Getting to speak to Mr. G Madhvan Nair is an opportunity that I pride on. Hopefully some years down the line, I will be telling incidents to my grandchildren of how India had made a beginning with space exploration in 2008 by launching the Chandrayaan and how I interviewed the chairman of the agency.
But beyond the historical trappings, Mr. Nair came across as a very down-to-earth person, who took pains to explain the nitty-grittys to me on different aspects. Scientists are renowned to be bored of general journalists, as both talk on different planes. Yet, Mr. Nair, even while he was on other plane, ensured that I at least could understand for myself what he was talking about. Considering the kind of time pressure that he works in, it is no mean achievement. Here is an interview of the man behind India’s moon mission (as it was published in Dataquest).
The Moon and Beyond
On a foggy wintry November evening last year, a 34 kg instrument after traversing some 400,000 kms journey plunged on to the lunar surface and painted it with the Indian tricolour. In its short 25 minute descent the Moon Impact Probe or MIP collected crucial data with its C-band Radar Altimeter, Video Imaging System and a Mass Spectrometer. All this data collected would be critical when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launches the second Chandrayaan mission that would carry with it a moon rover. With Chandrayaan, India became a member of a very select club of nations that have planted their flags on the lunar soil. Overnight, the world woke up to the space technology might of India and the nation became a power to reckon with in the arena.
The credit for this success solely lies with ISRO that will complete 4 decades of existence in this calendar year. These years have been very eventful in Indian history, from launching INSAT satellites on Russian Soyuz Rockets to launching ESA satellites on PSLV and GSLV rockets, the transition has been phenomenal.
One of the many people who deserve accolade for ISRO’s success is, G Madhvan Nair, a leading technologist in the field of rocket systems and also the current Chairman of ISRO. Over the years, Nair has played a significant role in development of the space program, for instance he was the project director for the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) development program. He was also the director of ISRO’s largest R & D Centre, the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, and oversaw India’s Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) successfully coming to fruition. Recently, Nair, who is also the Secretary to the Department of Space and the Chairman, Space Commission, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour. In a tete-a-tete with Dataquest, he talks about how technology is shaping the future of India’s space program. Excerpts.
First and foremost, in light of the successful Chandrayaan Mission, what would you term as uniqueness of the mission in terms of new technology employed?
At the onset the Chandrayaan spacecraft was itself a very complex one. The payload of the mission contained instruments like Terrain Mapping Camera, Hyperspectral Imager, Lunar Laser Ranging Instrument, High Energy X-ray Spectrometer, etc. development of these systems were one of the challenges. But more important than that was the fact that to travel beyond the earth gravitational field to the distance of around 400,000 kms, which were doing for the first time, once we get out of the gravitational field of the earth, the forces that influence the course of the aircraft are very many. Of course when the spacecraft travels long distance, the telemetry and telecommunications systems all become very important and for the same ISRO developed the Deep Space Network. These are just a few instances of the very many challenges that we successfully faced.
The annual budget of ISRO is merely a fraction of what is available to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration or to the European Space Agency, how do you manage to stay ahead of the technology curve even by spending less? Do you feel constrained? Or does this limitation compel you to be more innovative?
No, we have actually worked out a very innovative way of developing new systems, pressure of regime of technology denial by advanced nations this has been one of the major motivational factors and our scientists put in extra effort which is needed to achieve self reliance in the area. Of course the basic thing is that almost every skill that is required for space research is available under one roof, so the next result is that our overheads are minimum and since our efforts are also concentrated on a mission mode approach we are able to achieve the results with minimum costs.