The tension on the faces of the ISRO team gave way to pure joy. As moon lander Vikram manoeuvred gracefully, avoiding craters, and landed safely and softly on the moon’s southern hemisphere, the enormity of their achievement showed on their glowing faces. Team ISRO had achieved something no other country had: They had successfully landed on a hitherto untouched side of the moon on their very first attempt. Days earlier, Russia’s Luna-25 had crashed while trying to do the same thing.
My late husband R. Aravamudan, or Dan as he was more popularly known, was one of the pioneers of the Indian Space Research Organisation who worked alongside the man who began the space programme Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, and thanks to Dan, I have had a ringside view of the growth of ISRO. During the very early days when rockets and payloads were assembled in the church building on the Thumba beach, watched by pigeons perched on the beams, and parts were being transported by cycle to the launch pad, no one could have predicted ISRO would achieve such heights. Not even Dr. Sarabhai, who had once said, “We do not have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the explorations of the moon and the planets or manned space flight.” On the other hand, he said, India as a developing country would gain a lot by using technology to solve its problems. One of the important spin-offs of space research, he had said, was that it brought together a large number of specialists to complete a common task, creating a culture of team work and discipline, which he believed would be invaluable.
How true his words have proved to be—ISRO has always laid a lot of emphasis on working together. Not for individual fame, but for the success of the project on hand. Its culture has become one of teamwork and persistence. Over its 60-odd years of existence, there have been many successes and also many failures.
In the early days, in the 1960s, when the young pioneers—the average age of ISRO was 27 then—with no experience in or exposure to rocket technology built and launched their spacecraft, there were more failures than successes. In fact, so many rockets crashed into the sea that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), which crashed on its first flight, was dubbed Sea Loving Vehicle by the general public in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). Subsequent rockets like ASLV and PSLV were known as Always Sea Loving Vehicle and Permanently Sea Loving Vehicle!
But success rides on the shoulders of failure. The ISRO family never gave up. Every failure was scrutinised carefully and unemotionally with great technical skill. The meetings were inclusive and every person from the youngest engineer to the seniormost person working on a project would be allowed to voice the opinions. Over the years, using their early spacecraft as building blocks, ISRO manged to build solid workhorse rockets like the PSLV (polar satellite launch vehicle) and GSLV (geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle).
Dr. Sarabhai, the original visionary, passed away very early in 1971, and it was Professor Satish Dhawan—after he took over in 1973 and was ISRO’s longest serving chairperson at 12 years—who gave ISRO a more professional structure. The young engineers grew into mature and experienced leaders. They learnt to withstand boycotts and build indigenous spacecraft. The ISRO family grew larger, and the projects more ambitious.
Every person who has worked in ISRO has contributed to its growth. Over the years ISRO became more gender inclusive and the number of women working in technical fields has increased. From a tiny organization that launched foreign rockets from a small launch pad in Trivandrum, ISRO grew into a space power that launched spacecraft for other countries on its indigenously built rockets. India has become the first country to land a spacecraft on Mars on its very first attempt and also the first country to find water on the moon with its first moon launch Chandrayaan-1. And all of this has been done at a fraction of the cost incurred by other countries like the US. It now stands poised to launch manned missions, among other things.
Power and technical knowledge has passed seamlessly on from one generation to the other and ISRO stands tall and proud thanks to its rich heritage. Watching the current ISRO chairperson, Dr. S. Somnath calmly go about the complicated tasks alongside the project team at their consoles as the Vikram lander inched closer to the moon, I saw that the original organisation culture of technical excellence, collaboration, hard work and merit over hierarchy was still alive at ISRO.
Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru and the author of ISRO: A Personal History, among other books. Find her six-part series for Mint Lounge on the history of the Kolar Gold Fields here.