO Chairman (1994 – 2003) and earlier Director, ISRO Satellite Centre, Bengaluru, renamed as U.R. Rao Satellite Centre. He made a reputation by building India’s remote-sensing satellites. He was a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha, member of the Planning Commission and held a host of other posts besides being chairman of the committee to draft the National Education Policy.

The book has been superbly edited by Dr. B.N. Suresh, who is highly qualified to do so. As a builder of launch vehicles, he went on to become the Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, ISRO’s nerve-centre. Later, he was Director of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Valiamala, Kerala, for three-and-a-half years after it was inaugurated in 2007. It is a deemed-to-be university set up by the Department of Space. He is now its Chancellor. Kasturirangan says Suresh has an “awesome” knowledge of launch vehicles. Suresh has formatted the book in such a way that its 22 chapters are organically linked to one another but at the same each can be read separately.

Cooperation with Russia

There is a chapter on India’s international cooperation in space with the then USSR (now Russia), the U.S. and France. Russia has been an all-weather friend of ISRO. The USSR put into space India’s first three indigenously built earth observation satellites, Aryabhatta, Bhaskara-I and Bhaskara-II, and a series of Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites. Besides, India’s first cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, flew to space in a Soviet spacecraft Soyuz T-11.

A refrain that runs through the book is the manifold uses to which the images of India’s earth observation satellites have been put to, from predicting droughts and cyclones to disaster management. Today, India is a world leader in building earth observation, communication, navigation and other satellites, and it could not have been possible without the visionaries that helmed India’s space programme from Sarabhai to Kasturirangan.

Many anecdotes

There are historical anecdotes about how when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was keen on accepting an offer from the Soviets to fly an Indian to its Salyut space station, then ISRO Chairman Satish Dhawan was reluctant to take it up because he felt that it would distract India from its goal of using space technology to serve the common man. The gentleman that Dhawan was, he was unhappy with the unseemly way an Indian bureaucrat and a diplomat haggled with the Soviets to reduce the launch fee from ₹45 crore to ₹8 crore for India using the Soviet Vostok rocket to put its IRS-1A satellite into orbit from the Baikonur cosmodrome in 1988. A perturbed Dhawan asked his colleagues later, “Tell me what the rationale is behind such a negotiation?”

Interesting tidbits reveal the Soviets’ superstitious beliefs to ensure launch missions’ successes.

When Kasturirangan met Dhawan after he (Kasturirangan) became ISRO Chairman, Dhawan gave him sage advice: “First, always remember that the buck stops at your table. Second, you give a damn to the seat you are occupying. Only then will you not make any compromising decisions, and this is extremely important for the organisation you now head.”

If there are a few highly technical chapters, they are compensated by pages of riveting material on the great men of ISRO. For instance, Sarabhai had a magnetic personality. He was like a magician who could mesmerise anybody into accepting his standpoint. He convinced a host of young Indian scientists — E.V. Chitnis, P.D. Bhavasar, Vasant Gowariker, S.C. Gupta, A.E. Muthunayagam and U.R. Rao — into giving up their promising careers in the U.S. or U.K. and return to India to join its fledgling space programme he had started. Kasturirangan could not resist Sarabhai’s charm either. The young Kasturirangan, after obtaining his Ph.D. in astrophysics under Sarabhai in PRL, had an offer from Professor Luiz Alvarez, the Nobel Laureate in Physics, to work in his observatory at the University of California, Berkeley. When Kasturirangan told Sarabhai about the offer, Sarabhai smoothly convinced his student into staying back to join the satellite-building programme he was initiating with U.R. Rao. “My trust in Dr. Sarabhai was total, and I decided at that moment to remain in India,” says Kasturirangan in the book.

The Aryabhatta project

Prof. U.R. Rao and Kasturirangan hit it off well. When the Soviets wanted ISRO to build only payloads for their remote-sensing satellite, Rao insisted that India would build the entire satellite itself. Thus was born the Aryabhatta project, India’s very first home-built satellite. Rao was its Project Director. He set up the entire infrastructure from scratch for building the Aryabhatta, which was put into orbit by a Soviet Intercosmos launch vehicle from the then USSR in 1975. India thus gained a decade in gaining the know-how of building remote-sensing satellites, says Kasturirangan.

As for Prime Ministers, it was Vajpayee who germinated the idea of ISRO sending human beings to space using its own rocket. When Kasturirangan, then ISRO Chairman, was seated next to Prime Minister Vajpayee during the Indian Science Congress, the latter, out of the blue, asked the former, “You are doing everything for the good of ISRO but what about human space flight?” Vajpayee also wanted to know the investment needed for the mission. It was Modi who readily approved the Gaganyaan mission.

A refrain that runs through the book is the manifold uses to which the images of India’s earth observation satellites have been put to. They are predicting droughts and cyclone, monitoring floods, estimating the health of the crops and their yield, identifying coastal erosion, locating groundwater for drilling wells, prospecting minerals, spotting schools of fish in the sea, disaster management, search and rescue, detecting illegal ganja plantations in the forests in Madhya Pradesh, cartography, urban planning and so on. The Indian communication satellites have brought about a revolution in telephony, broadcasting, banking, telecasting, telemedicine, tele-education etc.

Today, India is a world leader in building earth observation, communication, navigation and other satellites. It has a fleet of 18 earth observation satellites, eight communication satellites and eight navigation satellites, all in orbit. It has put 342 foreign satellites from 34 countries into orbit, using its trusted workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) variants. Of the 53 PSLV flights so far from Sriharikota from 1993, 51 missions have been successful.

As the late S. Ramakrishnan, ISRO’s reputed rocket technologist who headed the VSSC, told this journalist, “India has an assured access to space. We can build any type of rocket, any type of satellite and put the satellites into any kind of orbit.”

Space and Beyond, Professional Voyage of K. Kasturirangan; Edited by B.N. Suresh, Springer Nature, €43.59.

The reviewer is an independent journalist.


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