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The triumph of Indian space research.

30 year-old ISRO has been bred well by Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan.

Heard of Antrix Corporation? No, it is not some NASDAQ listed high-tech darling in the US. It is the commercial arm of ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] that is racing France and USA to the market for images obtained from space. And with constantly improving quality of its images, Antrix is closing in. Antrix is the new kid on the block let loose by ISRO, itself just 30 years old. ISRO's achievements are something Indians should be proud of. Regrettably however, ISRO is an occasionally noticed, inadequately celebrated silent engine of daring and change.

A recent occasion when ISRO got some mindshare of media-programmed Indians, was in October,2001. On a fine, cool day India's space work horse, the PSLV C3 lifted off and soared into space. Then it performed a copy book launch placing India's TES and two paying customers' satellites, Belgium's PROBA and Germany's BIRD.

The world sat up and took notice. For several reasons. One, the Polar Satellitle Launch Vehicle [PSLV] confirmed its reliability with this second successive perfect launch. Two, the Technology Experiment Satellite [TES] designed and built by India was sending many messages between its stream quality images. Read together the messages amount to this: At over a tonne TES is a state of the art eye in the sky. Its cameras with a resolution of 1 metre can pick an umbrella from up there. Just a few months before, the US had denied India access to the 1m images of Afghanistan from its Ikonos satellite. TES was now in effect saying, 'Never mind - we can manage quite well, thank you' [Incidentally India too will not share TES images: they are for defence purposes only]. Finally to reason three and the implication of TES's imaging technology: until now, Indian cameras were panned. For high resolutions, cameras need to be fixed. In order to give enough time for light to reach the lens, the moving satellite with its camera has to constantly be pivoting on its axis, its stare fixed on its target with the utmost precision. Indian scientists have with the TES, demonstrated this control.

Founding fathers:

For all its contemporary skills, ISRO is a young colt. It was only in 1972 that it was formed. Its pluck is due to the kind of Indians who came to steer it.

Indians like Dr. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai. A scion of a wealthy family, he could have been a lotus eater all his life. Instead, he was a man devoted to science, the arts and institution building. Born in 1919, Sarabhai obtained his Tripos in Natural Sciences from St.John's College, Cambridge when he was but 20. Then he worked on cosmic rays, under Sir C V Raman at the Indian Institute of Science [IISc], Bangalore. In 1947, he had founded the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad. PRL turned out to be the seed bed for ISRO. Between 1962 and 1972, Sarabhai was in the inner rooms of Indian decision making, giving shape to his vision. ISRO was no megalomaniac's dream. It was to be instead, a platform --in Sarabhai's words-- "for the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society".

The vociferous consensus of the Indian scientific community is that ISRO's success was assured the day Dr. Satish Dhawan was chosen to head it. Whose inspired decision it was, we will never know but it is one of those that have made India.

Satish Dhawan merits some of our time. He was born in 1920, in Srinagar, Kashmir and studied in Lahore. There he gathered an odd bouquet of degrees: a BA in Mathematics and Physics, an MA in English literature and a BE in Mechanical Engineering. More were to come. An MS in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, USA and a PhD from Caltech. At the end of these labours he was barely 27! Add now, his dash and killer good looks, a propensity to take all the blame and share all the honours and a passionate commitment to India and you have a hero. [Read tributes to Satish Dhawan by Roddam Narasimha and Dr.Amulya K N Reddy. ]

Ponder Sarabhai and Dhawan and you would want to ask with a longing : "Where have all such men gone, my India?"

Raising rocketry:

Dhawan was at heart a teacher. When asked to head the ISRO in 1972, he had been at the IISc for close to 20 years. He accepted the new job only on condition that he would continue as Director of IISc. The born mentor then set out to build people who would build India's rockets. Abdul Kalam, Roddam Narasimha, U V Rao and K Kasturirangan are but a few of the people who were burnished by Dhawan's hands.

After spending the early years getting scientists, engineers, vendors and fabrication facilities together, ISRO was ready with its own Apple satellite by 1981. This was a learning exercise and it was launched by the European Space Agency. From that point on, progress has been steady and on two fronts. On the one, India began to design two kinds of satellites: a series -the INSAT- for communications and another -the IRS- for remote sensing. On the other, satellite launching vehicles have been evolving in sophistication and ability. India progressed from solid propelled to liquid propelled rockets. It is now developing cryogenic engines for rockets -the GSLV- that can launch geo-synchronous satellites for communications.

Of course, India's space adventure has had its share of failures, waste and dependance - but increasingly these years, a series of stunning successes. [Click to browse ISRO]. ISRO is a vast organism today spread all over India. It has dedicated facilities for research, design, fabrication, management and marketing for its many abilities: liquid and cryogenic propulsion, satellites, inertial systems, telemetry, space imaging, control systems and of course launch services.

Marketing quality:

Let us revisit Antrix: It markets $40 million worth of images from ISRO's five satellites. Amongst its clientele are the European Commission [for agriculture and forestry], Japan [volcanic activity], USA [telephone network mapping, rail alignments, Wal-Mart, airlines] and Thailand [information]. Its images are distributed by Space Imaging Inc and Euromap. Along the way the quality of ISRO's 5 metre resolution images has set back the esteem for those from USA's SPOT and Landsat satellites. The upshot of this situation was that USA --the free-market evangelist --, actually resorted to a price war. It dropped prices from 15 cents to 2 cents a sq. kM! Antrix stood firm at 80 cents and banked on its quality. Well, its business is growing. And to pile on more misery, ISRO will soon offer 2.6 metre resolution. [Source: 'Outlook', Jan 14,2002]

Quite apart from the hush-hush images for security from its sixth --and the latest-- satellite ISRO's contribution to India's socio-economic development has been immense. It has modernised India's work with weather, forestry, flood control, agriculture, mining, oil prospecting, archeology, mapping, education, health care, communications, transport, water resources, oceanography, disaster management, .... its a long list. Sarabhai's vision has been realised.

ISRO has always been manned by self-effacing, highly qualified and skilled men and women - 32000 of them currently. Many of them have come from small towns with only brilliant minds as their capital. Small, bespectacled and commonplace men you'd pass on the street without noticing. Here they are flailing their arms and giving vent to a brief burst of emotion on achieving another success for India. They get a lot of time on television when they fail; today they will get 10 seconds. It is they who are writing India's name in space. Men who will retire with small pensions. Men who venerate Sarabhai and Dhawan.