A few months ago, Prof. Dr. N. Vedachalam visited COEP for a series of interactive talks with the students regarding India's progress in space research as well as the future for academic enrichment within the country with colleges like ours being the nucleus. Through the efforts of the administration, we have been fortunate enough to hear many great speakers such as Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar over the last couple of years who come for some kind of review visit. But there was a weekend of talks among these that will remain impregnated in the minds of many students for a very long time.
Prof. Vedachalam is the former head of ISRO's Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) and has been part of the elite team of scientists who have driven India's development in indigenous space technology over the last 40 years or so. He was in college to deliver a series of three lectures, each of around 4 hours to the students. The ever-so-enthusiastic (not.) crowd started to filter in late as usual for the morning session. But within a matter of twenty minutes, it seemed certain that none of the 600 odd students would be leaving their seats. When Prof. V asked whether they would like to break for lunch, a unanimous 'no' echoed through the Auditorium and he went on with his inimitable style of technical story-telling. These weren't fairytales of course, but a comprehensive look at India's struggle to develop and implement its own space technology post independence. Prof. V's was typical of a senior faculty playing around with his young students, stopping in between to pose a question or too and then laugh off the ensuing silence by saying, "Don't worry, even after you have completed your PhD, you will not be able to answer that question because you simply didn't read the textbooks well enough in the Second Year".
As a part of the afternoon session, he spoke at length about ISRO's newest baby (Chandrayaan-I by then was done) - the second stage Cryogenic Rocket engine that had taken nearly two decades to develop. I remember some parts of what he spoke- shall make an effort to reproduce them.
(If you're interested, there's a copy of this entire lecture series at the Data Center : i. e. if you were foolish enough to sleep off at the hostel after an intense night of CS or were simply too bored to leave the confines of your home and the comforts of the TV )
Dr. Vedachalam. India's Cryogenic Rocket Technology.
" In the 70s, Dr. Kalam was a senior scientist at ISRO. We used to look up to him and Prof. Satish Dhawan a lot in those days. Prof. Dhawan would pose these problems to his students and the solution would come after a long brainstorming session but from the most miraculously simple sources. The first idea for the Payload housing came from large garbage bins on the streets.
When we were still struggling as a nation to establish ourself on the global map, Dr. Kalam had told us- put a block of concrete in space if you want! But put something there with an Indian flag. That was the kind of desperation in those days. By the late 80s, vokay, we had put a man in space. But none of the technology was India's. We were buying our rockets from the Russians who sold them to us at ridiculous prices. Americans were refusing us technology. We had no choice. One day, Prof. Dhawan addressed many of the scientists and researchers and declared- 'If they do not give it to us, we will develop it ourselves'. And after almost 15 years of continued efforts, we are scheduled to launch our own Cryo Rocket. This is how technology develops. When somebody refuses to share it with you- you must do it yourself.
And in our proposals to the Government, we always asked for around 2 times the project cost. Waii? (why) you will ask. We always planned for contingencies. If the first one failed, we could rectify some of the mistakes and develop a second one. After 700 seconds, massive software failure caused the first rocket (PSVL, 1993) to tumble in the Bay of Bengal. See, the first one- we give to Gaad (laughter in the crowd). We then tell ourselves- next one we must not fail (since we have already given to Gaad). And so the second launch was a success."
It was indeed very sad to see the GSLV D3 to plummet into the sea. Prof. Vedachalam had mentioned that the PSVL was well tested and very trustworthy- that's why we sent up Chandrayaan on it. Let us hope that the Cryo powered GSLV too overcomes the hurdles that has caused "partial failure" of this mission- there are reports that the Cryo did fire, but two of the auxiliary engines did not. And we can rest assured that "having given the first one to Gaad Almighty, we may succeed in our next endeavour".