Free Press Journal

ISRO: A Personal History- Review


Book: ISRO: A Personal History
Author: R Aravamudan with Gita Aravamudan
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 240
Price: Rs. 399

Personal history is the process of saving the story of a life. R. Aravamudan, an award-winning senior scientist, who has been associated with the Indian space program from its very inception has saved the story of Indian Space Research Organization in the book form- “ISRO: A Personal History”. There are very few books that narrates the stories of the development of Indian science and technology of the modern times.

In this book, you hear the voices of Dr Homi Bhabha, Raja Ramanna, Vikram Sarabhai and such other great scientists, who envisioned the development of Indian science and technology and laid its foundation. It is quite heartening that successive generations of Indian scientists lived up to their expectations and times, far exceeded as well.

In the early 1960s, the rocket pioneers of India wanted to establish a modest sounding rocket launching facility at Thumba. Dr Vikram Sarabhai had prepared a ten-year blueprint which envisioned creating indigenous satellites and rocket launchers. And this was articulated by the mid-1960s.  On his foreign jaunts, Dr Vikram Sarabhai would have meetings with young scientists and engineers working in the area of space technology and share his vision of Indian space programmes.

With his charisma and vision, he drew some of the most qualified engineers and scientists back to India. Some of them were working in well-established space agencies like NASA. They were excited at the idea of being part of this nascent space programme in their homeland.

R. Aravamudan was a young engineer, working with Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). He volunteered to work on the project and was selected without application, entrance test or formal interview. He was in dilemma as the prospects of the rocket-launching station were quite uncertain and for the young engineer leaving the cosy central government, the job was a risk. Finally, he made up his mind and went to the administrative office of DAE. Dr Raja Ramanna was there, he glanced through his application and remarked, you have to take the risk. Rocket-launching station at Thumba in the 60s was quite exciting and people from different walks of life would visit the range out of curiosity. Once a member of parliament from Kerala visited the range without identity card or pass. Aravamudan asked the staff to escort him but the MP refused to have a guided tour and complained that the authorities did not follow the protocol. He left a note for Dr Vikram Sarabhai saying, “Dear Vikram, please instruct your people to treat MPs more politely”. Dr Vikram Sarabhai just smiled when the incident was briefed to him.

On another day, Thumba received a glamorous visitor—Prem Nazir, a film star of Malayali cinema. He came unannounced and a Malayali engineer who was cycling past the radar trailer spotted him and almost fell down with excitement. “I heard our Malayali boys were launching rockets here,” Nazir said, “I was passing by on my way to shooting and thought I would look in.”

Nehru’s vision of nation building was shared not only by the legendary scientists but also by the film stars.
Dr Sarabhai had roped in Prof. Hideo Itokawa from the University of Tokyo. He was known as Dr. Rocket for he had led the development of rocket technology in Japan from scratch. He was hired as a consultant for Space Science and Technology Centre at Thumba. He told Sarabhai’s team that rocket technology was a closely guarded secret and one has to master it by trial and error. He taught the team to innovate, to learn from their mistakes and to work as a team towards a predetermined goal.

This was the ISRO in the making, taking baby steps. Aravamudan narrates this gripping story of the people who built ISRO and how they did it. It is the tale of an Indian organization that defied international bans and embargos, worked with meagre resources, evolved its own technology and grew into a major space power. Geeta Aravamudan is the co-author of this excellent book. She is veteran journalist and author with several books.