Peace in a Pod Entertainment

Spotify’s ‘Mission ISRO’ tells the story of India’s space programme with verve and accuracy

A nation’s self-image is built on cleverly crafted myth, into which are threaded strands of truth, aspiration, fact and belief, the reading framed by the politics of the moment.

A historian’s task is thus always an onerous one, as is that of the journalist or the archivist. The project of a critical science historian is to contextualise science within the social, cultural, economic and political messiness of a given moment. It’s to put people into the stories and take note of the many connections that make some things possible and render others less likely.

The story of India’s space programme is one of those that has sometimes been brushed with the romantic impulse. It has all the ingredients of good drama: a young, scrappy, unimaginably disadvantaged nation relegated to the margins by the rich and powerful on the global stage; debonair young scientists with both vision and ambition; hard-working, determined engineers who want nothing more than to beat the odds; a geopolitical climate that demands skillful negotiation.

The Spotify original, Mission ISRO, throws all these into the mix to tell the story of India’s space programme in 12 episodes, drawing on multiple interviews and a wide range of archival material from government, media and academic sources. Narrated by Harsha Bhogle, whose comfort with the mike makes him an adept podcast host, the series strikes the right note between the technical and the social (and of course the political) to make for engaging storytelling — even if at times one might find the host getting just a trifle sentimental.

Iconic moment

Episode 1 begins what Bhogle describes as “an iconic moment” in the country’s history, as anyone who grew up in the 1970s will recognise.

“Upar se Bharat kaisa dikta hai aapko?” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asks, the excitement palpable in her voice. Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space, is unhesitating: “Saare jahan se achcha.”

It’s one of those goosebump-inducing, made-for-media moments, and Bhogle mines it well, using it as the take-off point for his backstory, which introduces us to “the audacious gentlemen” whose “ability to manoeuvre heaven and earth” laid the foundations of what would become one of the world’s most ambitious space programmes.

The most prominent of these men are Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, and Sarabhai in particular is one of the big heroes in the story as Bhogle tells it. Also featured are a range of figures from former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to Satish Dhawan, U.R. Rao and Yash Pal, some with incredible social and cultural capital and others with nothing more than the force of intellect and hard work.

The 12 episodes traverse the first four decades of the space programme, describing what went into building the rocket launching stations, designing an indigenous satellite launching vehicle, and planning the ground applications — most notably, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once described as “the greatest communication experiment in history”.

Such stories could easily become exercises in jingoism, but Mission ISRO successfully avoids this by sticking to the available evidence, introducing doubt when warranted, and for the most part, acknowledging political dynamics. Bhogle’s enthusiastic and conversational style makes it a smooth listening experience, resting as it does on the extensive research and seamless production by the team at ATS Studios (All Things Small).

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 12:43:50 AM |

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