When ISRO successfully landed the Chandrayaan-3 mission near the South Pole of the Moon on August 23, one of the scientists name that came to my mind was of G Madhavan Nair. While Dr S Somnath, present Chairman, and the band of dedicated team of scientists of ISRO deserve full credit for creating history, the beginning of India’s Moon Mission took off during the Chairmanship of Dr Nair (2003-09) with the Chandrayaan-1 in 2008.

The momentous discovery of water on the Moon by the Chandrayaan-1 Probe mission, though viewed with skepticism initially and confirmed by NASA later, has in a way revived interest in the Moon. It has sparked off a race among countries to land and explore it further after a good half a century. US, China, Japan, Israel, Russia and big billionaires - Elon Musk (Space X), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Richard Branson(Virgin Galactic) have all joined the endeavour.

There were perhaps not many takers when Madhavan Nair presented India’s ambitious space programmes, launch vehicles and missions to the Moon at the International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad in 2007. But, in the years hence, the Chandrayaan-1, Mangalyaan, Gaganyaan (human to space), the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) progress and the spectacular performance of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) with over 90 per cent success in its 50-plus launches have established the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in the global space arena. 

Frugal technologies

India’s space odyssey is a fascinating story of high achievements, low costs and frugal technologies. Since the beginnings in the 1960s, with the vision of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, followed by the development and consolidation phase of satellites and launch vehicles under Dr Satish Dhawan, to the experimental phase under Prof UR Rao till the late 1990s, Indian space has made huge strides and helped improve the quality of life of the people of the country as envisioned. In the last two decades, a confident ISRO has ventured into commercial satellite launches, planetary missions and building reusable launch vehicles.

If you want to get a first hand account of the challenges, the triumphs and the failures of this phenomenal journey of the Indian space sector, Madhavan Nair’s ‘ Rocketing Through The Skies (An eventful life at ISRO) is a good read. The central theme of the autobiography is the development of rocketry in India starting from the earliest, rudimentary sounding rockets at Thumba to the latest reusable one’s. Grounded in the field, the author draws from his early days at the VSSC, the learnings and inspirations from his ‘Guru’, APJ Abdul Kalam, to narrate the development pangs of the Satellite Launch Vehicles (SLV-3) to the sweet success of the PSLV and the crowning glory of his tenure as the Chairman of ISRO by placing the Indian tricolour on the Moon in 2008.

  While tracing his own growth path in ISRO from 1967, Nair has not shied away from touching on the controversies that dogged the agency too. For example, he has delved into the unsavoury incidents surrounding the allegations and hounding of S Nambi Narayanan, the cryogenic scientist in the ‘spy case’ and also alluded to the sordid ‘Devas Scam’ where he himself faced serious charges. In a detailed explanation he states that Dr Radhakrishnan was his choice as successor as ISRO Chairman but differed in various aspects of the Devas-Antrix agreement and its subsequent cancellation.

“My grievance with Dr Radhakrishnan was that he did not have the courtesy to consult Dr K Kasturirangan and me, who were part of the decision making in the Devas agreement. He only sought clarification on how a correction was made in the Cabinet note seeking approval for the GSAT 6 project. Later, he just informed me of the decision taken to cancel the agreement. I told him that I did not agree with the arguments put forward for the cancellation. However, I believed that once a decision was made, we should implement it without fail.”

Nehru’s role in pushing space

The autobiography also gives clarity on the recent political controversy raised about the role of Nehru in India’s space programme. Dr Nair states that former Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, enthralled by the success of the Russian Sputnik satellite tabled a motion called the Scientific Policy Resolution in Indian Parliament in 1958, paving the way for an Indian space programme.

Post his retirement, Nair has been active in different fields, including an entry into politics, being vocal on developments, especially in space and technology and teaching. He feels, compared to global standards, ISRO’s programmes today are lagging behind in several areas. The first is the ability to fly humans to space and bring them back. More powerful rockets are needed and the time has come to focus on eco-friendly fuels and semi-cryogenic rockets. Though the NDA government under PM Modi has taken lots of initiatives, a lot more has to be done for India to emerge as a global power in space exploration and in providing space-based services, he feels. Overall, the book makes for an informative and engaging read. 

(The reviewer is a senior journalist)

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About the book
Title: Rocketing Through the Skies: An Eventful Life at ISRO
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages:‎ 360
Price: ₹799