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The men behind Mangalyaan

Sample this: One of the key members of India’s mission to Mars had planned an elaborate do on the 80th birthday of his father, but called it off at the eleventh hour and stayed back with his team to monitor the crucial test of the motor onboard the Orbiter on Monday. Another engineer, who would otherwise have ignored a toothache, rushed to his dentist just to make sure that it does not bother him during the crucial operation on Wednesday when Mangalyaan will arrive at its orbit around the Red Planet. Their boss has turned a loner, shunning family responsibilities to race between various facilities of ISRO in Bengaluru for series of briefings.

Such is the dedication of these self-effacing space scientists and engineers, and factoring in the amount of effort that they have put in before and after the launch of the orbiter, they are brimming with confidence about its glide into an orbit around Mars.  

From day one, Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman, ISRO, has chaired a slew of meetings, first to pour over a report which suggested that the organization could reach Mars, then to drive ‘Team Isro’ design, assemble, test and launch the Orbiter in just 15 months- a mission that was a first for everybody. He often spoke of the challenges involved—right from the word go to the long cruise of the Orbiter (almost ten months) through outer space to reach Mars. And, to make sure that it snags en route did not ruin their effort, he ensured that the Orbiter was designed in such a manner that it could switch over to a safe mode in case of a glitch. All this only to demonstrate that the organization has the know-how to launch an Orbiter to the Red Planet!  A Carnatic music and Kathakali enthusiast, Dr. Radhakrishnan plans to pursue his hobbies, post retirement in December 2014.  

Team Isro has designed, assembled, tested and launched the Mars Orbiter in just 15 months – a mission that was a first for everybody

For, Dr. S. K. Shivakumar, Director of ISRO’s Satellite Centre (ISAC), Bengaluru, where the Orbiter was assembled, the schedule was hectic as he had to ensure that his team delivers the probe by September-end 2013. “They did a fantastic job because the project was formally approved in August 2012, and they had to meet the deadline working 24x7 and without breaks,” he said. He was a key member of Chandrayaan-I, but was tracking that mission as Director of ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC), Bengaluru. An alumni of Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, he joined ISRO first at Sriharikota Range and then moved to ISTRAC. “My daughters used to complain that Papa has no time for the family, so both of them chose not to pursue a career in space though they are engineers,” he said while explaining how he could not spare much time for his kin. An avid reader of Kannada novels, Dr. Shivakumar manages to read them while shuttling between meetings.

And for Dr. Mylswamy Annadurai, programme director, Mars Orbiter Mission, who played a key role as project director of Chandrayaan-I, confidence that the probe would reach the Red Planet stems for his philosophy that one should be thorough about any subject before writing an examination. The amount of effort put in while designing and testing the Orbiter and the fact that it has been programmed to switch to a safe mode in case of a snag has given him confidence that the mission will be a success though it is the first shot at Mars. Like Dr. Shivakumar’s daughters, his son too passed out as an engineer but chose not to take after his father because of such a trying schedule at ISRO. On odd days when he manages to get home early, Dr. Annadurai reads Tamil literature and writes about science and technology in Tamil magazines.

Among these key members, Dr. Subbaiah Arunan, project director, Mars Orbiter Mission, who rushed home only for a bath and pooja when the probe was being assembled, those late hours at ISAC were worth the effort as he admits “I am living a dream.” The experience he gained while working on propulsion systems at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) and Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) has come in handy while designing such systems for the Orbiter at ISAC. He was inspired by his brother-in-law turned father-in-law and well known space scientist Dr. Nambi Narayanan to take up a career in space technology. “It was like running a relay race, but we planned everything well and kept monitoring the progress so that we could deliver the spacecraft on time,” he recalled while explaining how they managed to get the Orbiter ready in record time.

An avid reader of P G Wodehouse’s books, he admits that he picked up sarcasm thanks to his vast collection of these books. Ken Follett is his other favourite author, but when books of either of these authors are not on hand, Dr. Arunan loves a rush of adrenalin by watching movies of the late M. G. Ramachandran or those packed with action!  

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