Every approach, every distant reach into space is a result of years of hard work. The Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, has been India’s flagbearer in the global space exploration community. The state-run organisation has come a long way since its inception in 1969—from building the country’s first satellite, Aryabhata, to creating a world record by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket in 2017, ISRO has done it all. But what we read in the papers is just a fraction of what transpires behind the stage.
R Aravamudan, a former director of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota and ISRO Satellite Centre in Bengaluru, has given an eloquent description of ISRO’s journey in his memoir, ISRO: A Personal History, which he has co-authored with his wife, Gita Aravamudan. Most readers consider the organisation’s recent world record as its finest moment, but one of ISRO’s earliest achievements was India’s first sounding rocket launch in November 1963 from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Kerala. The rocket, as Aravamudan writes, was assembled in a church building.
The most gripping parts are Aravamudan’s descriptions of two of the most important people behind ISRO’s growth—Vikram Sarabhai and APJ Abdul Kalam. Sarabhai, under whom the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR, which eventually became ISRO in 1969) was set up in 1962, was called the father of the Indian space programme, but he was also an ideal mentor for young scientists. The author recalls how ISRO went into disarray after Sarabhai’s unexpected demise in 1971. “Sarabhai’s death was so sudden and shocking… We were transitioning. And at this very crucial time, we were left leaderless,” he writes. Aravamudan shared a close bond with Kalam. He recalls how Kalam had a fondness for traditional Iyengar food and how the former president loved talking to Gita about his favourite book, Atlas Shrugged.
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The author not only explains technical terms, but also provides his views on certain issues—for instance, the deal between ISRO and Russian firm Glavkosmos in 1991 to procure cryogenic engines for the GSLV project. The deal faced objections from the US, which said ISRO’s agreement with the USSR “violated the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)”.
The memoir could have done with more detailed insights into Mangalyaan. Aravamudan does describe the moment his “laptop screen glowed with the colours of Mars” in the prologue, but a detailed chapter on India’s Mars mission would have been a fitting addition.