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The Rediff Special/M D Riti
September 19, 2003
There is good reason why the President of India will never forget G Madhavan Nair, the new chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation. And it has nothing to do with international relations or missiles or defence.
The reason, quite simply, is that A P J Abdul Kalam (seen in photograph with Nair) was Nair's first boss. Both Kalam and Nair then worked at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. Today, Nair is the Centre's director. He has also taken over from Dr Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan as chairman of the Space Commission; secretary, department of space, Government of India; and chairman, ISRO.
Dr Kasturirangan was to retire from the last of his numerous extensions of service only next month. By that time, his successor would have been chosen and his appointment cleared by the Cabinet sub-committee. But Dr Kasturirangan was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by President Kalam on August 27. As soon he accepted the nomination, he was instantly relieved of his post at ISRO -- a government employee cannot hold political office and Dr Kasturirangan was to begin his term the same day.
Nair was appointed chairman of ISRO, but the Cabinet sub-committee is yet to approve the appointment. In the meanwhile, Nair continues to be director, VSSC, with the 'additional charge' of heading ISRO. As a result, he is reluctant to talk to the media about his plans for the future. Other senior ISRO scientists who have known him for years are also unwilling to share their insights into the mind of ISRO's new chairman.
Nair, who lived in Kerala all through his 35-year tenure with ISRO, will now shift to Bangalore, to the spacious new house that ISRO has built for its chairman. Nair's wife Radha also works for ISRO; she is a senior scientist at VSSC and is due to retire in December. Nair himself is due to retire from ISRO on October 31 when he turns 60. He will actually begin his tenure as chairman on an extension of service.
The fact that Nair was chosen to head ISRO is a break from tradition in many ways. It is after a long time that a scientist not currently based in Bangalore has been named chairman. It is also the first time in two decades that a scientist not working on satellites -- Nair specialises in rockets and launch vehicles -- has been chosen. Both U R Rao and Kasturirangan were directors of the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore before they took over as ISRO chairmen.
Besides, it is rare for a scientist without a doctorate to be chosen to head ISRO. Nair's elevation to the post has improved morale considerably at ISRO; his selection seemed to underline that knowledge and work experience are more important than degrees on paper.
Nair was one of ISRO's early recruits. He joined the space programme in 1967, after being trained at Mumbai's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. After graduating in engineering from Kerala University in 1966, he joined the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, as VSSC was then known, in 1967.
Nair had been recruited by Vikram Sarabhai's protégé, R Aravamudan, now a distinguished scientist with ISRO after he retired as director of various ISRO centres. Aravamudan himself had been personally handpicked by Sarabhai five years earlier. Nair was one of three young men hired by Aravamudan at the time -- the other two are no longer with ISRO.
Nair was designated to work under Kalam, who headed VSSC's payload integration section from 1967 to 1972. Former ISRO chairman Dr U R Rao still recalls how hard Nair worked on a project to develop sounding rockets in collaboration with Japanese scientists.
A decade later, Nair was working on the satellite launch vehicles in Thiruvananthapuram. "The failure of the ASLV was a major setback for the Indian space programme," recollects Rao. "Nair contributed in a major way to the development of the first Indian Satellite Launch Vehicle, the SLV-3. So he was made project director of India's first operational Satellite Launch Vehicle, the PSLV." The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle is the only launcher whose services ISRO sells commercially. It has also been chosen to send India's unmanned lunar craft, Chandrayaan-1.
Nair took over ISRO's Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Valiamala in Kerala at a time when India was struggling to operationalise the Geo Synchronous Launch Vehicle. This launcher, which was even more advanced than the PSLV, suffered a severe setback when ISRO's deal with the Russian space agency to transfer cryogenic engine technology to India fell through because of hidden American interference.
All eyes were on LPSC when Nair became its director in 1995; ISRO's research into cryogenic engine technology was taking place there. Besides, the ISRO spy scandal, as it came to be called, was closed to being resolved.
Dr Nambinarayan, who was heading the prestigious cryogenic system project, and another space scientist, Shashi Kumar, were alleged to be conspiring with anti-nationals through two Maldivian women. The scandal rocked the Kerala government, then led by K Karunakaran, and eventually led to its downfall in 1995. After months of investigation, the Central Bureau of Investigation cleared Nambinarayan and Shashi Kumar and absolved the two scientists of any wrongdoing.
Nair was awarded the Padma Bhushan during his tenure at LPSC. Later, when VSSC director Srinivasan died in office, Nair was appointed his successor. He will continue to remain VSSC's director till his appointment as ISRO chairman is formalised. However, ISRO's official web site already lists him as 'Our Chairman' and links to his biodata.
Dr Kasturirangan points out that Nair used to represent India and ISRO at international meetings of the UN-sponsored committee for the peaceful use of outer space. "He now has vast experience in representing ISRO in the international arena. That will prove very useful as ISRO is all set to go global in the coming decade," he says.