SUPERMOM - But we won’t forget the fathers

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 25.09.14

Who did it

When they’re not planning, designing, rehearsing or tracking their space missions, the scientists and engineers behind India’s Mars Orbiter Mission might be found thinking about dance-drama, playing badminton or contemplating a future in farming. One scientist read the memoirs of an Indian princess during the MOM’s 10-month journey to Mars. Here are pen sketches of some of them:

Kopillil Radhakrishnan
Isro chairman, Bangalore
The engineer-MBA who encouraged Isro teamsto aim for Mars

Months after taking over as chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation in November 2009, Radhakrishnan called several senior scientists and requested a feasibility study to determine whether and how fast Isro could launch a spacecraft to orbit Mars. The electrical engineer who was among the first batch (1974-76) of graduates from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, has trained in and performed Kathakali and continues to be fascinated by the dance form. Radhakrishnan pushed his teams and meticulously tracked the mission on the ground and after launch, reviewing preparations and watching all crucial manoeuvres from the control room at the Isro Telemetry Tracking and Command Network, Bangalore.

Alur Seelin Kiran Kumar
Director, Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad
Physicist who led the teams that developed the science payloads on the spacecraft

Kiran Kumar, who had helped design and develop the imaging sensors aboard India’s first and experimental remote sensing satellites launched in 1979 and 1981, led research teams that developed three of the five scientific instruments aboard the MOM spacecraft. During his 39-year career with Isro, Kiran Kumar has also helped develop ocean colour instruments for satellites that help identity sea zones with abundant fish and instruments that help in weather forecasting, landscape mapping and telecommunications. When he’s not designing satellite payloads, Kiran Kumar, who studied physics and turned to physical engineering, likes to listen to Carnatic music and play indoor games — badminton, table-tennis, even carrom.

Valivarthi Kesavaraju
Post-launch mission director, Isro Satellite Centre, Bangalore
Physicist-turned-spacecraft operations manager

The Mars mission didn’t really demand any extra time from Kesavaraju, who has been long and fondly labelled a workaholic by his wife Kanakaprabha. Assigned to serve as the post-launch mission director, she says, Kesavaraju continued with his routine — walking 2.5km to his office every day at about 8am and returning sometime between 8pm and 11pm. Ahead of the launch and throughout the 10-month journey to Mars, Kesavaraju analysed the requirements of the mission and how the spacecraft should respond, often relying on computer simulations to determine spacecraft response outcomes. Kesavaraju, who likes watching Telugu movies and practises meditation for 30 minutes in the morning, dreams of farming after retirement.

Vipparthi Adimurthy
Professor and dean of research, Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram
Mathematician-turned orbital mechanics specialist

Adimurthy used his accumulated skills in orbital mechanics to determine how best to use Isro’s polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) to send an orbiter to Mars, knowing that PSLV is not the best rocket to try and do this. Earlier, he had also worked out the trajectory to send Chandrayaan-1 into a lunar orbit. Ideally, Isro should have used the bigger and more powerful geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) to aim for Mars. But given the GSLV was not ready, Adimurthy and his colleagues conceived a strategy of using PSLV and a special technique that would involve sending the spacecraft into multiple elliptical orbits around Earth, and periodic short rocket firings to increase its velocity and send it into a trajectory towards Mars. This is exactly how MOM reached Mars. Adimurthy, who studied mathematical physics and aeronautical engineering, is a bibliophile — he used to spend his college scholarship funds to buy books by Rabindranath Tagore, he can engage in a discussion on the content of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and through the Mars mission he finished A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur.

Compiled by G.S. Mudur


Those who made it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the Isro facility in Bangalore on Wednesday

Vajubhai Vala, Karnataka governor

A former Speaker in the Gujarat Assembly, Vala had served in Modi’s cabinet in the state. When Modi first became Gujarat chief minister in 2001, Vala vacated his Rajkot seat to allow Modi to enter the Assembly. In Bangalore, the Prime Minister mentioned Vala while referring to an instrument used in the Mars Orbiter Mission that was built at a Rajkot laboratory

J.N. Goswami, director, Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad

Modi said he used to visit the PRL to understand what scientists were up to. Goswami, on those occasions, would explain PRL’s work to him, Modi said. PRL devised a methane-detecting sensor and a camera that are on board the Mars orbiter

Aryabhata, ancient mathematician-astronomer

Modi referred to Aryabhata’s contribution to mathematics — shunya (zero) — but did not mention his work in astronomy, principally calculations aimed at determining the location of planets. That contribution led India to name its first satellite after Aryabhata

Swami Vivekananda

Modi referred to Vivekananda’s assertion that India would emerge a world leader again

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Modi referred to the former Prime Minister, in whose tenure the Chandrayaan moon mission was conceived

Rabindranath Tagore

Modi referred to Tagore’s belief in India’s rise

Those who Modi skipped

Jawaharlal Nehru

India’s first Prime Minister set up in 1962 the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar), Isro’s predecessor that formulated India’s space policy

Vikram Sarabhai

The scientist led India’s nascent post-Independence research in space — first at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Ahmedabad’s PRL, and later as the founding chief of Incospar

Homi Bhabha

Better known for his contributions to India’s nuclear programme, Bhabha led India’s early research in cosmology and associated sciences that formed the bedrock for Incospar’s, and later, Isro’s achievements

Indira Gandhi

The former Prime Minister created Isro in 1969 and armed it with the resources, autonomy and strategic support

Satish Dhawan

Sarabhai’s successor at Isro helm in 1972, Dhawan pioneered India’s use of space science and satellites for everyday use. Under him, Isro focused on launching the Insat telecommunication rockets and remote-sensing satellites that have since helped in weather forecasts, soil mapping, disaster-warnings and tele-education and tele-medicine. The first version of the PSLV — Isro’s workhorse launch vehicle that propelled both MOM and Chandrayaan out of Earth’s orbit — was developed under Dhawan.

Compiled by Charu Sudan Kasturi

WHY IT IS SUCH abig, big deal for us

MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) reaching Mars orbit on the first attempt means...

India is the first country in the world to do so. A European consortium, not a country, had done it before. But we have outdone the Americans and the Soviets — none of whom could do so on the maiden voyage

The icing on the cake: the Chinese tried it in 2012 but failed. It is not every day that we get to beat the Chineseat something. A nice message to the Chinese in the middle of the border headaches in Ladakh

India pulled it off on a shoestring budget of $74 million (Rs 451.14 crore), less than what it cost to make the movie Gravity (around $100 million). Nasa’s almost simultaneous mission cost $671million. (Psst! No need to go overboard on this since the Nasa project is a far more complex affair)

India has proved that its space programme can survive even if the West cuts off technology sharing — as was the case after the nuclear tests

The Mars success is an extension of the state-sponsored self-sufficiency that Jawaharlal Nehru promoted. The policy is now viewed as a failure on many fronts but not in outer space

If you are still not convinced, here’s incontrovertible proof. The politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) thought it worthwhile to deliberate on the issue and reach the following conclusion: “The putting of the Mangalyaan satellite into the Mars orbit is a significant achievement.” The party statement did not mention the real threat of imperialist forces invading Mars. Watch this (earthly) space!