Bidding adieu to Dr A P J Abdul Kalam

There were three things Kalam stood for me. One was his pioneering effort in developing India’s first launch vehicle, presenting the story of the Indian space programme for me. Second was his creation of realistic visions that are achieveable ergo sometimes controversial. Third was his leadership style that presents a challenge in today’s heavily result oriented market.

I was introduced to Dr Kalam’s name in a book on the history of Indian space programme as the director of the SLV-3. He suddenly came into prominence when he was elected as the President of India. It was through his book, Wings of Fire that the Indian space programme became to me something more than an academic study. He introduced characters, events, trials and tribulations which made it more human. Compared to earlier texts which read more like a presentation of facts, figures and milestones, he shared the story in a language that any lay man could understand. The experiment, the calculation and every effort made to measure twice and cut once that was involved in the development of the SLV-3 perhaps presented what it meant to the whole nation to have a capability to become a space faring nation.

As President, he also presented a somewhat rational and more modern version of the vision of India as a developed country by 2020. The economic crisis in 2008 likely dampened the achievement of that vision, but it seems to have been laid by the side by subsequent governments. But, it was not replaced with anything better. No person or government has since sought to present a vision for the country and then work to get a popular consensus to work to achieve it. Since then, the country has had no clear vision on what it means to be a developed country in the 21st century. Our future has since then changed to the whims and fancies of politicians and economists.

Dr Kalam’s leadership style as presented in his books through anecdotes, is also something that inspired me. We don’t see leaders like those any more. He was one of the first who made a usable website understanding the role the web has to play, with inspirational quotes and quotations, opening up Rashtrapati Bhavan to visits for the common man and challenging the governments of the day to undertake ambitious projects that would work to inspire future generations. Leaders see things that others don’t. In his later days, he spoke of human presence on the Moon and Mars. He pushed ISRO to carry an impact probe on Chandrayaan-1 so that India touched the Moon on its maiden mission. These touch a vision that not many can see.

The only thing that I can think of doing is dust my old copy of Wings of Fire and read it again and perhaps gain a glimmer of inspiration that could perhaps push me to do something extraordinary. He may have passed away but his mission of making India and the world a better place to live in lives on.

Pune

I wanted my first visit with Dhanya to begin with a visit to the Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati Temple. So, when Dhanya wanted to begin to visit places near Mumbai, I thought it was time to visit Pune. Dad suggested we check in to Vivanta by Taj Blue Diamond in Pune and drive to Pune.

We left Mumbai around 8:30 in the morning in our white Swift car. Driving along the Sion-Panvel highway we reached the Mumbai-Pune Expressway without any issues. The drive on the Expressway was also eventless and we whiled away time listening to the radio. Once we reached closer to Pune, we switched on Google Maps to help us navigate to Vishrantwadi Junction in Pune. The route was reasonably reliable, though it took us through a maze of lanes that we were not familiar with and at times were doubtful whether we had got lost in the maze. However, as we got close to the Junction, signposts appeared helpfully. Pune is developing its own BRTS for which work seems to be progressing. There was drizzle enroute to Pune but it really started pouring when we were waiting for Dhanya’s friend’s husband, Rakesh.

He came in his white Swift and guided us to their house in Dhanori, quite close to the airport. We had vegetarian biriyani and kurma for lunch. This was followed by dessert. Dhanya’s friend is also named Dhanya. Both of them went to college together in their BBA days. They had a lot of catching up to do and so Rakesh and I left them to do the talking.

We left their house and again with great help from Google Maps, found our way to Blue Diamond hotel. We slept a while, soaking in the cushioned beds under the warm blankets, cherishing a moment of togetherness. We then went to the up and coming Koregaon Plaza mall and returned to the room quickly for a night out in a pub.

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Dhanya’s friend, Dhanya with her husband, Rakesh

 

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Dhanya and me at the Independence Brewing Co.

Dhanya and Rakesh picked us up at the Taj. Both Dhanyas had spent considerable time discussing what to wear. We went to the Independence Brewing Co. For both Dhanyas it was their first pub experience. Everyone enjoyed themselves with drinks and lots of photos taken for keepsake. They dropped us at the Taj again on their way back home. We were both exhausted from the long drive and promptly went to bed to sleep.

Rakesh had mentioned in his conversations on the day before that they were going to Lavasa and asked if we were interested in coming along. We were planning to return to Mumbai that afternoon after checking out at around 12 pm. I considered not going but realised that we had come most of the way to Lavasa and without company might not go to Lavasa on our own. I confirmed that we would be coming after a visit to the Dagdhusheth temple. I said we’d confirm times on the next day.

The next day we awoke at 6:30 am. We got ready and used the Taj’s car to take us to Dagdhusheth temple. I was not sure if there would be any lines and also wasn’t sure if we’d get parking there. We got an easy and early darshan there and made our way back to the hotel by 9 am. We caught the Taj’s sumptuous breakfast spread.

We then headed to Lavasa in our respective Swift cars. The plan was to drive to Lavasa, grab a bite of lunch there and then head back to Mumbai that day afternoon. The drive to Lavasa, though, surprised and it was afternoon by the time we got there. After parking our cars, we walked on the lakeside in the rains. We grabbed a bite of pizza at Smokin’ Joe’s. There Rakesh got news that a landslide on the Mumbai Pune Expressway had led to its closure. The news came out that people had died in the landslide and it was suggested that the old Mumbai-Pune Highway, the NH4 be taken. We drove back to Pune in the hopes that the landslide would be cleared and we could head back to Mumbai that night.

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Both Dhanyas met in Pune after a looonnng time.
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Both cars chilling after the long trip to Lavasa.

It was 5 pm by the time we reached Wakad junction and both Rakesh and my father in Mumbai suggested we stay the night and attempt to head back to Mumbai only early next morning. Accordingly, we headed back again to Dhanya’s friends house for the night. We had rice and onion sambar that night for dinner. It was midnight by the time we slept that night.

We headed back to Mumbai early that morning. There was no traffic jam and the landslide was cleared from all four lanes of the Expressway. There were light to moderate showers but we reached back home at 9, just in time to head back to another week at work.

New Horizons historic meeting with Pluto

A spacecraft from Earth has now been to all the 9 planets that we knew as a kid. New Horizons became the spacecraft to cover all the planets that we knew as a kid on July 14, 2015. Our view of Pluto has changed a lot since Clyde Tombaugh spotted the minor planet in 1930. In January 2006, when the New Horizons spacecraft launched to Pluto from Cape Canaveral in the US Pluto was still a planet! In August of that year, Pluto was “demoted” to being a dwarf planet. The world (scientists and people alike) revolted against the move.

At the time that New Horizons approached Pluto it still is a dwarf planet.

Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA
Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

New Horizons successfully executed the flyby and is now in science mode taking scientific data that will be beamed back to Earth. Some of the lower resolution data that New Horizons is beaming back to Earth is now being publicly and scientifically analysed whilst we wait as this data teaches us about the dwarf planet, Pluto.

My second journalistic publication

I first wrote for a journalism publication in 2009 for CNN-IBN. I had written then about ISRO’s 40th anniversary with the help of Jaimon Joseph.

My second article appeared a couple of days ago in a new publication called The Wire about the commercial trends that seem to be beginning to emerge in the Indian space programme. The feedback from many of my family members was that they could not understand what I was talking about. This makes my article an almost failure in my consideration, other than the fact that I managed to get it published with help from Vasudevan Mukunth.

Multi Application Solar Telescope commissioned in Udaipur

2015 is being celebrated by the United Nations as the International Year of Light. ISRO shared on Facebook today news of the operationalization of the Multi Application Solar Telescope (MAST) on location at the Udaipur Solar Observatory.

I had a look at the article about the Udaipur Solar Observatory on Wikipedia and was immediately depressed to see not too many references and a tag that said that the article doesn’t have enough reliable references. I added two references and then was immediately too tired to write a blog post here about the unveiling of the telescope and its implication (some laziness was involved as well). Hence, I requested my friend and journalist Vasudevan Mukunth :

In a day, he produced quite a brilliant write up about the Multi Application Solar Telescope for his publication, The Wire. The article – A Telescope that gives India a new place in the Sun is quite beautiful and succinctly written and is a must read. In fact, he wrote such a brilliant piece that my work is only to link to his story.

Nobody would spend on science if it did not spin-off technology

Very few organisations in the world fund the fundamental sciences – astronomy, high energy physics or even certain strands of biology whose only intention is to know what the universe is about. In many science talks that I attend many scientists also try to focus on how this idea will help the common man rather than focus on how science would advance the knowledge of mankind, in particular. Schools are only now beginning to teach any amount on quantum physics which surpassed several boundaries in the 1970s. Science taught in the schools today are at least fifty to seventy years old. This creates a difference in the perception of science among the scientific community and that seen by common man.

I’ve been spending the whole of last week watching videos related to Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation. One of his conversations is with American neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman inserted below.

In the video at about the 17 minute mark, he brings up the topic of how the science we do today is so influenced by funding which looks at how it is beneficial to man. Vasudev says that science would really be more effective if it is delinked from that objective and one does it purely with the curiosity to understand the world we live in. He suggests that technology should be given the responsibility of figuring out how the knowledge yearned from science be put to use in benefit of humankind. Currently, both are intertwined so tightly that science is funded on the basis of its application, technology spin-offs rather than the fact that it would further the boundaries of knowledge, per se.

This is an interesting distinction that I had not been aware of despite my grounding in science and some time I spent working with technology as an engineer. I shared this because I think it is an interesting insight to work with.

ISRO to launch 5 British satellites as its first commercial launch in 2015

ISRO will launch 5 British Satellites on behalf of Antrix Corporation (which is ISRO’s commercial arm) on board the PSLV-C28 vehicle on July 10, 2015. This is the PSLV’s 30th mission. ISRO will use the PSLV’s Extended Length (XL) variant to launch 1440 kg payload consisting of 5 British satellites into orbit.

The 5 satellites are the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited’s (SSTL) DMC3 satellites and CNBT-1 satellites and the Surrey Space Center’s DeOrbitSail spacecraft.

DMC3 satellites

The DMC stands for the Disaster Management Constellation of 3 satellites built by the SSTL for it’s wholly owned subsidiary, DMCii (DMC International Imaging Ltd) which is executing this project for a Chinese company, 21AT.

A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL
A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL

The DMC constellation is a group of 3 small satellites placed in orbit 120 degrees apart, as shown in the image above. The idea is to quickly image areas which have been struck by disaster with high-resolution cameras (1 m resolution) with a capability to provide very fast down link in order to help make the images available quickly in order to assess damage and plan disaster response.

CBNT-1

I could not read much about this satellite but it seems that the company that built it, SSTL will share more details after the launch. All that is known for sure right now is that it weighs 91 kg and is a technology demonstrator mission.

DeOrbitsail

This is an interesting 7 kg 3U cubesat with dimensions of 10 x 10 x 34 cm. It contains a highly densely packed 4 x 4 meter sail which will be deployed in space in order to increase drag in order to cause the spacecraft to deorbit and return back to Earth. The project is developed by the Surrey Space Center (not the same as SSTL).

PSLV-C28

The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO
The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO

For ISRO, the challenge begins with the three DMC3 spacecrafts. It had to fit in these 3 satellites each of which has a length of 3 meters into the 3.2 m diameter, 8.9 m long payload fairing of the PSLV-XL. They resolved the issue by changing the launch adapter. A launch adapter is basically a platform on which the satellites are kept and launched from once the last stage of the PSLV reaches the designated orbit and orientation. The vehicle uses a new launch adapter which has a triangular deck and is called the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2).

Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter - Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy: NasaSpaceflight.com
Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy: NasaSpaceflight.com

A success now will help cement the PSLV’s record and hopefully bring more business Antrix’s way. This launch shows that even commercial launches can make requirements on a proven launch vehicle that if managed would improve the agility of the variety of satellites that the PSLV is capable of putting into orbit. This agility lowers cost and enables Antrix to reach a wider market to sell launches on the PSLV. Wishing ISRO Godspeed.