RAravamudan was one of the few sci- entists handpicked by Dr Vikram Sarabhai to start the Indian Space Research Organization at Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram in 1962. The man, who has been closely associat- ed with the ISRO since its incep- tion, feels that the most noteworthy
feature of the Indian space program is that all the
unique achievements have been made by engineers
from small towns.
In 1962 when Dr Vikram Sarabhai handpicked a few
of you to start India’s space program, what was the
dream all of you had?
I was just 25 and had already spent two years in the
Atomic Energy Establishment working in the Reactor
Hailing from Madras (now Chennai), I could not
get adjusted to crowded and noisy Bombay and wanted to get back to the south. This was when Dr
Sarabhai picked me for the program which involved
training in sounding rockets in National Aeronautic
and Space Administration and eventually being posted in Thumba.
In 1962 the outlook was pretty simple: To establish a
modest sounding rocket launching facility at Thumba,
which happened to be under the Magnetic Equator and
provide facilities to the international scientific community to gather data.
There was no mention of developing satellites or
launching vehicles at that time, although Dr Sarabhai
must have had it in his mind all the time. This program
was articulated a few years later. It was then that the
dream took shape.
Most of the scientists who went to Thumba at that
time were working outside India. It was said that
nobody could say no to Dr Sarabhai.
I was among the very first to join the group. In fact, all
of us in the original group were from India.
In subsequent years, say the mid 1960s, the active
recruitment drive started and whenever Dr Sarabhai
went abroad, he used to meet scientists and engineers
working in this area and tried to describe to them his
vision of the Indian space program and what the
future would hold.
I am sure his earnestness and sincerity
would have drawn people to decide to
come back and have a shot at it. I
would say the majority of the scientists recruited for the
Indian space program
came from India.
Many of them
were from small towns and had studied in local uni-
What was your first impression of Vikram Sarabhai
when you met him?
I was a young electronics engineer working in the
Reactor Control division of the Department of Atomic
Energy at Trombay, when word got around that Dr
Sarabhai was looking for fresh electronic engineers to
form a core team to set up a small Rocket Launch Pad
in south Kerala.
I was asked to travel to Ahmedabad and meet Dr
Sarabhai to get to know the details first hand.
I took the Bombay-Ahmedabad train and checked
into a seedy hotel. I took an autorickshaw to
Navrangapura where the Physical Research Laboratory
The first person whom I met was (Professor) E V
Chitnis, a handsome young man who said that Dr
Sarabhai would meet me shortly.
As I was hanging around in the corridor waiting, a
Standard Herald car with an open top stopped at the
portico and a fair and dashing looking young man
dressed in white shorts and shirt stepped out and
asked, ‘Are you Aravamudan?’
I said yes and he immediately asked me to hop into
the car. He drove up a short distance to an instru-
mentation trailer from NASA parked in the campus.
Later I learnt that this was called the Microlock
He led me inside and personally explained to me the
workings of this trailer and how it received signals from
He then went on to explain how he was planning to
do scientific experiments from Kerala, perhaps from,
near Trivandrum, using rockets carrying measuring
He also described the launch pad, telemetry receiving
station, radar and Doppler velocity and position system
he hoped to install.
It all sounded like science fiction to me, but I was
quite interested mainly because if I took the assign-
ment, it meant my moving down South. Also it
involved a spell of training in NASA which sounded
But, more than anything else, it was the charisma of
Dr Sarabhai, the gleam in his eyes when he described
his plans and his sincerity which attracted me.
What comes to your mind when you think of
November 21, 1963? Will you please describe the days
before November 21 and after that?
We were at the final stages of our training at NASA
when the preparations for the first launching from
How do you describe the initial rocket launches?
I cannot, for instance, forget the day when we were
launching a small rocket, which required a siren to be
sounded three minutes before the launch. When one of
my colleagues pressed the siren switch, a thundering
noise was heard and the rocket zoomed up.
Fortunately it was pointing in the right direction and
no one was hurt and no harm was done. The Test
Director, Mr Murthy, was heard asking anxiously, what
the big sound was about.
We learnt that day, how important it was to
isolate the ground leads of the firing circuits
from the general ground.
Then there was the series of Nike
Apache launchings with Vapor
Cloud payloads triggered by
locally designed igniters.
The rockets were to be
fired successively. The
took off well, but
ÂTHERE HAS BEEN A
BIG RUSH IN
TO GET INTO ISROÊ
From the early days when India
launched its first sounding rocket into
space to the Mangalyan, R Aravamudan
tells it all to Shobha Warrier 4M8
COUR TES Y: ISRO
A DIFFERENT SPACE
India Abroad October 31, 2014
THE MAGAZINE M5