A useful book to have around

14oeb_Space_jpg_1719808fIndia’s Rise as a Space Power is a book by Prof. Udupi Ramachandra Rao, former Chairman, ISRO (1988-1994), that provides some useful historical context of the space research organization from a scientist’s perspective, not an administrator’s.

Through it, Prof. Rao talks about how our space program was carefully crafted with a series of satellites and launch vehicles, and how each one of them has contributed to where the organization, as such, is today: an immutable symbol of power in the Third World and India’s pride. He starts with the foundation of ISRO, goes on to the visions of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, then introduces the story of Aryabhata, our first satellite, followed by Bhaskara I and II, the IRS series, the INSAT program, the ASLV, PSLV and GSLV, and finally, the contributions of all these instruments to the Indian economy. The period in which Prof. Rao served as Chairman coincided with an acceleration of innovations at ISRO – when he assumed the helm, the IRS was being developed; when he left, development of the cryogenic engine was underway.

However, India’s Rise… leaves out that aspect of his work that he was most well-positioned to discuss all along: politics. The Indian polity is heavily invested in ISRO, and constantly looks to it for solutions to a diverse array of problems, from telecommunications to meteorology. While ISRO may never have struggled to receive government funding, its run-ins with the 11 governments in its 45-year tenure will have made for a telling story on the Indian government’s association with on of its most successful scientific/technological bodies. Where Prof. Rao makes comments, it is usually on one of two things: either to say discuss why scientists are better leaders of organizations like ISRO than administrators, or how foreign governments floated or sank technology-transfer deals with India.

… Mr. T.N. Seshan, who was the Additional Secretary in the Department of Space, a senior member of the negotiation team deputed under my leadership, made this trip [to Glavkosmos, a Soviet company that was to equip and provide the launcher for the first-generation Indian Remote Sensing satellites] unpleasant by throwing up tantrums just because he was not the leader of the Indian delegation. Subsequently, Prof. Dhawan had to tell him in no uncertain terms that any high-level delegation such as the above would only be led by a scientist and not an administrator, a healthy practice followed in [the Dept. of Space] form the very beginning. (pp. 124)

This aspect notwithstanding, India’s Rise… is a useful book to have around now, when ISRO seems poised to enter its next era: that of the successful use of its cryogenic engines to lift heavier payloads into higher orbits. It contains a lot of interesting information about different programs and the attention to detail is distributed evenly, if sometimes unnecessarily. There is also an accompanying collection of possibly rare photographs; my favorite shows a rocket’s nose-cone being transported by bicycle to the launchpad. Overall, the book makes for excellent reference, and thanks to Prof. Rao’s scientific background, there is a sound representation of technical concepts devoid of misrepresentation. Here’s my review of it for The Hindu.