After a string of successes for India’s space agency, from the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to launching 104 satellites at once, countries and companies are watching and collaborating with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Indeed, out of the 104 satellites launched in February 2017, 96 were from US companies. I too watched on September 24th, 2014 when India made history by becoming the first country to successfully reach Mars on the first attempt. The achievement, along with photographs showing women in colorful saris in the control room celebrating, inspired the documentary Breakthrough: Snapshots from Afar, which I directed and co-produced with Luke Groskin. It’s the second film in Science Friday and Howard Hugh Medical Institute’s series Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science.
It was September 2016, when I finally arrived in Bangalore to meet some of the scientists and engineers of MOM and visit three ISRO centers. There are about 20 ISRO centers throughout India and rockets are launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, north of Chennai. I started at ISAC, the main center where satellites are built and tested. Two sets of security gates open to a green space surrounded by palm trees and yellow carnations, irrigated by recycled water. Upon entering the lobby, a model of Chandrayaan-1, ISRO’s 2008 lunar space probe, leads to the Space Exhibition Area where visitors can see posters and models of satellites and launch vehicles from the past 40 years, including India’s first satellite Aryabhata(1975).
This is where I met Nandini Harinath, Project Manager, Mission Design and Deputy Operations Director of MOM, who has worked at ISRO for nearly 20 years. Harinath grew up watching Star Trek and learning about the Saptarishi Mandala, or seven stars the Ursa Major constellation, from her father. “The main aim of the mission was just to prove that we could reach Mars and get captured around Mars…there were also secondary objectives like carrying payloads.” She explained the challenges of designing MOM with time, weight and budget restrictions. MOM cost $74 million and had a launch mass of 1340kg, as opposed to the $671 million, 2454kg NASA MAVEN mission.
As we spoke, I heard footsteps and voices outside the door. “Everyone's come to the lobby to have tea.” Tea-time is in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, before the day ends at 5 PM. If working on a project like MOM though, the days last much longer and workers take tea breaks even in the wee hours of the morning. After tea-time, we cross the lobby, past a mural depicting India’s space achievements, to a clean room where Harinath’s colleagues are testing a satellite scheduled to launch the following week. That mission became the first Indian rocket to launch satellites into different orbits.
The next day I headed across town to ISROHQ to meet Dr. Seetha Somasundaram, Program Director at the Space Science office. Inside the HQ atrium stands a 3-story tall model of ISRO’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and behind it, in between models of early launch vehicles, rotates a gold model of MOM. Just down an outdoor corridor, Somasundaram was in her office. She has worked at ISRO since the early 1980s when she spent nights at the observatory and assisted on payload proposals. More recently, for MOM, she oversaw and reviewed payloads, like the Mars Color Camera. She explains how the team took MOM’s unique journey into account when designing the camera. Weight and fuel restrictions means MOM’s orbit is highly elliptical, as more fuel is required to move into a circular orbit. “We actually utilized…that highly elliptical orbit to our advantage….whereas the earlier disk images from various Mars missions were actually using mosaic images, using several hundred images, we could do this imaging with one snapshot.”
Her colleague, engineer Minal Rohit, who was the project manager of the Methane Sensor and worked on the Mars Color Camera explains the role of the camera. “It was the first outreach …a kind of a proof … that we are there looking with our own eyes.”
I met Rohit in the control room at ISTRAC, ISROs’ Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network, where she, Somasundarum and Harinath spent up to 36 hours at a time during the MOM launch and orbit insertion. Rohit reflected on her time at ISRO, remembering her job interview in 1999. She planned to take a 36-hour train ride to the ISRO office, but her father insisted on paying the 8,000 rupees for a flight, which he had saved up and was also the monthly salary of the job.
After leaving the control room at ISTRAC, Rohit and I walked through the campus down the same path where so many of the photographs of the MOM celebrations took place. It was the end of my journey to ISRO, but that location represented the start of India’s interplanetary missions. Their upcoming plans include MOM 2, which could include a rover, a Venus mission, a halo orbit mission, and returning to the moon in 2018 with Chandarayaan 2, a lunar orbiter and rover.
Watch Breakthrough: Snapshots from Afar to learn more about MOM and scientists behind it.