Remembering R Aravamudan, the Pioneer of aerospace radars and tracking in India

CHENNAIWritten By: Sidharth MPUpdated: Aug 07, 2021, 10:37 PM IST

Senior scientist Ramabhadran Aravamudan Photograph:(WION)

Story highlights

Aravamudan rose to serve the organization as Director Satish Dhawan Space Centre(spaceport), Sriharikota, and the ISRO Satellite Centre, Bengaluru. 

It's an enormous feat for a country to build its rockets(launch vehicles) and satellites, more so for a country like India which formally began its full-fledged Space Programme (Indian Space Research Organization) in 1969 - the same year when the Americans landed a man on the Moon. 

But Rockets and satellites are not the whole deal, there’s a crucial link called Tracking, Telemetry and Command, a lesser-known science. Simply put, it is meant to ensure communication between the ground station-rocket, ground station-satellite and vice versa. 

Without this technology, rockets and satellites would just be lost in the upper atmosphere or the vastness of space. 

Earlier this week (Wednesday, August 4th), India lost a pioneer and a foremost expert in this crucial technology - R. Aravamudan(84). Among the first to join ISRO(then INCOSPAR), Aravamudan rose to serve the organization as Director Satish Dhawan Space Centre(spaceport), Sriharikota and the ISRO Satellite Centre, Bengaluru.

A first-rank holder from the Madras Institute of Technology, Aravamudan, who hailed from a middle-class family in the then Madras, worked at India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Thanks to a casual discussion with his colleagues in Bombay, then 24-year old Aravamudan heard of a scientist, Dr Vikram Sarabhai (father of India’s Space programme) who wanted to set up a rocket launching station off Thiruvananthapuram. Bored with his routine job at the DAE, he applied for the exciting new role under Dr Sarabhai, which also involved being trained at NASA. 

Once selected, he was sent to the US for training at various NASA facilities to learn and perform basic tracking and telemetry, which was essential in understanding the performance and trajectory of a launched rocket. It was during this one-year assignment in the US that Aravamudan (known to the Americans and his colleagues as ‘Dan’) met a 31-year old Abdul Kalam, who was also with ISRO. After the training, the ISRO team moved in batches to their fledgling rocket launching station at Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram, where India’s journey to space began. 

What makes this journey remarkable is, how India started off by launching experimental rockets in the mid-1960s and developed all the technology and means to launch space-grade PSLV rockets by the mid-1990s. To best understand the contributions, efforts and legacy of Late R.Aravamudan, Zee Media spoke to veterans of the Indian Space Research Organization.

According to G. Madhavan Nair, Former ISRO Chairman, Aravamudan was responsible for his foray into ISRO, at a time when he was bound for the Rajasthan Power Plant, after training at the Atomic Energy School in the 1960s. "I was ready to leave for Rajasthan(atomic project), but he showed up at our campus and wanted to recruit young engineers for the fledgling space programme, which I enthusiastically did" he reminisces to Zee Media, regarding his first interaction with Aravamudan. 

Speaking of the technical prowess and the unmatched skill of Aravamudan, Nair says that he was responsible for establishing telemetry, tracking and instrumentation in the initial days, right up to the time ISRO started launching the PSLV rockets. "He contributed immensely towards the failure analysis of the ASLV rocket and the first PSLV launch. He also set up a robust quality management system(for launch vehicles) at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, which eventually was adopted by all ISRO centres across the country. Reliability and quality assurance protocols were his brainchild" Nair recalls.

"During our initial days, owing to embargoes that were in place due to the geopolitical tensions, we were unable to get a Tracking radar that was most essential for our activities. Working out of the basic Church building(initial ISRO office) in Thumba, he brought out a fantastic C-Band tracking radar that had a range of up to 3000kms" Madhavan Nair adds. It is notable that this radar was utilized during the launches of PSLV and GSLV from Sriharikota, following which the technology was transferred to Bharat Electronics Limited, for mass manufacture. 

Former ISRO Chairman Dr K. Kasturirangan, who held the top post when Aravamudan was the Director of the ISRO Satellite centre, recalls the latter’s expertise in radar and communications systems and their associated infrastructure. "During Aravamudan’s tenure, at the helm of the Satellite centre, we launched about 6-7 satellites all of which were used for communication or remote sensing" Dr . Rangan told Zee media. 

He reminisced and lauded his former colleague’s knack of having a solution-minded approach towards technical issues and his seasoned way of dealing with people. "He was a hardcore professional and never did anything for his visibility, but always delivered on the job. Aravamudan will always be remembered as a smiling man, who always stood tall literally and metaphorically and walked with a lot of confidence. Ours is a very cherished relationship and his loss is a real void in our lives" Dr Kasturirangan added. 

In an autobiography(ISRO: A Personal History) co-written by his wife Gita Aravamudan, a journalist, the veteran scientist jovially recalls that one of the projects of ISRO scientists of that era was to get Kalam(Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam) married. He also half-jokingly adds how it(Kalam’s marriage) was one project that never came to fruition. 

He signs off on the final chapter of his book by outlining what he wishes to see as part of ISRO’s future missions. As a true testimony to his love for his organization (which he helped build from scratch), he aspired to the development of a heavy-lift cryogenic-powered rocket, human spaceflight, recovery of human-carrying space capsules, deep-space exploration missions etc.

In the concluding line, he expressed a sincere wish to witness some of these scientific achievements by ISRO, during his lifetime. "ISRO was his life and we all came second. That was how dedicated he was to his organization," his wife Gita tells WION.