The resounding success of the Indian space programme, particularly the lunar mission, Chandrayaan, and the Mars Orbiter Mission in recent years, has made the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) a household name. After every successful launch, stories about the ‘humble’ beginnings of India’s foray into space are written, accompanied invariably with a picture of a man cycling around with a rocket cone on the carrier in the Thumba rocket launching station in Kerala. That cycling man is rocket scientist C.R. Sathya, and it was shot by the great Henri Cartier-Bresson in the formative years of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). The only mode of moving around the vast range then was by cycle, and rocket parts were carried on cycles or bullock carts, as revealed in this book by pioneering space scientist Ramabhadran Aravamudan, along with his journalist-wife Gita Aravamudan.
Another picture that went viral around the time A.P.J. Abdul Kalam became president shows him crouched on the floor, trying to fix a rocket payload with another colleague, who is shirtless. This picture was also shot by Cartier-Bresson in the church building from where TERLS labs operated, and the man in vests is Aravamudan. “We had no fans, let alone air-conditioning. It was so unbearably hot that I had removed my shirt. Kalam was getting anxious as the wretched payload unit would not sit properly.... Neither of us bothered about the old man with the camera who had wandered in....,” Aravamudan recalls in the book. Someone like Aravamudan, who was handpicked by Vikram Sarabhai even before Thumba became a rocket launching site, is clearly well placed to tell such stories. The personal history of ISRO penned by this great scientist takes readers on a gripping journey of India’s space programme from day one in 1962, when ISRO was just a spark in the mind of Sarabhai.