INDIA: Nambi Narayanan, an ISRO scientist and recipient of the Padma Bhushan award had ambitions to turn India into a space giant. Still, his hopes were dashed in the 1990s by unfounded shadowing claims.
In an extremely rare interview with Republic TV, Narayanan reminisced on his past and pondered where ISRO and India’s space supremacy might be now if he hadn’t been accused of being a “traitor.”
The game-changing scientist even claimed that India would have sent astronauts to space by this point and might have been in competition with SpaceX, the most successful private space company in the world and owned by Elon Musk. This was said during a deep-diving conversation with the real-life Nambi, R Madhavan, who was sitting beside him.
The scientist responded that we would have had a more powerful launch capability far earlier had Narayanan not been charged with espionage in 1994 and had his cryogenic engine research project continued unabated.
“Probabilistically, we would have perfected cryogenic technology as intended (schedule of the year 1999 or 2000). If the Russian deal had been approved when this issue arose in 1994, we would have easily obtained the cryogenic technology,” Narayanan remarked.
Using cryogenic fuel in a rocket engine is the essence of cryogenic technology. A cryogenic rocket stage promises much higher fuel efficiency and thrust for every kilogramme of propellant it burns compared to solid and earth-storable liquid propellant stages.
The cryogenic propellant includes liquid oxygen (-183°C) and liquid hydrogen (-253°C). It is noteworthy because the Gaganyaan mission will send Indian astronauts to space using the same technique.
The US intervened with an agreement India had made with Russia in 1991 to purchase two cryogenic engines and related technology, which caused the delivery of the cryogenic engine to ISRO to be delayed for years.
India only acquired the engines due to American meddling because the US thought ISRO would utilise the technology to create nuclear missiles.
India’s ambition was ultimately realised in 2014, over 15 years after it was first tested when ISRO launched its rocket using a cryogenic engine that was entirely domestically produced.
In an interview, Narayanan explained why he continued the spy case even after being cleared because India’s Mars mission Mangalyaan, which was launched on November 5, 2013, cost less than the $100 million Hollywood film Gravity, ISRO’s cost-effectiveness can be evaluated.
About India’s aspirations to colonise other planets, Narayanan claimed that Prof. Satish Dhawan, a former ISRO chairman, and aerospace engineer, had prioritised satellite launches at the time and left interplanetary missions to the next generation. The planning, however, for missions like Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan, which he referred to as “timepass projects” because of their “peanuts” for payload, may have begun far earlier, he claimed.
“The projects you witnessed, Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan, are only pass-the-time endeavours. Why not give that a shot since we had the systems? And in Mangalyaan, we were successful in doing that. We were merely testing (it) out,” Narayanan remarked.
“The payload was minimal—around 15 kilogrammes, I believe. He added that the Gaganyaan mission, in which ISRO would send an Indian astronaut into space, would have been realised by this point and that we would have been in competition with Elon Musk and other private companies in the space tourism industry, including Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, to name a few,” he added.
The seed for space flight would have been planted, he continued, and India would have thrived in the commercial space business.