India’s leap into the Space Age: Legacy of Vikram Sarabhai

by Mohan Sundara Rajan

The outpouring of sympathy and admiration for the scientists and engineers of ISRO in the wake of the unsuccessful soft-landing of the lunar lander, Vikram, of Chandrayaan-2 will strengthen their resolve to go ahead.

The scientists will be inspired by the orbiter now going around the moon, which is a remarkable achievement, following the precise alterations in the orbit of Chandryaan-2 since its launch. Also, the powered descent of the lander was initiated well in time and it worked until it was 2.1 km above the lunar surface, when the communication link with Ground Control was lost.

The telemetry data are being analysed. It may help in finding out if all the engines worked well in the descent phase and took corrective measures. Though the moon has no atmospheric drag, the six Apollo missions have reportedly given out six times as much gas to the surface of the moon as in its ambient atmosphere!

The moon’s gravity field needs a closer study. According to lunar laser ranging data, a position on the moon can change up to 0.1m in one month, due to deformation of the lunar surface. The sun’s gravity on the moon is more than that of the Earth. The moon has no gravity map as accurate as that of the Earth recently made by an European satellite.

This is a venture with a lot of teething troubles. In the early Russian Lunokhod series, Luna-5 (March 1965) lost contact at 40 km altitude from the lunar surface. Luna-7 (October 1965) had an uncontrolled spin and the mission was given up. Lunakhod-17 (1970) succeeded in soft-landing a rover which was driven by ground controllers for ten months. Lunakhod-2 worked for four months when it was over-heated and perhaps hit by lunar dust. Recently (April this year), an Israeli lunar probe failed.

In Line with Sarabhai’s Approach

The ambitious programme of Chandrayaan-2 shows that ISRO will not be satisfied with plucking the low-hanging fruits. It has always aimed higher than what is considered a step-by-step approach in its long journey since Vikram Sarabhai (1919-1971) outlined the goals of India’s space programme. An appreciation of his legacy as played out over the years would inspire our younger generation, especially in this hour of anxiety and hope.

It would be appropriate to begin the story of India’s space effort from the years immediately preceding the country’s independence in 1947. The world was shivering in the Cold War after the World War had ended. In India, there were only a few streaks of creative lights in the colonial darkness.

A great scholar by name, Homi Bhabha (1909-1960), who was deeply engrossed in the study of cosmic rays, laid the foundation for atomic energy development in India. He founded the Atomic Energy Centre. Another scholar, Vikram A. Sarabhai also became interested in cosmic phenomena and founded a centre for the study of cosmic rays in Ahmedabad. After independence, it came to be known as the Physical Research Laboratory. Soon it was flying balloons with instruments to study the atmosphere. Elsewhere, some scientists were studying the ionosphere, the radio mirror in the sky, which brought the good news of freedom on the radio. By a strange coincidence, the transistor was invented in 1947 in the United States. No one imagined that it would play a key role in lifting India into the Space Age.

Almost a decade later, Russia’s Sputnik-1 jolted the world into the Space Age, marking a new high in the cold war. The United States was forced to catch up and it launched its first satellite, Explorer-1 in 1948. Soon, several satellites were launched to make scientific studies of outer Space.

The true shape of the Earth was visible in the data sent by satellites. The Earth appeared as a blue jewel in the dark of space, shining in lonely splendour. The discovery soon led to the realisation that human footprints should not wipe off the delicate balance of Nature embedded in the planet.

In India, Bhabha, supported by Jawaharlal Nehru, his close friend, set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research in 1962 with Sarabhai as Chairman. One of the early attractions of the Space Age in India was the magnetic equator crossing the Earth near Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Indian scientists took the initiative to set up a sounding rocket centre in Thumba in 1962 to study the unique ionosphere above the region, as it is very close to the Earth’s magnetic equator at 0 deg 24’ latitude.

The first equatorial rocket launching station was established in 1963. Two years later in 1965, the 20th session of the U. N. General Assembly accorded its sponsorship to the station, the first to get such a recognition. The station was dedicated to the United Nations in 1968. India,led by Sarabhai, walked-the-talk of using Space for peace.

A Magna Carta for the Space Age

That year, Sarabhai addressed the U.N. Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna as its Scientific Chairman. He famously demolished the myth of a step-bystep approach prescribed for developing countries in the use of space and called for a leap into the new generation of technology. His speech has become the magna carta of the Space Age for the developing world.

In an exclusive interview to me in New Delhi, he stressed that India was not in any space race but wanted to go into space to find an innovative way out of centuries of backwardness.He seemed to appreciate that I did not interrupt him when he replied—an aspect commended by the radio critic, Amita Malik.

Next year man walked on the moon. When I covered the historic event from a NASA centre for All India Radio, little did I expect to meet Neil Armstrong soon. I was pleasantly surprised to be selected to meet him in New Delhi later in 1969. What struck me most was his infectious smile and utter simplicity and a wide range of interests. He was well informed about India’s space initiatives, including ISRO, which had been set up in that very year. He wished our space effort all success. I was impressed by his emphasis on encouraging a sense of curiosity among children to promote an interest in science.

One of the major initiatives taken by ISRO was the establishment of an elaborate Space Centre in Thumba in 1965, entrusted with a wide range of research and development in virtually every aspect of space technology and space science. As young scientists like Abdul Kalam and Aravamudan cycled their way to master rocket technology on the shores of Thumba, the road blocks to realise Sarabhai’s goals became all too clear. Unlike the situation in advanced countries, there were no inputs from the military establishment for the civilian space effort. Nor did our industries or universities have much to offer. The learning curve was of Himalayan proportions.

Yet, undaunted, a bold strategy to overcome the road blocks was worked out. One basic decision was to develop space technology for peaceful purposes. The goal was rockets and not missiles.

Second, the strategy did not assume any shortcuts by way of borrowing foreign know-how. There was a resolve to master the fundamentals. And yet the target was not just to follow the trodden path but to aim for the latest technologies.

The significance of the strategy caught the attention of world renowned observers. In the summer of 1973, I was on a conducted tour of the former Soviet Union as a winner of the Soviet Land Nehru Award. My guide in Moscow was glad to show to my hosts a photo of my TV interview with the cosmonauts, Khrenov and Volynov, who were the first to walk in space from one Soyuz spacecraft to another. The photo must have made it easy to get some time for me to meet Prof. Boris Petrov, Chairman of the Intercosmos Council. He lauded the high level of Indian preparations. He envisaged a joint Indo-Soviet space mission (which fructified in 1984), and the offer of Soviet rockets to lift Indian satellites. Aryabhata, India’s first satellite (1975), Bhaskara-1 (1979) and the initial resource satellites were later launched as he envisaged.

Sarabhai himself selected the launching site on the island of Sriharikota, 100km from Chennai on the east coast in Andhra Pradesh. He and his colleagues toured the island braving snakes and dense forests. Sarabhai, holding a green coconut, assured the yanadi tribe that they would have full protection. I was surprised to hear from the chief of the centre in the early days that the illiterate tribal boys could correctly pronounce ‘SPROB’ (Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant),which was then Greek to visiting journalists. Again there was hardly any articulation of the selection of the site and its importance.

The contributor is a science writer and author of books on Space since the days of Sarabhai.

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