Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

10.6 From India to the Moon: Madhavan Nair (& Vikram Sarabhai)

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Will this be the next flag we see on the moon?

Will the next person who lands on the moon plant this flag?

The division between astronomy and spaceflight is somewhat arbitrary, considering the astronomical observatories such as Hubble, Sptizer, Chandra-X and the soon-to-be-launched Webb space telescope. For that reason, I hope you’ll give me some license in discussing the following pioneers of the space industry within the context of what is supposed to be an astronomy blog.

Vikram Sarabhai was to the Indian space program what Werner von Braun and Robert H. Goddard were to NASA–that is, an early pioneer in the emerging technical field of rocketry. Although largely unknown in the West, Dr. Sarabhai was the key instigator in the 1960s of all modern Indian space research, for which the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (India’s main research & development establishment) was posthumously named after his death in 1971.

Vikram Sarabhai, father of the Indian national space program

Vikram Sarabhai, father of the Indian space research

Alhough Dr. Sarabhai is remembered as being the founding father of India’s space research institutes, he was also a strong believer in people.  It is for this reason that he’s being discussed here–because his motivation for space research was not purely scientific, but was based upon a broad belief that by developing satellite technology India could spread knowledge and education even to the furthest reaches of remote Indian villages.

Although he died before that vision could be fully realized, today we can see India’s rapidly developing technological infrastructure as a testament to his grand goals and ideals. However, without belittling Dr. Sarabhai’s achievements, he is not the Indian space pioneer who I really want to discuss today.  That honor falls to Madhavan Nair.

Madhavan Nair, architect of India's moon aspirations

Madhavan Nair, architect of India's Chandrayaan moon program

What is interesting about Madhavan Nair is that he’s not a professor and does not hold a doctorate; he is a big “E” Engineer in the truest sense of the word–his technical background is in rocket engine design, and he was recruited into the space industry straight from his bachelors degree.  And although he was never actually mentored by Dr. Sarabhai (well, not as far as I know anyway), Nair has been the person largely responsible for the realization of India’s satellite program and implementation of Dr. Sarabhai’s vision.  Indeed, Nair is now head of the ISRO–the Indian Space Research Organization (founded by Sarabhai.)

And under Nair’s leadership, India has begun its first steps towards a moon landing: Chandrayaan-1, which launched in October 2008, is the first in a series of lunar missions planned by ISRO.  The probe is currently in orbit around the moon, performing a two year mission surveying the lunar surface in more detail than any previous international effort, and includes NASA payload scanning for ice and minerals that might be useful to future manned missions.

Chandrayaan-1 liftoff

Chandrayaan-1 liftoff

It’s probably most famous as “the probe that proved NASA landed on the moon”–at least if you believe the tabloids.  But actually, although Chandrayaan-1 overflew and photographed the Apollo landing sites late last year, its camera resolution is not sufficient to actually see Eagle and the other lunar landers–so it’s not quite time to debunk the conspiracy theorists yet!  

But no doubt that time will come:  Nair and ISRO have much grander designs for future missions, including a manned moon landing by 2020.  For now, however, the immediate plans are to build Chandrayaan-II, a research mission to land a rover on the moon for automated mineral prospecting.

So the race for space is certainly hotting up again, but this time driven by the frontiers of new research and the ambition of emerging superpowers.  The U.S. and Russia are no longer the only players in the game:  China has made it’s stake clear.  And thanks to the help of visionaries like Nair (and Sarabhai), India may well be the next force to be reckoned with.


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