Book Review – From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey

RedplanetTitle: From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Author: ISRO
Chief Editor: P.V. Manoranjan Rao

This book is probably the most detailed and most comprehensive account of how the Indian Space Program was founded and has developed since 1963.   There is no single narrative that flows from the beginning to the end. Instead this is a compendium of  53 individual articles in 8 sections from 50 different contributors written at different times. This stand-alone chapter approach allows the reader to hop between sections of interest  in any order. The varying styles and the occasional repetition may distract but can also reinforce.

Many of the key individuals who played a central role in the development of the Indian Space program are no longer around, but many are and they have shared their first hand recollections in this pages. Professor UR Rao who lead the team that designed and built ISRO’s first satellite, Kiran Kumar helped develop high resolution imaging system from space, Yash Pal who was present at the start and helped realise Sarabhai’s vision of using space to drive social change and Professor Jacques Blamont who provided the payload for the first rocket launched on 21st November 1963 and sustained the Indo-French collaboration for many years.

This is probably the first book that comprehensively captures the range of ISRO achievements.  Although rockets and satellites get the limelight, the key foundations that enable those developments do not. For example section 6.1. Space and Industry Interface, emphasis the underlying infrastructure with the words “tool design and fabrication is a technology by itself”.  The same chapter details the ISRO’s extensive connections with private Indian industry that have contributed to ISRO’s success.

Although ISRO is a department of the government, several of the writers refer to the “ISRO Culture” as a differentiator that has driven its success. It is has multiple manifestations. The origins of ISRO (as INCOSPAR) and its one page constitution as drafted by Homi Bhabha provided for a streamlined decision making, putting scientists and engineers (rather than politicians and administrators) in charge; Sarabhai vision to engage  international partnership as an initial stepping stone; UR Rao initiated new purchasing processes to bypass government red-tape) to meet tight timelines when building India’s first satellite Aryabhata;  and thousands of bright, dedicated and competent ISRO employees who rolled up their sleeves and took on ambitious goals in the complete absence of infrastructure, resources and experience.

When faced with challenges of building launch vehicles, satellites and the ground infrastructure to support them, getting the job done had the priority. Record keeping for archives did not. ISRO has been particularly slow to recognise this loss for future generations. State secrecy is unnecessarily invoked to limit and prohibit publication. invoked  As happens around the world, the culture of state secrecy is used to hide incompetence or embarrassment rather than legitimate state secrets. Consequently, publications such as this become an important source of information that is not available elsewhere. Both the current and previous ISRO chairmen are to be commended in nurturing and making this book possible.

Bhabha and Sarabhai understood the importance of international collaboration and had the international connections and charisma to invoke engagement. Without the assistance of foreign nations, particularly, the USSR, USA and France India would probably not have its space program in the current form but a mere shadow of what it actually has today. All the contributions are from Indian contributors with the exception of  a special but short contribution from Jacques Blamont from France and an incidental interview transcript of an Arnold Frutkin interview as part of the NASA Oral history program from 2012. It is customary in any book review to identify some shortcomings.  Since international collaboration has been central to ISRO’s progress over the decades, there could have been more international representation. Certainly, the absence of a USSR/Russian contribution is conspicuous. This book would also have been an ideal place to capture more original images perhaps sourced from the private collections of the contributors.

One of Carl Sagan’s many quotes goes like this “In all the history of mankind, there will only one generation that will be first to explore the Solar System”. Here he highlights the chance nature of events that happen for the first time in human history and coincide with our time on earth. Abdul Kalam who played a key role in ISRO  developing India’s first rocket capable of placing a satellite in orbit (SLV-3) died in  July 2015. In January 2016  Vasant Gowariker  who among his many contributions helped develop ISRO’s solid propellent infrastructure. The publication of “From a Fishing Hamlet to the Red Planet: India’s Space Journey” is timely. It is a detailed account from the ever decreasing group of individual who were part of that journey.

Akatsuki – New arrival at Venus

Akatsuki. Credit JAXAWith two active rovers on the surface of Mars and six satellites in orbit, the Human exploration of Mars continues as never before. Two more missions will be leaving Earth for Mars in early 2016. However, the space news of this week that has not received the due global attention is the arrival of the Japanese spacecraft, Akatsuki in Venusian orbit on Monday. Compared to the social media storm of when the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission arrived in Mars in October 2014, Akatsuki’s arrival at Venus has been an unfairly subdued affair.

The highly successful European Venus Express mission came to an end early this year, today Akatsuki is the only active spacecraft in orbit around Venus. At 400 by 440,000km Akatsuki will orbit Venus every two weeks in a highly elliptical orbit. Jaxa engineers plan to tweak the orbit and commission all 6 instruments – 3 of which are already operational.

The story of Akatsuki’s mission to Venus almost mirrored the problematic Nozomi spacecraft to Mars in 1999. Jaxa’s Nozomi spacecraft suffered engine problems and failed to orbit Mars but did fly past it in 2003. Akatsuki, launched in 2010 also suffered engine problems and achieved orbit of Venus only on its second attempt 5 years after launch. Jaxa’s engineers employed some remarkable engineering solutions to achieve this success. Akatsuki will now orbit Venus for a two-year science mission. A more detailed write-up is available at Spaceflight 1010.


Public Talk – The Indian Space Program

Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle

I will be in Keighley, Yorkshire speaking about the Indian Space program operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation – ISRO. I will speak about the its Mars Orbiter mission  has been in Martian orbit  since September 2014. All onboard instruments are returning data and the spacecraft is in good health. Keighley is about 20 […]

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Mars – The new space race?

Mars - The new space race. Liverpool John Moore University.

A fascinating day here at in Liverpool. Some of you asked for copies of the slides – now on here on slideshare. More about The British Interplanetary Society, Manchester and Liverpool’s role in the space race – here.

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Episode 72: Satish Dhawan Space Centre


Located about 80km from Chennai on India’s east coast, Satish Dhawan Space centre is used by ISRO to launch all of its satellites including those to the Moon and Mars. Also known as Sriharikota, it was established during the late 1960s but today it has a vehicle assembly building, two launch pads and a state of the art mission control centre

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Episode 71 – TATA Institute for Fundamental Research

Opening ceremony  in 1954

The Indian Space Program was initiated by a brilliant nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha who pretty much immediately handed over the space program to Vikram Sarabhai. Bhabha himself pursued the goal of bringing institutionalised fundamental research to India. At the time he saw that as essential for the new emerging independent India.

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Images and video from the partial Solar Eclipse 20 March 2015


Some images and short videos of the eclipse recorded from northwest England during a mostly cloudy morning of 20th March 2015. I used a video camera piggy-backed on my driven Vixen 102mm telescope along with a Cannon 550D at the prime focus for a few stills.  A mylar filter was used most of the time […]

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Episode 70 – India’s Deep Space Network and ISRO Satellite Centre

Indian Deep Space Network

India’s space program is now over half a century old. During this time its Infrastructure has evolved. This episode looks at the current communication capabilities used to support space vehicles during launch, in Earth orbit or on a interplanetary missions. ISRO has an extensive network of ground stations on the Indian mainland, off-shore and neighbouring countries […]

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ISRO’s updated website – an overview

Space technology in service of Human kind_21Dec2014

On 21st December 2014 ISRO updated its website ( duplicated at  Even over the first few days after the update there have been additional minor updates so some of the screen dumps below may not precisely match what you may see. Although there are still some shortcomings, the new clean, fresh user interface offers simpler navigation […]

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Book Review – India’s Rise as a Space Power

Indias Rise as a Space Power

Title: India’s Rise as a Space Power Publisher: Cambridge University Press, India Pvt Ltd Author: U.R Rao ISBN-10: 9382993487 ISBN-13: 978-9382993483 In the April of 1971, the USSR approached India and offered to launch an Indian satellite. Vikram Sarabhai asked UR Rao to develop and lead the program. In December 1971 Sarabhai died. Perhaps it […]

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