Broadcast 3252 Gurbir Singh -- This program is confirmed & will be on time!

13 Jan 2019 Gurbir Singh
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Guest:  Gurbir Singh;  Topics:  A thorough discussion of the Indian space program past, present, and future. Our guest also discussed his excellent boo, "The Indian Space Program."

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Welcome to our one segment two hour 13 minute discussion.  This was a very thorough discussion of the Indian space program from past to present and on to the future.  Our guest documented the history, the founders of the program, he described the centers throughout India for space activities with a focus on the four major centers which are part of the ISRO and more.  To help with this summary, I asked our guest to provide me the main people's names that he discussed in the program and a brief history of what he talked about, plus I asked for geographical information for the four major ISRO centers that Gurbir referenced.  I've decided to insert Gurbir' s document in this summary rather than my doing a brief summary on what he said as I believe it is important to follow what our guest had to say about India, space, the ISRO and more.  Also, the summary follows our discussion so it will be in order and in the proper context for our discussion

" Homi Bhabha (1909-1966) studied at University of Cambridge in England. The Cavendish laboratory (in that university) was at the centre of research in atomic physics leading to several Nobel prizes between 1927 and 1937. He went on to establish the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai and also established led India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Following the remarkable success of Gagarin and Shepard, many countries around the world were drawn to the potential of space. Bhabha got the go ahead from the government to setup established INCOSPAR (Indian Committee for Space Research) in 1962 and Bhabha selected Vikram Sarabhai to lead it.

Vikram Sarabhai (1919–1971) had also studied at Cambridge arriving in England in 1937, he returned hastily to India in 1939 at the outbreak of WW2. He continued his PhD studies in India and came back to England  for his viva in 1948.

Following, the sudden death of Homi Bhabha in an air crash in 1966, Sarabhai took over Bhabha’s role in leading the AEC and INCOSPAR.  Sarabhai established India’s sounding rocket launch site called Thumba in the southern state of Kerala. It was from Thumba where India’s first (sub orbital) launch of the Nike-Apache rocket took place on 21st  November 1963.

Sarabhai also died suddenly apparently in his sleep on 30 December 1971. Before his death Sarabhai established Sriharikota as a new launch site. He had also documented his vision in his “Plan for the Decade”. In this plan he directed ISRO to develop its own remote sensing and communication satellites and launch them on its own indigenous launch vehicle. India built its first satellite, Aryabhata launched in 1975 and successfully tested its own launcher SLV-3 on its second flight in 1980. Sarabhai was succeeded after  short gap by Satish Dhawan.

The four sites

1.         Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (southern state of Kerala)

•           Setup in 1972, VSSC, located in Thumba 14 km north-west of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, is ISRO's cradle. 5000 people, VSSC is ISRO's largest centre.

•           Today, VSSC sprawls over an extended area and encompasses the original Thumba launch site and the church of St. Mary Magdalene used as headquarters in 1962.

•           The church has now been converted into a museum housing many of ISRO’s space artefacts. The central office today is located in a modern building, high on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea.

•           Designed and built ISRO’s reusable launch vehicle-technology demonstrator (RLVTD), air-breathing engines, VSSC fabricated the aircraft-like structure for the RLV, completely in-house. The air breathing engine technology demonstrator (Advance Technology Demonstrator ATV01 and ATV02) were built at the VSSC. Announced recently, the centre for Human Space Flight Programme (HSP) will also be based at the VSSC with an “office” for HSP located at the ISRO HQ in Bangalore.

•           It was renamed to VSSC in 1972.

2.         Space Applications Centre

•           Setup in 1972 by Satish Dhawan with a remit to develop of space-borne and airborne instruments and associated applications that can be exploited for national development and societal benefits.     

•           The Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station, a 14-m dish antenna is at the centre of the SAC required.•          

•           It was designed as a training facility for communication engineers and that continues today for Indian and foreign students.

•          Sensors including TV cameras (initially vidicon tubes and later CCDs) for the India’s first satellites Aryabhata and Bhaskara (built in Bangalore) were built at SAC. SAC has been in the vanguard of building sensors used by all ISRO’s Earth observation (EO) satellites.

•          While Ford Aerospace and Communication Corporation in the US built the first four satellites (INSAT 1A to INSAT 1D) of INSAT, engineers at SAC designed and built the second series (INSAT 2A to INSAT 2E).

3.         ISRO Satellite Centre

•           ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC – or since 2017 - UR Rao Satellite Centre)

•           On the outskirts of Bangalore close to the site of the original airport. It emerged from the site used by Professor U.R. Rao's team to build India's first satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975.

•           It is at ISAC that spacecraft components and subsystems come together and are tested as a single integrated spacecraft for the first time.

•           ISAC has grown, and today, it incorporates the ISRO Satellite Integration and Test Establishment (ISITE) and the Laboratory for Electro-Optics Systems. Also located within ISAC is a Comprehensive Assembly, Test and Thermo-Vacuum Chamber used to test a fully assembled satellite in space-like conditions.

4.         Sriharikota – India’s Space port

•           Every launch from India to Earth orbit or beyond has been made from Sriharikota. Also known as SHAR (Sriharikota High Altitude Range). Since 2002 it was renamed as Satish Dhawan Space Centre, after a former ISRO director. Became operational in October 1971 with the launch of RH-125.

•           Located 100km north of Chennai on the east coast. Like Merritt Island – SHAR is also an Island connected via an isthmus. It is a protected as nature reserve with pelicans, kingfishers and pink flamingos.

•           First launchpad – Mobile Service Tower used to integrate the launch vehicle vertically at the launch pad. Then tower retreats 150 m on rail tracks prior to launch. Primarily used for launching the PSLV.

•           Second Launch pad – The launch vehicle is integrated in the VAB and the integrated  is transported on a Mobile Launch Pedestal to the launchpad a 1KM away. Used to launch PSLV, GSLV Mk2 and GSLV Mk3.

•           A second VAB has now been completed but not yet commissioned.

•           The Solid Propellant Booster Plant (SPROB), Mission control centre. Other propellants are produced elsewhere and transported to SHAR.

•           This is India’s only launch site to Earth orbit. Highest number of launches in one year. Seven in 2016 and 2018.

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), who helped to embed the central role of Science in India future. In Article 51A of the Constitution of India, which came into effect in 1950, Nehru codified the role of science in India’s future by requiring that every citizen of India shall “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.


Gurbir and I took many email questions during the show, including several that were posted on his Facebook site from UK listeners.  An overriding theme regarding many of the emails was why would India, apoverty stricken country, spend money on space.  One person said this was unethical and then attacked the UK for giving India foreign aid which they blew on space.  Both Gurbir and I responded to these questions and I guess I went off on a few of my classic rants in my response to these people.  Unfortunately, none of these people called the show nor did they send in an email.  Perhaps they will listen on archives and take up some of the challenges I threw out at them.  For the most part, I said it was unethical not to invest in space and suggested several reasons to support my statement. Gurbir agreed and added to my comments as the two of us were on the same page.  In addition, he pulled up stats to show that the UK was no longer giving foreign aid to India but was investing with India in ways to do more commercial ventures together that were profitable for both India and the UK.  Don't miss what Gurbir said about this which came near the end of the program. 

Another interesting theme was the cost of Indian labor, their ability to attract and keep human capital in their space program so that they could build their space program.  We talked about many Indians getting a space education in the States and elsewhere and wanting to stay due to increased opportunity here.  Our guest said this was a big problem and India needed to do something to be competitive with wages.  Don't miss this discussion. 

India and ISRO space history was a big part of our discussion as you can see from my adding in Gurbir' s notes.  It was a most informative discussion and while long at 2 hours and 13 minutes without a break, it was a fascinating and riveting discussion.  One that I hope to continue with our guest with is future work.  Also, we just touched the Indian space program so for sure, we will talk more about it.

One thing you should listen carefully to was the discussion on India's human spaceflight plans, discussions about spending money on human spaceflight or building much needed India space infrastructure.  Also, discussions within India to engage more with the private sector, provide launch facilities for the private sector and be supportive of private sector space industry growth.   Toward the end, Gurbir was asked about who he would liked to have interviewed but was unable to do so plus he was asked what the most interesting fact was that he discovered with his research.  Gurbir provided some very interesting and exciting information in response to these two questions so listen for it during the show and don't miss it.  Hint for interesting fact:  Francis Scott Key and Indian rockets!

Please post your comments/questions on TSS blog for this show.  You can reach Gurbir Singh through me or his website,




The Indian space program is confirmed for Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019!

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