Indian space scientist R Aravamudan shares what it was like to be part of the early days of India’s space programme in 1962.
He was among the first scientists to join ISRO, then called INCOSPAR.
Along with understanding the nuances of space technology, it also gave him an opportunity to mingle with great minds, including APJ Abdul Kalam.
Aravamudan was inducted into the programme by Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who floated the idea at a time when rocketry and space technology was unknown in India.
Aravamudan, who was in a “comfortable and prestigious central government scientific position in the Department of Atomic Energy”, took up the role despite friends cautioning him against it.
In retrospect, he says he is grateful, as the next 50 years proved how right his decision was.
Recounting his first meeting with Kalam, he says, “We met in 1963 at the National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA), Wallops Island launching facility in Virginia, United States.”
“I was already there in the US and Kalam had left his job at the Defence Research Laboratory in India and joined us.”
The crew were at NASA to receive training for the programme, which up until then had the sole aim of setting up a sounding rocket-launching facility near Thiruvananthapuram.
Eventually, ISRO also wanted to be adept at launching satellites for remote communication.
When the Indian crew at NASA returned to India, they attempted to build India’s first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV).
As Aravamudan recalls, “We were a group of rookies and had very little practical knowledge of the complexities of developing the various elements of an SLV.”
To add to this, he says, the unavailability of raw material and electronic components added to the challenges.
They persisted despite these challenges, and their first launch, scheduled for August 1979, was an event that the whole world was looking forward to.
But this anticipation was met with disappointment when the SLV lost control, plummeting into the Bay of Bengal.
Unwilling to give up so quickly, the team regrouped and on 18 July 1980, almost a year after the failed launch, they had scheduled the launch of the SLV-3.
It had the capability of carrying a 40 kg payload.The SLV-3 successfully placed the satellite Rohini I in orbit.
This milestone was India’s entry into the super-exclusive club of space-faring nations.
Aravamudan says he is grateful for the cherished friendship that he and Kalam developed along the way, and recalls how the ‘Missile Man of India’ took himself very seriously and was earnest about whatever he did.
“He would throw himself completely into a project and motivate others to work as hard as he did,” he adds.