We used to grind rocket propellant manually: Kerala space scientist KN Ninan recalls
“We worked like a family. Our working hours started 8 or 8.30 am and would invariably go up to 10 or 10.30 pm. There was no compulsion to stay back, but there was a great thrill in doing something for the nation. We hadn’t seen a propellant before, and whenever Dr Vikram Sarabhai visited, we wanted to show him something new and wanted to realise his dream,” starts Dr KN Ninan.
He was one of the scientists from the Propellant Engineering Division of the Space Science Technology Centre, a precursor to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram.
Fifty years ago, on February 21, this team developed and tested the first composite solid rocket propellant, a momentous event in the history of the country’s space programme.
“At that time, there was no Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. Everything started with the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS),” the 72-year-old recalls in an interview to TNM.
The VSSC felicitated the twenty odd surviving members, Ninan and VN Krishnamoorthi, of the PED team at a function on February 27.
Prof. Dhawan (Chairman ISRO) and Dr. Gowariker examining a reports on SLV3 ablative liners (1975)
Sitting at his home near Ulloor in Thiruvananthapuram, Ninan says that those day scientists were called engineers and recalls how Dr Sarabhai’s vision and the leadership of Dr Vasanth Gowariker, who headed the PED team, made their achievement possible.
“It was Dr Sarabhai’s vision that India should not only have TERLS as a launch facility but our own rockets. Initially the vision was for sounding rockets, later he envisioned remote sensing satellites and communication satellites that would benefit the common man. Of course, you won’t be able to have a satellite launch without a launch vehicle. So initially he recruited some key people, who could realise his vision.For instance, for the propellant area, Dr Gowariker was recruited from the UK in 1966, Dr Gupta for control guidance; similarly, in the five to six core specialty areas of rocketry,” Ninan says.
Ninan was 22 at that time. Most of his team members were also in their early twenties and Dr Gowariker was below 35.
Talking about his team, Ninan says, “Most of us were freshers. There were engineers, lab assistants and technical assistants who had experience in handling explosives. Propellant development is a team effort – there are so many ingredients, so many processes for developing it and then testing it and finally launching. When I joined, we were six engineers. Out of that four passed away, including Dr Gowariker.”
Ninan worked at the Mumbai Institute of Sports Science and Technology (ISST) for a year. After retirement, he worked as emeritus professor for five years at Indian Insttitute of Space Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram and now continues as a visiting faculty. “It has been 50 years of total experience,” he smiles.
Recalling how basic the facilities and technologies were at the time, Ninan recalls with enthusiasm, “Working in this field was a scary experience. We used to feel we were in an English movie… we would be frightened to do the same things now.”
He continues, “Now we have remote control special grinders for grinding oxidiser for rocket propellant, but those days we did the grinding manually. We started with mortar and pestle, and coffee grinders, but fortunately there was less grinding to do. Once while grinding the fuel caught fire and one of our assistants burnt his hand. Such was the extent of facilities available. Today we have sophisticated vacuum casting units. At that time, it was small rocket motor. It was a great experience, because we learned everything, the very fundamentals. Before the rocket is launched, it has to be tested on the ground. It is held and then its thrust is measured in what is called a static test. The propellant weight was only 350 grams at that time. Today we have solid motors that weigh 200 tonnes, so the growth has been huge,” he says.
Ninan says that even today solid propellant technology is classified, nobody will tell you how it is developed.
He explains, “The same propellant is still used. Later, rockets became capable of carrying a satellite, initially a small one, now they can carry large satellites and communication satellites. We were in our infancy, we didn’t have much of an idea of what to do. The actual technology for making propellants was not available. Materials were not available, we had to develop it. There was no experienced person in this field too. We followed developed countries closely. Only because of our ingenuity were we able to achieve whatever we did.”
Remembering Dr Gowariker fondly, Ninan says, “He was like a fatherly person, an optimist, he would always say ‘don’t worry, we will make it happen’. Even when we were failing, he was planning for a plant, which later came up at Sriharikota. Only developed countries have the technology for making composite propellant. Even today, only five or six countries have it and India is one of them. There were no textbooks, we had to discuss probabilities, theories. Sometimes our discussions went on till late, many times these happened at his home at Pandit Colony.”
In his career, Ninan worked with Dr Sarabhai for three years.
Inauguration of Propellant Testing Lab by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (1970)
“I joined in 1968, he passed away in 1971. He used to visit every 15 to 20 days. It was like a festival when he came. He had so much charisma, a quiet determination to attain something for the country. Whenever he visited, he would hear out anyone who had an idea. Even today it’s an ISRO culture, anybody having an idea can raise your hand. If I raised my hand, Dr Sarabhai would say ‘Ninan, you present it’. He always allowed his people to present. At that time there were no computers. He would always ask how we were doing… we were mostly from villages, we didn’t even know how to greet, at least I didn’t know etiquette and such. We worked in a building that had only an asbestos walls and roof. The whole activity happened in a 1000 sq ft area. Sometimes he would sit on the ground, his face would glow if we said we had done something new. He used to care for each and every one. Not only scientists and engineers, workers, he knew everyone by their first name. Dr Sarabhai was concerned about everyone’s personal welfare. When he visited, meetings would go up to 12 and 1 in the night. There were meetings up to midnight even on the day he died,” Ninan recalls.
Talking about some risks they took which would create a furore today, Ninan says, “It was sometime in December 1970, we wanted to show Dr Sarabhai a solid propellant that we had developed. I was in charge of testing, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the machine to test it. There was a machine at National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) Bengaluru. It was an explosive material, but I carried it from here to Ernakulam and from there in a suitcase by train and got it tested at NIL.”
Ninan concludes saying, “At a time when other countries were planning to use space technology for war and to show off to the world that they were supreme, Dr Sarabhai’s vision was to utilise it for the development of the common man.”