U.R. Rao

Satellite man

Print edition : August 18, 2017

Prof. U.R. RAO with a model of Aryabhata at his office in the ISRO headquarters in Bengaluru. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Receiving the Padma Vibhushan from President Pranab Mukherjee on March 30. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Prof. U.R. Rao (1932-2017) was the architect of Aryabhata, the first satellite that India built, and a key figure in ISRO’s rise to international recognition.

IT was so typical of Udupi Ramachandra Rao, forever accessible to the press and willing to explain the benefits accruing to the common man from India’s space programme. Once, when Prof. Rao was Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), he was staying in a hotel on a visit to Chennai and this reporter went to meet him. As a “Do not disturb” sign was hanging on the door of his room, he waited in the lobby, and it was a couple of hours before Prof. Rao met him. “You could have knocked on my door. I was not sleeping. Why did you wait for so long?’ he asked this reporter. Prof. Rao then spoke to him for about 20 minutes on how the Indian remote sensing satellites (IRSs) built by ISRO were bringing about a revolution in India—in assessing crop yield, in finding out how soil is becoming acidic because of excessive use of fertilizer, in predicting pestilence in crops, in determining whether enough water will flow in the rivers depending on snow-melt in the Himalayan range, in helping fishermen locate the best areas to fish in the sea, in warning about deforestation, in helping city planners to lay ring roads through thinly populated areas, and so on. It was a joy to listen to him as he held forth in simple English devoid of technical jargon, revealing himself to be a communicator par excellence.

When Prof. Rao died at his residence in Bengaluru on July 24, 2017, at the age of 85, there were thousands of his admirers and ISRO staff, including satellite builders, launch vehicle technologists and tradesmen, mourning him. He is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.

Prof. Rao was a visionary who led ISRO for 10 years as its Chairman, from 1984 to 1994. He pioneered India’s quest to build satellites on its own and was the founder of the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bengaluru, where India’s sophisticated satellites are built. He was the architect of Aryabhata, the very first satellite that India built in an “incredible” time frame of 30 months in “tin sheds” at Peenya, Bengaluru. On April 19, 1975, the Soviet Union launched the 360-kilogram satellite with its Intercosmos rocket from the Volgograd spaceport at Kapustin-Yar. It had three payloads for conducting experiments in X-ray astronomy, aeronomy and solar physics.

During the silver jubilee celebrations of the launch of Aryabhata in 2000, K. Kasturirangan, then the ISRO Chairman and an important member of the Aryabhata project team, said in an interview to Frontline: “Prof. Rao, in his characteristic manner and dynamism, pushed the [Aryabhata] programme towards the ambitious goal. He used every little capability, anywhere available to reach the goal. It was two years of packed activity, design development and testing of a prototype, then the actual flight model, and finally even a standby model which was part of the Soviet philosophy for space flights.”

After Aryabhata, ISRO quickly emerged as one of the world leaders in building satellites for different applications. Under Prof. Rao’s leadership, ISRO went on to build the earth observation satellites Bhaskara-1 and 2; the Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE), which was a communication satellite; and a series of IRSs. When he was ISAC Director, more than 18 satellites were designed under his guidance and put into orbit to be used for communication, remote sensing and meteorology. “Our IRSs are as good as the French SPOT and the European Landsat. Our IRSs are among the best in the world,” Prof. Rao once told this reporter.

Today, ISAC builds satellites used for communication, remote sensing, meteorology, education, navigation, ocean studies, surveillance, and so on. Besides these application-satellites, which bring benefits to common people, ISAC has also built spacecraft for scientific missions such as the highly successful Chandrayaan and the orbiter to Mars.

For a boy coming from Adamaru, a small village near Udupi, Prof. Rao had a spectacular career. He won countless awards and was the first Indian space scientist to be inducted into the highly prestigious “Satellite Hall of Fame” in the United States, in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 2013. He was also the first Indian space scientist to be inducted into the “IAF Hall of Fame” at Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2016. Testimony to his organisational skills was the International Astronautical Federation’s (IAF) Congress held in Bengaluru in October 1988, which attracted a few thousand delegates, the top brass from the space agencies of the U.S., Russia, France, Germany and Japan, and astronauts from the U.S. He received the Eduard Dolezal Award in 2000, which is given by the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, in recognition of his contribution to the development and application of photogrammetry, remote sensing and geographical information systems. More than 25 universities conferred the Honoris Causa on him. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2017.

Born on March 10, 1932, to Lakshminarayana Acharya, a small farmer, and Krishnaveni Amma, he did his schooling in Udupi and his intermediate course in Bellary. After graduating in science from the Government Arts and Science College in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, he went to the Benaras Hindu University, Benaras, on a scholarship for his postgraduate degree in physics. He joined the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, founded by Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme. Prof. Rao obtained his PhD in cosmic ray physics from Gujarat University in 1960 under the guidance of Sarabhai, whom he hero-worshipped. At PRL he also came under the influence of the noted physicist K.R. Ramanathan. In 1961, he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral research fellow. He worked on cosmic rays’ modulation and on investigating the properties of solar winds and their effects on the geomagnetic field, using data from the Mariner-2 spacecraft. He joined the Southwest Centre for Advanced Studies, Dallas, now called Texas University, as an assistant professor in 1963, where he continued his research in cosmic ray physics.

In 1984, Satish Dhawan, ISRO Chairman, hand-picked Prof. Rao, then ISAC Director, to become ISRO Chairman. He faced failures and massive challenges at the helm in ISRO. He accelerated the development of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), but the first two missions—on March 24, 1987, and July 13, 1988—failed. The first Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) flight, in 1993, also failed. (The PSLV has since turned out to be a huge success, with 39 successful flights in a row.)

There was more bad news in 1993. Russia, under U.S. pressure, reneged on its commitment to transfer cryogenic technology to India. Prof. Rao also faced criticism that he did not take a quick decision on ISRO developing cryogenic technology on its own. He first went shopping to the U.S. and France, but they quoted high prices. Finally, India approached Russia and it agreed to sell cryogenic stages and transfer cryogenic technology to India for putting communication satellites into geostationary transfer orbit. But Russian President Boris Yeltsin somersaulted under pressure from U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russia declined to transfer the technology to India.

Failure breeds success

In his interview to Frontline in May 2000 on the occasion of the silver jubilee of the Aryabhata mission, Prof. Rao said: “Our database for real rockets came with the ASLV, not the SLV-3s. It was the failure of ASLV-2 that taught us real rocketry. ASLV-1 failed because of some ignition problem. In the ASLV-2 flight, everything went well and yet the rocket broke [into pieces]. We knew that it was not aerodynamically stable. Its length-to-diameter ratio was very bad. It was an unstable vehicle. It taught us everything. We created a database.

“The ASLVs made us test everything—the closed loop guidance system, the bulbous heat shield—that was needed for the PSLV, which was to be an operational vehicle. This got reflected in the PSLV series, and you will see the total difference.

“The ASLV-3 and the PSLVs were all successes. Everything went all right. The Russian Proton vehicle had eight to 10 failures before it was operationalised” ( Frontline, June 23, 2000).

It is in the building of Aryabhata that Prof. Rao showed his mettle. Sarabhai, as ISRO Chairman, handpicked Prof. Rao to head the project. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had launched satellites for communication and earth observation. Sarabhai wanted ISRO scientists and engineers, too, to “get cracking” on developing a satellite on their own. The plan was to build a small satellite and use the U.S.’ Scout rocket to put it into orbit. The Soviet Union somehow sensed this and made India an offer: The Soviet Academy of Sciences would provide a rocket to put India’s satellite into orbit, free of cost. Soon, a project team that included Kasturirangan, P.S. Goel, V. Jayaraman and K.R. Sridharamurthy was formed to build Aryabhata. Its primary objective was to establish indigenous capability to build satellites. The project suffered a big setback when Sarabhai died in December 1971. M.G.K. Menon became interim Chairman of ISRO and the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was briefed on the project’s cost.

There were three candidate cities for building the satellite: Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Thiruvananthapuram. Bengaluru was chosen because Bharat Electronics Ltd and aeronautical establishments were located there. But Prof. Rao did not know whom to meet in Bengaluru (he was based in Ahmedabad, where the PRL was located). He scanned the Bengaluru telephone directory and called Satish Chandra, then Industries Secretary, Karnataka. Prof. Rao introduced himself as a professor from the PRL and explained the purpose of his call. Chandra took Prof. Rao around Peenya, where sheds were being built. Prof. Rao immediately decided on Peenya as the location and even chose two industrial sheds initially. This was eventually expanded to 20 sheds.

Prof. Rao said: “As soon as the sheds were ready, we had to create clean rooms. The electronics laboratories were so good that everybody wanted to come and see how they were built. The first thermo-vacuum chamber was built by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Electronics Corporation of India Limited.... We knew precisely how to go about it. We had to have the first satellite which was an experimental satellite, learn the technology, understand the basics and move fast. So when we were building Aryabhata, we were already thinking of modifying the control systems. We wanted to build a camera for remote sensing. So we built Bhaskara-I and Bhaskara-II.”

In essence, the satellite- and rocket-building programme of ISRO is entwined with the life story of Prof. Rao. His contribution to India’s rise as a world leader in building different types of satellites and putting them in various orbits using its own launch vehicles is immense.

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