How does one write about a highly technical and complex organisation like the Indian Space Research Organisation? How can its incredible scientific density be put in terms that can draw the layman into its narrative web?
Perhaps, as former advisor to ISRO SK Das suggested at the recent launch of R Aravamudan and Gita Aravamudan's ISRO: A Personal History in Bengaluru, the way out is to tell a fairytale as the Aravamudans have done. After all, this was a space programme built from scratch, starting with outdated second-hand equipment and know-how donated by the first pioneers in the area, put together with sheer will, passion and dedication. And it eventually grew into one of the most formidable space agencies in the world, most recently setting the world record for launching 104 satellites from a single launch vehicle.
R Aravamudan and Gita Aravamudan at the Bengaluru launch of 'ISRO: A Personal Journey'
ISRO: A Personal History uniquely views decades of scientific research and development through the personal memories of one man associated with it from its inception – R Aravamudan or Dan, as he is more popularly known, thanks to early encounters with American scientists who couldn’t fit his name in their untrained mouths. And its story unfolds much like a modernist fairytale, with rocket engines filling in for mythical dragons, and mild-mannered physicists taking the place of knights in armour.
As Aravamudan recalls in the book, it began with a visionary, Vikram Sarabhai, gathering young and enthusiastic adherents to his cause. “Thinking back now it seems almost dreamlike,” Aravamudan writes. “No recruitment processes, no job interviews – nothing.” The early programme was put together purely with recruits from existing research institutions, recruited through the simple expedient of word of mouth.
Their work begins in an abandoned church at Thumba in Trivandrum, with flocks of pigeons settled in the rafters for company. Thumba presents a unique phenomenon called the Equatorial Electrojet, which offers a possibility for research that cannot be done either through satellites or ground experiments. A small community of less than 30 scientists are at work, in intimately friendly and ad-hoc formations. As Aravamudan describes it, there are competitive groups fighting over pieces of the innovation pie with different ideas and approaches.
The Trivandrum church where the space programme began
Was it not all absolute chaos? asks SK Das at the launch.
"When that sort of thing was happening, SSTC was just budding, just starting. And we had, in all, about 20-25 people. And most of us didn't know what we were trying to do. And in such a situation the only way is to let everybody do something and see what comes out. And then pick out the best… It hastened the process of making mistakes and correcting them," explains Aravamudan.
As impromptu were processes like budgeting, he adds, explaining that any requests for spending only involved an entry in a giant ledger carried around in Sarabhai’s wake. "The total budget of ISRO in those days was Rs 2 lakh. Now with Rs 5,000 crore as the annual budget, you can't do that. You have to answer the government, the parliament, the CAG," he explains.
Even their first visit to Sriharikota, which is now as fine a space research facility as can be found anywhere in the world, Aravamudan describes as “a jungle safari”, with makeshift bridges built on boats, forest paths cleared for jeeps to travel and so on.
Aravamudan (right) and Ramakrishna Rao operating a telemetry station at NASA (1963)
Aravamudan, APJ Abdul Kalam, HGS Murthy, Ramakrishna Rao and D Easwaradas at NASA's Wallops Launch Station in Virginia
"At that time, certainly we didn’t imagine that we will build our own satellite launch vehicles and our own spacecraft, set up facilities for our own tracking and all that. If you read Sarabhai’s speech when he dedicated Thumba to UN, he said we have no dreams of going to the moon or orbiting the planets and all that. At that time, we thought it was all beyond our programme capability. That was in 1968. But looking back today we have done all that and more,” explains Aravamudan.
Then there were occasional quests, such as an attempt to scavenge equipment from an auction at an Australian station called Gove. The men from ISRO arrive there, only to find out that they’ve lost out to local scrap dealers.
And of course, along the journey, there are errors and failures. Some are easily resolvable, and lead to the establishment of ISRO’s test and evaluation system, which eventually expands into the organisation’s systems reliability group, its first independent quality agency.
Some are hilarious in hindsight, like an attempt to relay a live telecast of a launch by Doordarshan from Sriharikota to Madras via a transponder installed on a balloon tethered in Gummidipoondi. But none of the engineers reckon with the strong winds there, only to find out a day before the launch that balloon and transponder have blown away.
Some failures are also profound, complex and deeply alarming – the failures of initial SLV, ASLV and PSLV rocket launches, highest among them. However, even as he dwells on them in great detail, Aravamudan says these failures never threatened to derail ISRO’s programme completely.
"To begin with we knew that rocket technology is a risky business, and we had also watched other failures elsewhere. But I would consider it a great blessing in disguise that the first thing failed. Because we had instrumented it so heavily, telemetry and so on, the amount of data which we got was unbelievable. And we uncovered so many hidden faults. Which, if it had been successful, we would not have known. So, if today we have 37 or 38 PSLVs successfully working well, which is a world record I would say, it’s because of those initial failures that uncovered the faults," explains Aravamudan.
Panoramic view of the PSLV launchpad (September 2016)
Despite the failures along the way, ISRO stands out as one of India’s most successful public sector undertakings. Aravamudan credits this to three factors – careful and meticulous planning with full ownership of its goals, objectives, plans and strategies by ISRO, a culture of openness, transparency and healthy irreverence, and a highly-developed talent pool of scientific minds.
"Because of the culture of openness and not putting anything under the carpet, we were able to maintain a certain reliability and honesty in our work, which otherwise gets lost. In some other organisations, you find, the hierarchical structure is so strong, that people are afraid to speak out, even on technical points. Whereas ISRO’s culture is, as far as technology is concerned, nobody is senior or junior, small, big, anybody can raise a point, as long as it's not mad," he explains.
As for developing such a powerful talent pool, and doing so with material from the less storied academic spaces in the country, Aravamudan explains that what ISRO gives its engineers is a tangible ownership of their work in the overall technology.
“The moment they come, and they are given a task, even a small subsystem, we tell them where the subsystem will go, which part of the satellite or rocket it will form, so that they can watch what is going on. They have such fulfilment when they see the whole thing functioning,” he explains. It is this individual ownership of the whole, he says, that drives the dedication and passion in ISRO.
Of course, not all the fairy-tale aura of ISRO: A Personal Journey can entirely dispel the density of the scientific processes involved, and so there are parts of the book that the reader must simply take on faith. And as a view of the organisation through the eyes of a successful insider, it does carry a joyously triumphant tone.
But perhaps the critical tale can be left for another day. For now, a nostalgic reading of an epic journey does feel interestingly and enjoyably appropriate.
(Courtesy for all images: 'ISRO: A Personal Journey')