An Impassioned Design To Reach The Final Frontier: Catching Up Prof. V. Adimurthy On Board!

An Impassioned Design To Reach The Final Frontier: Catching Up Prof. V. Adimurthy On Board!

Tanaya Sahoo | Oct 14, 2019

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On 5th November 2013, India created history with the launch of the Mars Orbiter, Mangalyaan that eventually placed India among the elite group of nations that could achieve a remarkable feat of reaching Mars. On 22nd, July 2019, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its 3-in-1 indigenous mission, Chandrayaan-2 comprising of a lander named Vikram, a rover named Pragyaan and an orbiter that yet again resounded India’s ever-strengthening foothold in space exploration and technology advancement.

While India and the world watched India’s ambitions materialise, a dedicated class of scientists, engineers and researchers put together these shreds of a nation’s dream, strived silently and cracked complex manoeuvres to finally give shape to success. One of them was Padma Shri, Prof. V. Adimurthy, the mission concept Designer for The Mars orbiter mission and the Chandrayaan missions. Prof. Adimurthy currently holds the post of Dean, Research and Development in the Indian Institute of Space science and Technology after a dedicated scientific career in Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). On his visit to NIT Rourkela to deliver a guest lecture on 20th September on the occasion of commemorating Vikram Sarabhai’s 150th anniversary, Monday Morning caught up with Prof. Adimurthy for a candid talk about India’s space exploration that he pursues so passionately and himself. Excerpts:

Monday Morning (MM): You dedicated your life to India’s space research and development and were closely associated with its ambitious missions for so long. What inspired you to pursue this? What was your childhood like?

Prof. Adimurthy: I wanted to become what I am now since my childhood. When I finished schooling in the 60s, that was a time when space exploration was surfacing. Sputnik was launched then. So, we, as kids found an interest in the school itself to know and understand what was happening. We read fascinating books that were written on this subject particularly the vernacular texts and encyclopaedias on science and space that piqued a 14-15-year-old’s imagination. I remember I used to make money from home without asking anyone to buy these books (giggles). I recall writing an essay, I and Galileo, in the school magazine about a spaceship that could time travel to Galileo’s time and my encounter with him. That was when it all started. And interestingly, today scientists do talk about the possibility of time travel in future. It isn’t against any physical law. Upon finishing school at 15, I pursued my post-graduation in aerospace. My parents did want me to become IAS or anything of that sort and kept nagging even after I completed my masters and started working at ISRO. Yet, I had a conviction that I wasn’t tailored for that kind of life, I enjoyed science. So, now its been almost half a century here!

Prof. Adimurthy worked with the late Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam while the latter was the project director. Recounting his privilege to have worked with one of India’s greatest pioneers, he recalls those initial days when India’s first rocket parts were carried on bullock carts and cycles to be assembled,

It was really fascinating to have worked alongside him. Knowledge on this subject wasn’t easily available. Although other countries had it, we had to keep rediscovering and depend on our own intellectual investigations and solutions. We didn’t copy. We developed our own systems. This is what I had always wanted to become.

MM: Since your association with ISRO from 1973, how would you say ISRO has evolved? What challenges marked this evolution?

Prof. Adimurthy: Today we are celebration Vikram Sarabhai’s 150th anniversary. Unlike some other space programs that have different ambitions, our ambition has always been that the benefits of space exploration should reach the common man. That is one of our underlying principles on which we work. Initially, we struggled to make a simple rocket. I was involved in its designing and worked alongside a talented team. Our first launching vehicle was designed at that time. Before that, we had sounding rockets.

The first launch that happened in 1979 wasn’t a success. But Dr Kalam took a positive direction hence. He was optimistic about how our 32 out of 34 systems worked. Within a year we could sort out the issues and so even today I emphasised in my lecture that, “we learn most from our failures”. If you get a string of successes then something is definitely wrong. Learning isn’t complete without making errors. That is the same with ISRO over all these years. We dedicated ourselves to learn from our mistakes. We understood complex systems that need to interact in space. Be it communication, mechanical engineering, structural engineering, navigation and propulsion or aerodynamics, all are intertwined. We studied these complex mechanisms step by step and understood these processes. The result- Now we do not depend on others to make our systems. We design our own satellites and can launch them on our own. That was a time when our first orbiter could carry 40 kg payload for 400 km, today we launch more than 4 tonnes of payload in geosynchronous orbit. The interesting catch is you can’t buy technology, you can buy only operational resources, technology is something you develop. So, our arc from sounding rockets to 40 kgs payload in lower orbit to 4 tonnes in geosynchronous orbit has been spectacular. The success of the Mars mission and Chandrayaan missions are true to our efforts and our own indigenous development that we optimised. PSLV took us to the moon and the same but optimised PSLV took us to Mars.

MM: As the Mission Concept Designer of the Mars orbiter and Chandrayaan missions, what was the idea you had behind its complex conceptualization? What were the challenges you faced to materialize it?

Prof. Adimurthy: The innovative feature about the design revolves around our limited launch capability. PSLV and GSLV have limited launching abilities. Therefore, we conceptualized a trajectory that instead of taking a straight path, we will do the propulsion manoeuvres only at the periapsis. When we do the perigee propulsion ellipses, we get the benefit of the Oberth effect. So, at the periapsis, when the velocity is high and we get more kinetic energy following which we get higher orbits. Instead of giving one-shot that might result in loss, we give several shots at the periapsis to increase orbits step by step. This was the uniqueness of Mars Mission. Similar designs were used in both the Chandrayaan missions.

MM: What were the fundamental objectives that we set off to accomplish with both our orbiters?

Prof. Adimurthy: We have technologies for scientific research and our objective is to convert it to help mankind. One of the important aspects of our missions is to weigh the science we already know and what new science we can know. We took a challenge for our Chandrayaan 1 missions to make its impact on a south pole that was not much explored. So, to accomplish scientific objectives we focus on those objectives that are not well known but well established. We develop instrumentations and designs to cater to our knowledge in such areas.

MM: What were the initial hiccups the team faced for the missions considering that we have low budgets for such high-ended missions unlike some countries like the US or Russia?

Prof. Adimurthy: Aside from the budgetary challenges, I will talk about the technological challenges. One of the things that required a lot of simulations and tests is to handle the retro-propulsion during soft landing. The retro-propulsion has to be in such a way that reduces velocity while the lander falls. The jets had to be fired in a way that the dust that is raised from the surface during impact shouldn’t spoil the instrumentations. Therefore, the design had to be intact to make do with.  

MM: Now that you are also associated with the educational aspect of space research and development, what is your take on the curriculum we preach in our country so far? What roadmap do you suggest to make it more robust?

Prof. Adimurthy: We shouldn’t isolate science. Science is a facet of society. It is required. Humanities is required. Literature is required. So is the arts. That’s how we learn. In a nutshell, there is something called the scientific spirit that helps us to reason and we require learning to function. This applies to social sciences, biological or physical sciences or engineering sciences. We need to inculcate this scientific spirit. As teachers, our job is to apply scientific minds to all domains. We should look forward to creating an educational system that raises all these domains equally.

MM: Since now you are a Dean at IIST, there must be a shift from full-fledged scientific research to academia. How do you describe this shift?

Prof. Adimurthy: There isn’t a complete shift. Right from the beginning, we do not blindly follow something just given to us. Academic investigations are therefore a part and parcel of our development process. I was a humble fellow from my early days of learning in the 1970s and tried to be so through my career at VSSC. While working on designs for SLV-3, PSLV we did our research to develop our own methods and that academic component helped us. So, research and academia can’t be separated into two different entities. We encourage and specially select graduates to pursue careers in this field. And to accomplish this, a healthy academic interaction is also essential on wide platforms where the academic communities gather.

MM: We have collaborated with other esteemed space organisations at times. What makes our research and indigenous developments stand out from what they have right now?

Prof. Adimurthy: We stand out because of the history of our developments. Theirs is different. We are starting from scratch. If we have that huge monetary resources then we can even buy the biggest vehicle available but developing technology on our own leads us to a better understanding of what we have set off to achieve. Many a time we are not given what we wanted to buy or what we have sought, I take it as a blessing in disguise because this way we are forced to develop what we need (Necessity is the mother of invention). We could have bought our cryogenic technologies but there were problems so we developed our own cryogenic technology.

As an instance of this, he talks about our collaboration with the Russians to develop the rover in the Chandrayaan-2 mission. Technical difficulties led to the Russians pulling out. This led ISRO to develop our own indigenous rover, Pragyaan. Unfortunately, Pragyaan never saw the light of the day on the moon surface following communication loss with the Vikram lander.

While we were at the interview, ISRO was still trying to establish communication with the Vikram lander. On asked about if he could shed light as to what went wrong during the descent, Prof. Adimurthy said,

Prof. Adimurthy: We cannot say anything final as of now. Data analysis and investigations are still underway. Something definitely went wrong, that cannot be denied. Instead of velocity reduction, the orientations deflected and this added to the velocity instead of reducing but the precise cause is still being investigated.


Prof. Adimurthy: If at all we fail to establish communication, we know that we tried to work on the slightest possibility. We keep that faintest ray of hope that something might work in our favour. There is a probability. What next is that we work on the cause and there any secret embedded that led to this situation.  So, we get ready to curb these uncertainties in our next missions.

MM: What is your take on privatisation in space race like SpaceX and other organisations coming up to participate?

Prof. Adimurthy: I think there is a huge prospect because there are swarms of scientists and engineers working on this. This leads to a collaboration of their creative minds and our ideas coming together and works for a similar goal, in different ways maybe. Once the processes are established, there is a necessity for industrial activity. The is a need for industrial development here as far as our requirement and specifications are concerned.

MM: In the purview of this, what is the scope of a partnership between government and private sector? Is ISRO open to such a partnership?

Prof. Adimurthy: Today we have a model to develop innovations and advanced technologies. Once that is stabilized, we go for the industrial prospect. If we have ideas coming from outside then we can certainly absorb that. That is the future! We have achieved unthinkable feats. We have future possibilities opening up. Now that we are already working on Gaganyaaan (India’s manned mission), this will require sustainable developmental work to create habitable places for a man to live and work and we have to lay the foundation for our future generations to work. That’s the indication. Generations ago, civilizations were localized, the Indus valley or the Nile etc but now we have globalization. So, it is likely that when we are thinking of establishing habitats in other planets, establishing connections and collaborations would be plausible.

MM: Please shed some light on our progress with the Gaganyaan mission.

Prof. Adimurthy: Gaganyaan mission’s speciality is that we are now introduced to work on the human factor here. A mission like this should have no room for error. The reliability of technology has to be of the highest order because not only we have to launch humans we also have to bring them home safely (beams). So, this reliability aspect will be the pivot of our system design. The training of the astronauts is also very crucial. We already have selections. Since training facilities aren’t fully established here, we will be taking help from outside.

MM: To wind up, how has been your experience visiting NIT Rourkela?

Prof. Adimurthy: I will first talk about the campus. The first thing in the morning I did is to went around the campus. I was amazed by the vastness of space and the greenery around here. I happened to interact with students and witnessed a large number of programmes and competitions here that also had local schools participating. This shows how enthusiastic children are regarding such subjects. This is a satisfactory feeling I get when I visit eminent institutions of the country. I am sure the future is in great hands!

On asked about what would lead students to get inspired to pursue a career in space research, Prof. Adimurthy said

I don’t want to inspire people to get into scientific research. I want people to imbibe the scientific spirit in any domain they work and once that happens eventually, space research would also develop. This harmonious balance will benefit our society and individuals. I certainly have a message for students like you, Enjoy your work! Once you do that you can enjoy life. If you are fascinated by space like me, then work here because space is very interesting. Stars and planets and everything related to it will make you know about them more. You will keep questioning what they are. The unknown inspires us, so enjoy and don’t be perturbed by impediments!

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