A memorable black-and-white photograph from the early days of the Indian space programme shows the nose cone of a small rocket being taken to the launchpad on the carrier rack of a bicycle. It’s an incongruous sight. All around the bicycle is the dusty, palm-bedecked rural India of the 1960s. Cut to 2023, and the image of a jubilant S. Somanath, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), declaring, “We have achieved soft-landing on the moon. India is on the moon.”
In the slow yet eventful decades separating the two images, the space programme evolved from what many perceived as the frivolous aspirations of an upstart, poverty-stricken third-world country to a sparkling example of scientific excellence that Indians can look up to. Truth is, the ISRO had made it to the elite space club much before the Chandrayaan-3 mission’s ‘Vikram’ lander touched down on the lunar south pole on August 23. The space agency has proved its capabilities time and again by placing satellites in precise orbits on modest budgets and embarking upon highly publicised missions to the moon (in 2008 and 2019) and Mars (in 2014).
In 2017, the ISRO turned up the heat on the space race by launching 104 satellites in one go on the 39th flight of its trusted Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). But beyond such immediately visible, high-profile achievements are the countless ways in which the ISRO and its home-grown technologies have touched the lives of the common people; be it weather forecasts, telemedicine, navigation or tele-education. It is this connect with the grassroots that has made ISRO a household name.
Second to none
Vikram Sarabhai, the driving spirit behind India’s space ambitions, was keen for India to be “second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society which we find in our country.” To him, the application of sophisticated technologies and methods of analysis “to our problems is not to be confused with embarking on grandiose schemes whose primary impact is for show rather than for progress measured in hard economic and social terms.” This is perhaps why it did not surprise anyone when the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), ISRO’s lead facility responsible for launch vehicles, including the hefty LVM3 which put Chandrayaan-3 in orbit last July, turned its skills to developing mechanical ventilators in the bleak days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But then, the beginnings of ISRO too were modest; on land relinquished by the fishing community and a local church in a little-known coastal village in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram.
“A historic landmark in the entire process of land acquisition was the singular act of grace on the part of the Christian community at Thumba and the bishop of Thiruvananthapuram Rt Rev. Dr. Peter Bernard Pereira, in 1962. The venerated place of worship (the St. Mary Magdalene Church, now a popular space museum) was graciously laid at the altar of science,’’ the book A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO, by P. V. Manoranjan Rao and P. Radhakrishnan, veterans of the space agency, notes. On November 21 this year, it will be 60 years since the first sounding rocket, an American-made Nike-Apache, lifted off from Thumba. Five years after that event, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1968, dedicated the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) to the UN.
Over the years, the space agency has had its ups and downs. The occasional mission setbacks aside, the ISRO was rocked by the spy scandal in the early 1990s and the Antrix-Devas case later on. Nevertheless, the agency has always displayed an ability to bounce back stronger. Today, the ISRO, with its many facilities spread over the country, has a pride of place among India’s government establishments. In the midst of institutions bogged down by laidback attitudes to work and bureaucratic lethargy, it is seen as one of the rare ones that can ‘’deliver.’’
By indigenously developing technologies like the cryogenic rocket engine and the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS - NavIC), often in the face of sanctions, it has demonstrated to the country’s larger scientific community that such things are not the exclusive, impregnable domains of the West alone.
Perhaps, this is ISRO’s greatest contribution to the country’s scientific community; a ‘work culture’, epitomised by an unwavering commitment to excellence and teamwork that can be traced back to the days of Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.