Determined not to be deterred by a single failure, the
order was given to go ahead with the next firing. But, alas
that was also a failure.
It then occurred to us to carefully examine the igniter in
the laboratory. To our dismay, we found that the igniter did
not work in a vacuum, while it was fine under normal pressure. The igniter design was modified and then it started
functioning well in actual flights.
There were, fortunately, no major accidents during the
launchings, although there were cases when the rockets
went astray and parts were picked up from the surrounding areas.
We also worked out a regular system of compensation for
fishermen who claimed that their nets had been damaged
by rocket debris.
How difficult was it for you to live in a small town like
Although I was born and bred in the south, I had never
visited Kerala before. I had always lived in big cities. First
Chennai, then Bombay (now Mumbai) and finally
Washington. The contrast between these big cities and
Trivandrum was quite stark.
Although Trivandrum was the
state capital, it was a sleepy and
slow town with 19th century tiled
houses lost amidst coconut
palms. The roads were narrow
and curvy with sharp turns and
fast changing slopes.
For young bachelors like us,
who knew no cooking, there were
hardly any eating places. All we
had were lodging houses with
At the Rocket Range, the
Launch Pad and the Block House
had been built and the main
roads were laid. But the approach
to Thumba was very circuitous.
The present road via Veli was not
laid and there was no bridge over the VeliLake.
We had to make use of public transport as there were no
official vehicles yet and no canteen. So, our day began
with a quick breakfast of Idli Sambar at the railway station canteen, which was the only place where we could get
food to our taste.
We would then pack some snacks and lunch from the
same canteen and go to the bus stand, to catch a moffusil
bus to Kazhakkutam. We would get down at the bus stand
there and walk about a kilometer or so to the range. The
whole trip took about an hour.
Our first office was in the Bishop’s House and the Church
Building. The range was quite large in area and the only
means of transport within the range was by bicycle. Those like
Kalam who could not cycle had to hitch rides with others.
There were no strict working hours and work went on
around the clock. Soon the range acquired a jeep in addition to a standard van and these were pressed into round
the clock duties. When we got the first bus a few months
later, it was a major relief to the employees.
In the early days in Thiruvananthapuram, did you, A P J
Abdul Kalam and Professor Satish Dhawan talk only about
the space program or did you all also have fun? Were you
people boring scientists or fun loving young men?
While myself and Kalam reached Trivandrum in the
early 60s to start the rocket activities, Professor Satish
Dhawan was not in the initial team and was never posted
He came into the picture much later in 1972 and took
over as chairman on the death of Dr Sarabhai. He was
until then in Bangalore as a professor in the Indian
Institute of Science and also its Director.
As a matter of fact, he was
responsible for moving the
ISRO headquarters to
The initial days were quite
hectic since we were establishing the facilities and we hardly
had any time to ourselves.
Trivandrum also was much less
developed and was little more
than a small town.
But we had a nice beach in
Kovalam which we used to visit
often. Of course, this was before
the days of the 5 star hotels and
it was tough to reach there by
the rickety buses. Kalam was
particularly fond of a dip in
Kovalam since he was born in
The other possibilities of diversion in Trivandrum were
the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the odd cinema theatres including one showing old Hollywood movies.
Several years later, we formed our own recreation club
named the Rocket Club in Kowdiar where we used to play
badminton, cards etc.
As the tempo of activities increased in the 1970s and
1980s, our time for recreation contracted to the great
unhappiness of our families, some of us by this time having become family men.
It was written that after the training at NASA, you had
no proper facilities available at Thumba and had to manage with whatever was available. Did any of you feel
Not at all. We were all very young and full of energy and
frequent interaction with Dr Sarabhai and other colleagues
kept us going.
As ISRO grew, did the dream of you people also change?
If so, in what way?
Yes. The program grew in magnitude. The most important milestone was when on the unfortunate death of Dr
Homi Bhabha in an air crash, the mantle fell on Dr
Sarabhai to take over the Atomic Energy Department and
Space Research. This meant direct access to the PM and
What was the biggest challenge you faced in the initial
days? What is the biggest challenge India’s space program faces today?
The main challenge has been that we had to develop
everything from scratch. Rocket technology being
defense related, is not available from abroad for love or
money. You may recall the US embargoes and Russian
It was reported that India’s space mission does not
attract the best brains from Indian universities like the IITs
and NITs. Why is it that they don’t find India’s space mission attractive?
While this is generally true, it is also true that lot of
people usually end up and settle abroad and are not
directly available to India in general.
The most noteworthy feature of Indian space program
is that all the unique achievements have been made by
engineers from small towns who have had a non elite
upbringing and who have grown with the program.
What has fired them is a well defined, goal oriented
and well funded program and absolute technical freedom with no red tape.
What should the Indian government do to attract intelligent young Indians to India’s space mission? Will it
make a difference?
There has, in fact been a big rush in youngsters wanting to get into ISRO, what with increased pay scales and
the establishment of a Space Science and Technology
University in Valiamala near Trivandrum with guaranteed jobs.
The recent successes have added to the rush.
How do you rate the quality of Indian scientists?
Undoubtedly, on par with the rest of the world.
Do you consider Mangalyan as the biggest achievement
of the Indian space mission?
It is one of the most visible achievements of ISRO. But
the reliability of its rockets and satellites and the ability
to conceive, implement and complete on time its major
tasks in a transparent and confident manner is its major
BEEN A BIG
GET INTO ISROÊ
Indian Space Research Organization scientists and engineers watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi on screens after India’s Mars orbiter successfully entered the red planet.
ABHISHEK N. CHINNAPPA/REU TERS
R Aravamudan, left, and A P J Abdul Kalam
A DIFFERENT SPACE M8 THE MAGAZINE