Wednesday 3 October 2007

Men behind India's Space Programme

Business India, November 21-December 4, 1994

Those magnificent men...

The Indian space programme spanning 40 years is the story of remarkable men and their amazing deeds


Shivanand Kanavi

After seeing the giant Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), as tall as a 15-storeyed building, take off flawlessly on 15 October this year, it is hard to believe that it all started with a metre-long rocket, a little bigger than a Diwali firework. The Indian space pro­gramme today is acknowledged the world over as one of the top six. We have the capability to build state-of-the-art remote sensing and communication satellites and now with the success of PSLV, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has demonstrated mastery over complex technologies in rocketry, capable of putting satellites into precise predetermined orbits. How did it leap to these heights from its humble beginnings? Who are our prominent space men? What makes them tick? In the barrage of num­bers on payload capability, orbit charac­teristics, specific impulses, etc. the story of the programme and the people who made it possible tends to get obscured. Business India visited several ISRO cen­tres in Bangalore, Trivandrum, Valia­mala, Mahendragiri and Sriharikota to meet some of these elusive folk.

'A church where space is worshipped' sounds like a corny ad line or something from the fiction of an Isaac Asimov or an Arthur C. Clark novel. But it is a fact that the Indian space programme actually started in 1963 in a church and the adjoin­ing bishop's house. The premises were graciously offered to the cause by the local Christian community at Thumba, near Trivandrum. The scientists led by Dr Vikram Sarabhai worked in the bishop's house and the metre-long sounding rock­ets were assembled in the anteroom of the church and fired from a launch pad on the beach.

Pramod Kale, who retired on 2 November from his post of director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), carried out the traditional countdown for the first launch. Today the church with a history dating back to 1544 AD has thou­sands of youthful 'worshippers' visiting everyday. It has been turned into the most comprehensive space mu­seum in India. Dr P. Manoranjan Rao of the Pro­gramme Planning and Evalu­ation Group at VSSC remarks wistfully, "I hope our politi­cians learn something from this space museum and apply it in Ayodhya - that would be one more spin-off from India's space programme!”

'The space programme will help upgrade the technology level of the country of the country'

Dr K. Kasturirangan, secretary to the Department of Space, who is also chairman of the Space Commission, in conversation with Shivanand Kanavi

Congratulations on the successful launch of the PSLV. For you per­sonally, what has been the most chal­lenging and satisfying project?

Thank you. If you ask me personally, the design and development of the first oper­ational remote sensing satellite IRS-1A was the most exciting. Over a period of almost six years, we built a state-of-the-­art satellite. So many technologies had to be developed. We certainly had difficul­ties all through the developmental stage in structural testing, thermal design, developing new systems, etc.

Two aspects were that we were devel­oping these technologies for the first time and that since it was going to be an opera­tional system everything had to be reli­able. We were targeting for a life of three years for our satellite, whereas the corre­sponding French satellite, SPOT, had only a two-year life. Today, the IRS-1A has completed six years and is still work­ing. It was a sort of a national project, with the involvement of large number of centres. Those six years were a period of intense learning and innovation.

You are a physicist and, in fact, spe­cialised in the esoteric high energy astronomy. How did you make the switch to an engineering project like that?

I started my research career at the Physi­cal Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, with Dr Vikram Sarabhai. I had to develop the balloon-bound payload for X-­ray astronomy. For that I had to build my own electronic circuits, power supplies, logic circuits and even ground station equipment. It was an experience in mechanical, electronic and system engi­neering. That period of PhD work provided me a very good base for conceptualising a system and integrating individual sub-systems, making it opera­tional, etc.

It also provided me with capability to think originally and in new ways. This does not come about unless you do research. I emphasise this point because a lot of people today jump into careers after satellite centre say, now we should go in B Tech or M Tech. But if you want to be a for the next generation of satellites of successful manager, team leader, heavier class, direct broadcasting sys­ designer, innovator or anything where originality of thinking is involved, then it needs a background in research.

When I had just completed my PhD in ­1970, Dr. Sarabhai called me to his room and encouraged me to join the scientific satellite project. I told him that I did not know the technology component of satellites. But he gave me the confidence that a physicist can play an important role in systems engineering. Then I worked hard and learnt satellite technology and found that of an Asian Space Consortium, that it was not very difficult.

How are you trying to retain the excitement and team spirit in ISRO?


One excellent trend has been set in this department and that is sitting down with Compounding the issue is the users; departments of telecom, ocean level of development of countries in this development, forestry, geology, agriculture, I&B, civil aviation, etc. They tell us what they are looking for in, terms of further support and services. Then we translate them into programmes and projects.

The technology options are worked out by various levels of people. Second level, third and even fourth. They come out with ideas. An important thing about the culture of this organisation is that irre­spective of who the person is, he is heard with respect and given due weightage. ­That makes everybody get involved. These 30 years have been well directed.

Has thinking begun already on the post-GSLV technologies?

We have not decided anything yet. Once the PSLV comes to fruition and GSLV ­moves fast then we will start worrying about the first decade of the 21st century. Several engineers are very busy looking ­at various things. Every day somebody comes and they want to do air- breathing engines, somebody else on single- stage orbit transfer, etc. and they point to the new technologies to-order sate needed for these systems. People at satellite centre say, now we should go in for the nest generation of satellites of heavier class, direct broadcasting systems, etc. Ideas are perpetually bubbling in the minds of peoples here. We have to review them, convert them into concrete projects looking at their economic viability, feasibility of accomplishing the goal in a certain time-fame, etc. At ISRO we have always operated at the cutting edge of technology and we would like to maintain that pre-eminent position in the years to come.

One of the ideas being tossed around is that of an Asian Space Consortium, like the eminently successful European Space Agency…..

This idea has been floated but there has been no concrete exchange of ideas. Compounding the issue is the fact that the region is not uniform. In Europe you have 13-14 member states who can industrially and technologically contribute. We need to address these issues, so far the programme has been national and co-operation has been on a bilateral basis.

Leaving aside the political issues involved in such a venture, it makes sense economically. If you want to competed in the growing Asian Satellite market it would be easier to get contracts if various states in the region have stake in the programme. Otherwise, they would be awarded to Hughes or TRW or someone else.

You are quite right. But we need to address some of the problems and have the region. So that each country can contribute the best they can.

There is one basic question that is often raised. Indonesia built a satellite communication system much before us without a satellite or launch vehicle development programme. So, in today’s condition, why should one go in for these programmes, when made to-order satellites are available as also commercial launch programmes.

The situation is not that simple. India is a country with about 3.2 million sq km land and the second largest population with large resources, not just in materials but also scientific. That is why right from the time of Independence self-reliance in cer­tain vital areas, like communications, meteorology, earth resources through remote sensing, etc. has been one of the national goals.

In these areas we have to provide the nation assured-services which are timely and cost-effective. Another important thing is that it generally upgrades the technological level of the country. It per­colates down to various levels of the economy. In fact the objective of the Swedish space programme is general upgradation of the country's technologi­cal capability. With our vast country and diverse needs, which we can meet with our own technological capability, why should we go and buy it from someone else. Moreover, we can launch our own satellites with our own launch vehicle most cost-effectively.

Technically speaking, if we have access to a booster like the first stage of PSLV, which is the third largest in the world, then India can construct ICBMs if it wants. What is your reaction?

We have not configured this vehicle for any military application. Right from the beginning the PSLV has been designed as an optimised solution to launch 1-tonne class remote sensing satellites into polar orbits. Then the question was what are the technologies that we have so far in liquid and solid propulsion and how can we combine them in an optimal way in this vehicle. So, none of the requirements of a missile have been kept in mind for this vehicle.

Is it that critical what the end use of the vehicle is?

Certainly, Configuration and other details are quite different.

What about the PSLVS ability to launch low earth orbit reconnaissance satellites?

Nowadays remote sensing applications are demanding more and more resolu­tion up to even two metres. Some com­panies abroad are openly.announcing high resolutions for civilian purposes which were earlier considered to be in the domain of reconnaissance. Capabilities, which were restricted to an aircraft-based survey are now being built into the space­craft itself. The PSLV will be a vehicle which will be used for these kinds of mappings.

If the PSLV can actually launch a much higher payload but for the complicated yaw manoeuvre to avoid Sri Lanka then can't we have another launch site for it?

It is an expensive proposition to set up an alternative launch site and we have made considerable investments in Sriharikota. Let me also point out that most of the launch sites in the world today are not that well optimised. Either they will have deficiency for the equatorial mode or for the polar mode because of various constraints like nearby land masses, safety zones, nearness to the equator, etc. So, one has to live with the non­-optional situation. Our loca­tion for launching geostationary communication satellites is very good, being at 13° N latitude. The only thing better than that is the French site at Kouru islands in French Guyana which is at 7° S latitude.

Right now ISRO just builds satellites and operates them but the department of telecom decides how the transponders are used by whom. Can ISRO on its own launch a satellite and lease out the transponders to whoever wants to use it, be it domestic private users or foreign governments or companies like Asi­asat, Arabsat or Apstar?

We can't rule out this possibility. It needs to be pursued. Right now I am unable to answer the question.

Since we are getting seven flight-quali­fied cryogenic engines from Russia, are we going to start flying operational communication satellites from the GSLV-l?


No the first flight will be experimental and then as and when the need arises we will use them to launch comsats. Mean­while, before the end of this decade we want, to develop our own cryogenic engine whose, parallel development will go on.

Today, with inspiring suc­cesses in satellite building and in rocketry, it is easy for a young man with stars in his eyes to join ISRO. But what was it like in the 1960s? Then all one had was the exciting news of the Soviet-American space race and the prospect of emigrating and joining NASA. It would have been considered daydreaming of the highest order for an Indian to think of an Indian rocket inject­ing an Indian satellite into orbit. So what attracted our would-be space men to join Vikram Sarabhai in his dreams?

"I was an undergraduate studying physics when the Soviets launched the, Sputnik. I made up my mind to join the space programme, though it did not exist then. Soon after my BSc honours, I went to Ahmedabad and met Dr Sarabhai. He asked me to come to Ahmedabad, finish post-graduation and then join him in the Physical Research Laboratory," recounts Kale. After two more years of waiting and an MSc, Kale became one of the first to be roped into the space programme. He moved to Trivandrum, to the nascent Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. That was the time of the church and the bishop's house. The unassuming Kale is regarded with great respect in ISRO and his early retirement is seen a great loss. "We wish he would change his mind," says Dr Manoranjan Rao.

Kale started his work in satellite sys­tems quite early and is today one of the authorities on the subject. Besides his in-depth knowledge of satellite tech­nology, he is a systems man. Nearly- 20 years back his work in systems analysis and management was recognised. And eight months back, when he was trans­ferred to vssc at Trivandrum, it was not only another home coming for Kale but also a challenging opportunity in project management for the PSLv launch preparation.

Within a short time he brought in advanced project management tech­niques. "We had to deal with about 12,000 activities and 18 networks. It was a mind-boggling exercise in project man­agement. We prepared project evaluation and review technique charts with about 500 elements and tried to find which are the optimal, normal and critical paths," says R.A.D. Pillai, one of the project managers. In such a complex project some activities can go on in parallel, as they don't depend on others till they reach a certain stage while others deal with inte­gration of these sub-assemblies. The lat­ter kind are heavily sequential - that is they depend on whether other systems are ready at the right time, and can only be carried out in a sequence of steps. If a step is not completed then a bottleneck is created and the integration gets held up. Anticipating trouble involves finding all such critical paths.

Normally one finds only one critical path, but, since there are a number of fac­tors which depend on chance, the natural choice is the ‘Monte Carlo technique'. This technique derives its name from the infamous gambling dens of Monte Carlo and using 'game theory' estimates all possible critical paths. When Kale used these techniques for the PSLV, he found more than one critical path and that helped. "But there is no substitute for actually visiting any division or centre which is critical and finding solutions together with the people there. Software can only act as a pointer, it is not a substi­tute for leadership in the field," Kale rightly points out.

Richard Feynman, the brilliant Nobel prize-winning physicist who played a pivotal role in identifying the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, wrote incisively in his eminently readable book, Who cares what other people think?, that the excitement and problem-solving atmosphere in NASA vanished after the Moon mission. The top people started developing shuttle-type of projects with exaggerated claims about spin-offs to perpetuate the space programme. Worse still, the team spirit vanished and the top guns stopped listening to the field­men. The thing to worry about is, has something similar set into the Indian space programme, now into its fourth decade?

Does the open atmosphere and excite­ment that prevailed in the early years still exist in ISRO? Kale vehemently asserts it does. "The only change I see is that people are getting a bit bogged down in places and the earlier spirit to go wherever problems exist is decreasing. Other than that, it is a very transparent organisation. All technical matters are thrashed out collectively. Who says something does not matter as much as what he says."

"One of the main reasons we are still highly motivated in ISRO is that for nearly three decades we have had good leader­ship with clear cut goals," says Dr. K.Kas­turirangan, the incumbent chairman of ISRO. "When Dr Sarabhai passed away, he had already defined four broad areas of work: development of a satellite, devel­opment of a launch vehicle, remote sens­ing experiments using data from the American Landsat and even a sociologi­cal experiment in satellite communica­tion in education, like SITE."

"Then the equally illustrious Prof Satish Dhawan took over," recalls Kasturirangan. "He made sure that these things are translated into reality by build­ing the core organisation to realise these goals. He set new goals like building the Aryabhata satellite, experimental remote sensing satellites Bhaskara I & II, first experimental communication satellite APPLE and intensive attention towards the development of the SLV-3. When he left the scene, Aryabhata, Bhaskara, APPLE were completed. The SLV-3 had successfully launched the Rohini class of satellites and even operationalised the first generation communication systems, the INSAT-l series. Then he led us in working out the profile for the next ten years: development of the augmented satellite launch vehicle (ASLV), the PSLV. and the IRS class of remote sensing satel­lites and the indigenous INSAT-2 series," he says.

"Prof. U.R. Rao strengthened the insti­tutions, promoted applications in remote sensing and carried forward with vigour the realisation of these goals," he adds. But what about the future? "We worry today about what we have to do five to ten years later. Once the activities regarding PSLv development come to fruition and the GSLV moves fast, we will start worry­ing about the first decade of the 21st century. One excellent trend has been set in this department and that is sitting down with users, like the departments of tele­com, ocean development, forestry, geol­ogy, agriculture, I&B, civil aviation, etc, who tell us what they are looking for in terms of further support and services. Then we translate them into programmes and projects. This loop is continuously on," says Kasturirangan.

Any number of ISRO personnel vouch for this. No wonder the space programme has been one of the few success stories authored by the government. People too have stuck around despite low govern­ment salaries and lucrative offers from multinationals. The essential cement has been the open atmosphere at ISRO and the excitement of breaking new ground all on one's own.

A very Indian characteristic of ISRO is the penchant for improvisation with what one has. For example, today Indian remote sensing has come of age and its IRS data and the expertise are in demand globally. But 25 years back it did not exist. In fact, remote sensing itself was then just emerging from the war-torn jun­gles of Indo-China, where it was devel­oped by the US to locate camouflaged Vietcong guerrilla positions. The moment an opportunity came along to learn remote sensing in the US with the Earth Resources Technology Satellite project, Sarabhai sent Kale, P. R. Pisharoty, C. Dakshinamurthy and B. Krishnamurthy for the same.

India at that time did not have remote sensing cameras and much less IRS satel­lites. So on their return the four began small. In Kerala, a common scourge affecting the coconut trees is 'coconut wilt' that only affects the crown of the tree and cannot be seen from the ground, thereby defying damage estimation. These scientists managed to hitch a ride on a helicopter, and using a camera with a roll of infrared sensitive film took pic­tures of coconut plantations. From this modest experiment followed by decades of painstaking work, India has today become one of the global leaders in all aspects of remote sensing.

When it came to launch vehicle tech­nology things; however, became very dif­ficult. The US refused to part with even the most elementary technologies, instead saying, 'buy our sounding rock­ets'. The French were more helpful. They sold the propellant technology for small solid-fuelled sounding rockets; though it was a far cry from the indigenously devel­oped, sophisticated ammonium perchlo­rate-hydroxyl-terminated poly-butadiene technology that is now used in the first stage of the PSLV, which makes it the third most powerful booster rocket in the world.

In the mid-1970s, France once again offered to share the liquid propulsion technology in exchange for Indian collab­oration in developing the same. The Indi­ans were supposed to develop the pressure transducers for the Viking liquid engines under development. While these transducers are hi-tech products, they are only a small component of the liquid engine. Moreover, there are so many design complexities that the 'know why' is absolutely essential to build an engine. The ‘know how' in terms of drawings are not enough. Why a particular thing is machined to one micron precision and not two? Why a certain kind of gasket or an O-ring has to be used and not any other, etc, can make or break an engine. The French, probably never expected Indians to acquire the full technology. Hence the contract was signed at a throwaway price.

The 50-odd team that went to France between 1978 and 1980 was made up of the cream of young ISRO engineers. Every day they brainstormed and sought solutions to complex design problems of the Viking, while maintaining a 'dumb' exterior to their French counterparts. Two years later they returned to India and claimed that they could build a 6O-tonne liquid engine using nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical di-methyl hydrazine (UDMH), chemical compounds which were not even available in India then! "We asked for only Rs40 lakh (to fund the project)," recounts S. Nambina­rayanan, presently director, Cryogenic Propulsion, who lead the team to France. "Prof Dhawan was crazy enough to accede to this cocky request. If I write my memoirs some day, it will sound like a thriller," he laughs.

Two years later they built a model and in 1984 built an engine ready for test. But, then India did not have the present test facilities at Mahendragiri which, inci­dentally, being just ten years old is the most modem in the world. So the engine had to be taken all the way to France and Rs. l crore paid as testing fee. The French asked, "So you have brought an engine. Is this your prototype? Do you have a manufacturing programme?" and when answered in the negative, they could not believe it. They thought 'these Indians are crazy', Nambinarayanan recollects.

"The engine was tested and, to the jubi­lation of the Indians and the horror of the French the engine fired beautifully. Today's Vikas liquid engine is bigger than the French. Viking engine. And thereby hangs a tale of ISRO ingenuity and team work. It is this track record that gives the confidence to ISRO when they talk about developing cryogenic engines an order of magnitude more complex.

ISRO is not made up of just engineers who get their high from technology. There are also those who are worrying about costs,' markets, competitiveness and commercialisation. The hyperactive N. Sampath, executive director, Antric Corp, is one of them. In his characteristic rapid-fire style, he answers questions on commercial spin-offs with counter-ques­tions. "Why are we being asked about the commercialisation of the space pro­gramme? Can you show me one country in the world, which started the space programme to make money out of it? Then why pick on us?" This is not to say that he and his team are not looking at the highly competitive global space market, but he considers it as a spin-off rather than the main objective of the space programme.

"Our major problem in entering the global market is that we are only a five-satellite-old company, whereas there are companies which are 40 to 50 satel­lites old. So even though we can offer extremely competitive prices, the user goes for track record. However, due to fierce international competition, the big satellite companies are looking. at us as a source of sub-systems. So for some time we may not get any orders for complete satellites but make an equal amount of money by supplying sub-systems to, say, ten satellites," says Sampath.

The tie-up between Antrix and Eosat Corporation of the US, which has a turnover of about $40 million, is another deal that excites Sampath. "It is a step in gaining international credibility for Indian space products. It is a win-win situation. Eosat gets IRS data at highly competitive prices, which is moreover as good as and compatible with the Landsat (US) data that Eosat distributes to its cus­tomers. The imminent demise of Landsat 5 and the loss of Landsat-6 makes alternative arrangement a must. Here IRS data scores over the French SPOT data. Meanwhile, Antrix gains global market acceptability without spending a cent on expensive marketing,” Sampath exults.

Kasturirangan, Pramod Kale, Nambi­narayanan and Sampath are a small but representative sample of our space men. There are a whole host of others like Dr A.E. Muthunayagam, R. Aravamudan, S. Srinivasan, G. Madhavan Nair, K.V. Venkatachari, and Dr George Joseph. Behind payloads, orbits and engine char­acteristics it is these space men who, alongwith their thousands of colleagues, are propelling India into space. That is why the septugenarian doyen of our space men, Prof Dhawan said after the PSLV launch, "I wish I were a B Tech joining ISRO afresh !"