- From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey ed. by P. V. Manoranjan Rao et al.
From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey is like so many other histories written by engineers and scientists, long on nuts and bolts and the march of progress but short on analysis and context. Edited by a senior Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) physicist, P. V. Manoranjan Rao, in association with two of his former colleagues in the organization, it seeks to explore the history of the ISRO. The editors assembled a team of colleagues to contribute sections to the book, and the authorship is without question a who’s who of Indian space leaders, as well as some others who are international figures in the spaceflight community. Rao believes that the main feature of this “compendium,” his descriptive term rather than “history,” is that it traces the space journey of India through the “original voices” of spaceflight pioneers from 1963 through 2015.
The timing of this book was no accident. It originated as a fiftieth-anniversary history of space activities in India. On 21 November 1963, the first launch took place in India, a Nike Apache suborbital sounding rocket provided by NASA that was launched from the fishing village of Thumba, memorialized in the main title. In 2014 ISRO’s Mangalyaan spacecraft entered orbit around Mars. It was ISRO’s first interplanetary mission and with it India became only the fourth entity to reach Mars, after missions by [End Page 278] the Soviet Union, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA). These two pivotal events bookend the set of recollections here.
With the first successful launch in 1963, Indian engineers and scientists pressed for the development of both satellites of all varieties and a national space launch capability. They had achieved this by the 1970s, a remarkable set of accomplishments on a much smaller budget than either the Americans or the Soviets deployed to pursue space activities. By the time of the publication of From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet, India had become one of the top five spacefaring nations in the world.
Rao and his associates present a largely thematic account, with major sections on the beginnings of the Indian space program, rocket development and operations, satellite construction and launch, ground support and guidance and control, applications technologies, relations between ISRO and industry, and recent developments since 2000. All of the chapters are essentially memoirs by practitioners, all of them triumphalist in tone. Readers will see stories here of a succession of ever more complex capabilities developed and used for scientific, military, and Earth-applications purposes.
This book offers largely a first-person account, and as such it is useful for collecting in one place key participants’ recollections. It provides for the first time a comprehensive overview of the subject. It also offers the best discussions available about some of the key accomplishments of the Indian program. But for all its virtues, the overview offered here is a history written for engineers. Replete with formulaic and technical description, certainly to be expected in such a history, the authors concern themselves exclusively with the linear process of space research and development to the very great exclusion of any social or cultural factors that might have influenced ISRO’s history.
As only one example, while India has been successful in much of its efforts in space, there were also notable failures passed over quickly or ignored completely in this work. For example, in April 2010 ISRO tested the three-stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket. Designed and built by Indian engineers, during its third flight, the third stage’s cryogenic engine failed and the GSAT-4 communications and navigation satellite aboard was lost...