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View PointOpinion: From sheds to space

Opinion: From sheds to space

Published: 9th Jul 2021 12:24 am

Believe it or not, India is the only country to have created advanced satellite manufacturing facilities inside asbestos sheds. European Space Agency engineers were shaken by the chaotic conditions at Peenya, an industrial township near Bangalore. The sheds leaked during rains. Suburban buses didn’t go to Peenya; long-distance buses didn’t halt there. Employees stepped on stones on muddy roads during monsoon. The nearest tea stall was 2 km away.

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This is where UR Rao, head of the satellite programme at the Space Science and Technology Centre, rented six sheds and equipped them to build India’s first satellite in just two-and-a-half years – a global feat. As their fame spread, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited it. So did space scientists from around the world.

Peenya’s success story mirrors the Indian scientific establishment’s rise from modest beginnings when scientists worked on shoe-string budgets with no government support. This remarkable story is aptly told by science journalist Hari Pulakkat in “Space Life Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science” (Hachette India).

Own Stars

Unlike other British colonies, India had its own science stars. CV Raman won a Nobel Prize in 1930 for his work on light scattering; Meghnad Saha developed his equation on the ionization of elements in stars in 1920, a Nobel-class discovery; SN Bose’s research in the 1920s helped lay the foundations of quantum statistics; and SS Bhatnagar made breakthroughs in magnetochemistry, proving that Indian science was not all physics. Yet, Indian science was not in a good shape; scientific institutions were small, badly run and perennially short of funds and ideas. The bureaucracy stifled all innovation.

When the legendary Homi Bhabha, director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), wanted to conduct pioneering cosmic ray experiments at depths below 100 feet, he picked the Kolar Gold Fields’ deep and sophisticated mines. TIFR scientists set up laboratories 10,000 feet below the ground, making it then the world’s deepest laboratory. It was located below a bustling underground platform with offices and a cafeteria that sold coffee and masala dosa, from where the scientists descended in a bucket because the lifts went no further.

When Bhabha did experiments on cosmic rays with balloons, he had poor quality detection equipment. Lack of money forced students of TIFR to buy discarded World War II machines from a flea market in Bombay and look for useful wires, dials, valves, electric plugs and pieces of glass with which they built transformers, capacitors, resistors, oscilloscopes, amplifiers and recorders.

Govind Swarup was a rising star of Stanford University when he came back to India. He built a radio telescope four times larger than any in the world on a virgin mountain at Ooty in Tamil Nadu. It was used to study radio galaxies, supernovae and quasars besides low-frequency radio transmissions from the centre of the Milky Way. Over time, it catalogued more than 10,000 distant objects besides providing evidence for the Big Bang theory.

Swarup then built a Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT) made up of 30 dishes, each 45 metres in diameter, spread over an area of 25 km. Located in Pune, the GMRT opened to the global astronomical community in 2001 and 35 countries were using it within a few years. The GMRT has helped find several new pulsars (neutron stars that pulsate rapidly). It facilitates the study of a star for several thousand years. With a recent upgrade, the GMRT has become one of the world’s best instruments for finding low-frequency pulsars.

Venkataraman Radhakrishnan, the maverick son of CV Raman and one of the best radio astronomers of his generation, in Sweden, built the first transistor in any radio frequency device. He established that pulsar radiation came from the magnetic poles of a dying star. After his father died in 1970, he led the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore. It was at RRI that Raman’s nephew S Pancharatnam made a fundamental discovery in quantum optics, now called the Pancharatnam-Berry phase. A Jayaraman, a specialist in the physics of high pressure, developed spectrometers and X-ray diffraction devices. S Chandrasekhar developed a world-class centre on liquid crystals.

 spaceISRO’s Missions

Satish Dhawan headed the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) during its most difficult period when some of its critical missions failed or succeeded only partially. But he re-engineered ISRO to focus on missions, creating a well-oiled machinery that began succeeding spectacularly two decades later. Indian scientists, UR Rao included, refused to put their scientific equipment on a Soviet satellite and relied on our own capability.
Indian engineers had no notion of the costs of a satellite’s components. Rao pegged it at Rs 3 crore, which Indira Gandhi approved. The Soviets supplied some key parts; some components were bought abroad. The engineers developed the rest: satellite structure, control systems, sensors to orient the satellite in space, and software for almost everything. ISRO used computers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). The Aryabhata went up from the Soviet Cosmodrome in April 1975. In four decades, India is capable of tracking and monitoring a spacecraft to Mars and performing a polar orbital mission to the moon.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was developed as a reliable rocket. More than a decade earlier, the Rohini satellite was put into orbit. ISRO slowly graduated to more powerful launch vehicles, larger payloads and more complex observations. Remote sensing satellite IRS-P3 took off on a PSLV. Astrosat, launched in September 2015, made several discoveries. Satellite Daksha, 10 times as much sensitive as other orbiting telescopes, and powerful telescope, INSIST, are slated to be launched this decade.

Against All Odds

When CNR Rao, who studied at Purdue and Berkeley, joined IISc at the end of 1959, its equipment were outdated, its chemistry department had no X-ray diffraction equipment or spectrometers, and an institute where CV Raman was director for four years had no Raman Spectrometer. There was no equipment to measure electrical properties. Rao shifted to IIT Kanpur, went to Oxford and returned to IISc. In a career spanning over six decades, he published 1,600 research papers and won every major scientific award barring the Nobel.

Man Mohan Sharma, who created a stir in Cambridge University by solving some knotty issues in chemical engineering and selling a patent to Royal Dutch Shell for 1,000 pounds, encountered near similar problems when he joined Mumbai’s University Department of Chemical Technology, which in 2002 became the University Institute of Chemical Technology. His laboratory lacked the simplest of equipment. The institution’s research budget for a year was roughly Rs 10,000 per research student. Scientific journals arrived several months late. Authorities approved amounts to import equipment which were too small.

Even after 100 years of research, scientists did not know the precise structure of compounds in lac. AV Rama Rao at Pune’s National Chemical Laboratory isolated four compounds from lac dye and solved their structures within one year. When he worked on anti-cancer medicine, he did not have an extractor; he improvised one using empty solvent drums and taps brought from market. He turned a non-performing Regional Research Laboratory in Hyderabad within a year and tackled some of the most complex chemistry attempted in India, processes the pharmaceutical industry lacked the courage to do.

This Hachette India book is a fitting tribute to Indian scientists who struggled against great odds to achieve breakthroughs few others could have managed in similar circumstances.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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