Unsung hero of moon mission is sad but forgiving

By K.S. Jayaraman, IANS,

Bangalore : In the nine months India’s Chandrayaan-1 has been circling the moon everyone connected with it has been awarded, rewarded or interviewed on TV, except the scientist whose pioneering work in liquid propulsion was pivotal to the mission’s success. Perhaps it had something to do with the false spying charges under which he was arrested in 1994.

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It may seem odd but Nambi Narayanan who introduced the liquid fuel rocket technology in India was ignored not only by the media but also by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that he served for over three decades.

In the early 1970s while A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s team worked on solid motors — that have uses in military missiles — Narayanan was the one who foresaw the need for liquid fuelled engines for ISRO’s future civilian space programmes.

Starting from scratch — and encouraged by then ISRO chairman Satish Dhawan and his successor U.R. Rao — Narayanan worked on liquid propellant motors, first building and successfully testing a 600-kg thrust engine in the mid-1970s and moving on to bigger engines.

After nearly two decades of work and with assistance from France he led his team to develop the Vikas engine used today by all ISRO rockets including the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that took Chandrayaan-1 to the moon on Oct 22, 2008.

The Vikas engine is employed as the second stage of PSLV and as the second and the four strap-on stages of Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

While the nation cheered Chandrayaan-1 and the government showered awards on several ISRO scientists, Narayanan’s contribution was not mentioned even in passing by ISRO whose future projects to put a man in orbit, or land on the moon, rely on the liquid engines that Narayanan helped develop.

“I am very happy Chandrayaan-1 is a success,” the unassuming scientist told IANS, displaying no grudge against ISRO despite being sidelined. “I am only sad that not one senior ISRO official acknowledged in public my contribution to the moon mission.”

Narayanan will be happy to know that in private, however, his work is recognised within the ISRO community including its current chairman Madhavan Nair. “It was Nambi (Narayanan) who got the liquid propulsion test facility established (in Mahendragiri) and he indeed played a key role in Vikas engines used in our rockets,” Nair told IANS.

ISRO sources admit Narayanan would have been projected as one of the heroes of Chandrayaan-1 had he not been falsely accused as a spy by the Kerala police in November 1994 leading to his suspension from his job as head of ISRO’s liquid propulsion centre and director of the just launched indigenous cryogenic engine project.

The charges were dismissed as phony by the Central Bureau of Investigation in May 1996 and by the Supreme Court in April 1998. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in September 1999 passed strictures against the government of Kerala for having “tarnished (Narayanan’s) long and distinguished career in space research apart from the physical and mental torture to which he and his family were subjected.”

Narayanan, who spent 50 days in jail “for a crime I did not commit”, says his main complaint against ISRO is that it dropped him like a hot potato instead of coming to his rescue.

“It is unfair to say that,” Madhavan Nair told IANS. “No organisation would have supported Narayanan like ISRO did.”

Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, who was ISRO chairman when Narayanan was arrested, said ISRO could not interfere in a legal matter. “Once the court cleared Narayanan I reinstated him,” he said.

But Narayanan says he was given a desk job and not allowed to return to his work on indigenous cryogenic engine till his retirement in 2001. “By doing so the work on this project got delayed by at least five years,” he says.

Instead of joining his colleagues in celebrating the moon mission, the unsung hero of Chandrayaan-1 is now fighting court cases to get from the state government the Rs.1 million “interim relief” that the NHRC ordered to be paid, and the Rs.10 million in damages he had claimed from the state and central government.

“Borrowing money to fight the cases at my age is not a small joke,” he says, adding that the cases have been dragging on for nearly ten years.

Narayanan says he will get the money sooner or later and that is not important. “All I want is that somebody at the level of ISRO chairman should acknowledge the truth about my contribution to the development of liquid engines with which ISRO is flying (its rockets) today. They should say this in a public forum.”

(K. S. Jayaraman can be contacted at [email protected])