Launching a satellite into space on a rocket, to solve mankind’s problems. Not too long ago, this was the reserve of science fiction. When it came true, it was restricted to the first-world countries. It was incredibly foresighted of India’s statesmen to see the benefit of this infrastructure and empower our scientists to go down this path.
The results are there to see today. ISRO has changed the very perception of India in the world, and of Indians about themselves. With every success—launching record numbers of satellites, reaching the moon, landing on Mars, and creating ever more capable launch vehicles—we citizens feel we’ve arrived. The scientists responsible for these awe-inspiring advances are held in high esteem in India. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to hero-worship without a deep understanding of what goes into the hero.
Which is why My Odyssey, by Dr K Radhakrishnan, is such a welcome insider’s look into ISRO and the world of Indian space research.
Dr Radhakrishnan began his career with ISRO in the 1970s. He moved on to other scientific departments through his career, finally returning to ISRO and becoming its chairman from 2009 to 2014. In between, he was involved in the various remote-sensing programmes, launch vehicle programmes, deep-sea sensing, and others. In short, this is a man who has seen the workings of successful government science programmes up close. His ringside view is invaluable.
All the more so, because under his stewardship were two of the most fascinating missions completed by ISRO: Chandrayaan, the moon mission, and MOM, the Mars mission. In fact, the sections describing these missions are the best parts of the book and read like a thriller. The book explains all the complicated terminology and its significance to the missions: cryogenics, launch windows, boosters, and so on.
But there is more to the book than just these missions. First, Radhakrishnan tells the story of his own life in some detail. Starting from a small town in Kerala, going on to school and college, and then various governmental scientific agencies, he takes on larger and larger responsibilities as he grows in stature. His story could be that of most technocrats in India, and their stories have not been told enough. The unsung technocrats of India have made a far-reaching difference to the lives of the common man through their work. In supercomputers, in remote sensing, communications technology, Internet, logistics, or space, these advances have come about so quietly that they were unnoticed until much later.
The second facet to the book is the huge network of scientific organisations that Radhakrishnan interacts with in his career. These, too, are not well known enough outside their field of work. ISRO is a bit of an exception, as Radhakrishnan himself explains, because of its social outreach arm and a conscious focus on improving public visibility. Most others work in relative anonymity, and this book is a revelation in how this multitude of organisations work with each other in planning and achieving their objectives.
It would be wrong to judge this book purely on literary merit. The fact that it exists, and the fact that it provides a clear-eyed look at such an important facet of Indian technology, is a commendable achievement. May there be many more!