Excerpts from the book ‘Ignited Minds‘ Written By A.P.J. Abdul Kalamji
It is essential that technologies that give immediate benefits to the people be taken up for implementation by the system regardless of which party is in power. Another important message conveyed by these scientists is that basic science is vital for growth of technology and for developing new leaders in science. Let us learn from them the proven qualities of leadership to value science and technology in an integrated way.
In 1962, Dr Sarabhai and Dr Bhabha were looking for a site to establish the space research station in the equatorial region. Thumba in Kerala was found most suitable as it was near the equatorial region and was ideally suited for ionospheric research. The locality, however, was inhabited by thousands of fishermen living in the villages there. It also had a beautiful church called St Mary Magdalene Church and the Bishop’s house. As such, the acquisition of the land did not move any further.
Dr Sarabhai met the Bishop, His Excellency Rev. Dr Peter Bernard Pereira, on a Saturday and requested transfer of the property. The Bishop smiled and asked him to meet him the next day. In the Sunday morning service, the Bishop told the congregation, ‘My children, I have a famous scientist with me who wants our church and the place I live for the work of space science and research. Science seeks truth that enriches human life. The higher level of religion is spirituality. The spiritual preachers seek the help of the Almighty to bring peace to human minds. In short, what Vikram is doing and what I am doing are the same– both science and spirituality seek the Almighty’s blessings for human prosperity in mind and body. Children, can we give them God’s abode for a scientific mission?’ There was silence for a while followed by a hearty ‘Amen’ from the congregation which made the whole church reverberate.
It was indeed a great experience working with Dr Sarabhai from 1963 to 1971. As a young engineer engaged in the tasks of composite technology, explosive systems and rocket engineering systems at the Thiruvananthapuram space centre I drew tremendous energy from his leadership. Though the nation was in its technological infancy, Dr Sarabhai was dreaming of developing our own satellite launch vehicles. These would be used to launch from Indian soil remote sensing satellites in sun- synchronous orbit and communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Today, his vision is almost realized with the launch of the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV). ISRO has also operationalized the IRS and INSAT systems, thereby bringing the benefits of space to the common man. There is an experience I would like to share with you in relation to Dr Sarabhai’s vision for space programmes. I wrote briefly in Wings of Fire about this episode. The design project of India’s first satellite launch vehicle (SLV-3) was taken up at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). The design of each stage of rocket, heat shield and guidance system was given to selected project leaders. I was given the design project of the fourth stage of SLV-3, that is, the upper stage rocket, which would give the final velocity to put Rohini into orbit. This fourth stage uses an advanced composite material that provides high strength with minimum weight. It also has maximum loading of high energy solid propellant. While we were developing the design of this upper stage in 1970, I received a call from Dr Sarabhai from Ahmedabad stating that he would be visiting Thiruvananthapuram along with Prof. Hubert Curien, chairman of CNES, the French space agency. I was asked to give a presentation about the fourth stage to Prof. Curien’s team. When the presentation was over, we realized that the SLV-3 fourth stage was also being considered as upper stage for the French Diamont P-4 launch vehicle. The CNES needed an apogee rocket motor nearly double the propellant weight and also size of the stage that we had designed.
A decision was then taken in the same meeting that the fourth stage should be reconfigured to match and suit both Diamont P-4 and SLV-3. I mention this episode because at the time this decision was taken, we ourselves were in the design stage! Such was Dr Sarabhai’s confidence in the Indian scientific community. Development work on this stage started ahead of the other stages of SLV-3. With our motivation thus boosted, work proceeded in full swing. A series of reviews took place between the two teams and the fourth stage graduated from drawing board to developing stage. Unfortunately in 1971, Dr Sarabhai passed away, and at the same time the French government called off the Diamont P-4 programme.