M D Riti


There is more to it than meets the eye, my colleague was certain.

"Something has definitely gone very wrong," he insisted excitedly on the phone from Bombay, a few minutes after the GSLV launch was aborted.

"The ISRO wouldn't have called it off just like that. when can you file a copy?"

I sighed, forgot about my plans for the evening, and got, as my bossman calls it, 'cracking'. It took me two more days to find out what caused that conflagration. And the answer was simple: some thermocol valves, which prevent the engines from igniting, had caught fire!

Poor ISRO chairman Dr K Kasturirangan! Now on a two-year post-retirement extension, it was the first major debacle since he took over. The last big failure was when the PSLV was first tested. Everyone is sure that it hastened then chairman's Dr U R Rao's exit.

Still, it goes to Dr Rangan's credit that he is not indefinitely postponing the next trial. ISRO sources say that they will have it as soon as the monsoons are over on the Andhra coast.

Successful launches generate the kind of euphoria amongst ISRO scientists that makes them do things that are quite unusual for this otherwise staid community. Here is a glimpse of another launch, another chairman, many years ago.

The short, balding chairman was simply overjoyed. His launch vehicle had actually shot its satellite into outer space!

So overjoyed was he that he grabbed his pretty, middle-aged wife and kissed her soundly, much to the amusement and shock of his puritanical colleagues.

This scene, which many reporters witnessed, took place close to a decade ago, on the temperate coast of Andhra Pradesh, at a small township called Sriharikota. The kisser in question was then ISRO chairman Dr U R Rao, now a distinguished advisor to India's premier space agency.

Actually, ISRO has had far more successful launches than failures over the years. But sadly for them, it is invariably failures that stand out in public memory.

Dr Rao ruled Indian space for about a decade, with three extensions. During those years, which ended in 1994, the space beat was not particularly stimulating because he operated on a strange kind of open-and-shut policy.

He himself was always articulate, even sometimes available for dial-a-quote sessions with familiar reporters. But none of his scientists ever interacted with the media without his express permission. The only information outlet from the ISRO seemed to be the chairman.

When I quizzed him about this phenomenon in his last-ever interview as ISRO chairman, he favoured me with his usual bland smile and said, quite simply, "I am sure you have the wrong impression!"

The Kasturirangan years were altogether different. ISRO regained the openness and accessibility that it always had to outsiders and journalists. You could, and still can, walk in and interview or talk to almost any scientist around, provided that he or she is willing to talk to you.

Dr Kasturirangan himself is certainly not available for quickie one-line quotes on the telephone, but is always willing to give lucid, candid interviews. And once your interview is over, if you know him well enough, he is more than willing to spend another 10 minutes in pleasant conversation on a variety of subjects, not necessarily connected with space.

In the early stages, he used to reply to even the most complex questions with two or three-line answers. Seven years later, he is far more forthcoming, but still very precise. He does not indulge in the unnecessary jargon and verbal gimmickry that his predecessor was prone to, to evade uncomfortable questions.

However, my favourite source or contact in ISRO continues to be someone who is not exactly a part of the organisation, but has spent many years in it. This is senior bureaucrat Shishir Kumar Das, who led a high-profile and controversial life as an unwaveringly upright and fearless IAS officer, holding positions like secretary to at least two chief ministers a decade or more apart: D Devaraj Urs and Veerappa Moily.

Das retreated quietly to ISRO when S Bangarappa became chief minister, was dragged back into state administration by Moily, and fled happily to ISRO again after Deve Gowda became Karnataka chief minister.

Sharing a thaali with Das in his typical government air-conditioned office with its boring décor still remains one of my personal highpoints in doing the ISRO beat. The wry humour and acerbic observations of this Oriyan bureaucrat, who has started writing both fiction and non-fiction books of late, are always most entertaining.

Despite the tension of launches, the ISRO centres at both Thiruvananthapuram and Sriharikota are serene.

The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, in particular, is a beautiful place, partly designed and conceptualised, I was told, by Vikram Sarabhai himself. It has a lovely big open auditorium for presentations and meetings that must facilitate particularly open-minded discussion.

Sarabhai had also planned a pool on the office premises, but this never materialised. Anyway, it is hard to imagine the rather staid scientists of VSSC suddenly shedding their office attire and inhibitions, and jumping into a pool on a sultry working day. The American-style culture that pervades the IT offices of Bangalore, where engineers do this kind of thing all the time, has hardly pervaded ISRO.

Yet, it was in this balmy seaside centre that the cheeky acronym for ISRO's Satellite Launch Vehicles originated. The schoolboys of Thiruvananthapuram, many of whose fathers worked for ISRO, first came up with the bright expansion for SLVs -- Sea Loving Vehicles! -- after one of the early flights crashed into the sea soon after it was launched with much aplomb!

Thankfully, the GSLV never took off and crashed its expensive self into any sea. According to ISRO scientists, almost all of it, except for the errant engine that misfired, is usable still, and will be put to test again very soon.

On the space beat for 10 years now, M D Riti is almost a member of ISRO!

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