We were back at SHAR [Satish Dhawan Space Centre] in May 1980, with renewed energy and confidence. The guesthouse and catering facilities had improved significantly, compared to the E-01 campaign. But, unfortunately, SHAR safety and security protocols had become more rigid; they had become more knowledgeable about SLV-3 integration and checkout procedures, particularly our shortcut methods and workaround tactics. Since the enthusiasm of the previous attempt was missing, there were some difficulties is organising late-night and holiday work schedules at short notice. It was natural that local SHAR people could not spend all holidays in office, disregarding their own family needs and compulsions. Some of us considered this a blessing in disguise, since it provided some additional opportunity to workers to relax; stressful and continuous working was not good for safe operations. But some workers from Trivandrum were not happy with this relaxed mode of work; they wanted to complete the job and get back to their families at the earliest; also they were quite happy working late, and consequently claiming extra overtime allowance.

The progress of launch preparations was quite smooth, without too many uncertainties or new unforeseen problems. This appeared to be unusual to [APJ Abdul] Kalam, who was accustomed (perhaps happy) with day-to-day arguments between SLV-3 team members.

One day, after dinner, at about 11 pm, he walked into Block House and asked, ‘What is happening?’ I responded by saying that everything was OK and there was no confusion. He immediately exclaimed, “Come on then, let us create some confusion.” We went around asking workers many questions, sometimes getting assurances that they would study and come back with answers. The next day, I proposed the theory of maintaining “certain minimum level of confusion” or “some minimum level of entropy”, for things to not only remain active and proceed well, but also to appear as if they were active and proceeding well, otherwise there was a danger that thinking and visibility might stagnate; problems should be deliberately triggered to become visible and propagate, so as to find optimal solutions.

Another philosophy, that emerged, was “Management by Understanding”. This was significantly different from our usual method of “Management by Exceptions” (basically identifying and handling problems or subsystems that show deviations from normal performance), or “Management by Objectives” (defining a specific sequence of steps and transparently assessing the progress of each step, to achieve desired overall objective). Our concept of “Management by Understanding” was related to hair-splitting questions to understand unforeseen and exceptionally difficult problems through a critical fault-finding approach. For instance, Dr SC Gupta, chairman of SLV-3 Flight Readiness Review, would go so deep to understand the basic nature and cause of a problem that some people would grow afraid, thinking that they might be blamed and made personally accountable for the problem. There was a general belief that if the problem was well understood, the solution would emerge much more easily.

The SLV-3 was moved to the launch pad on July 15, and was ready after launch rehearsal on July 16, to start the countdown on July 17 and go ahead with the final launch on July 18.

The launch rehearsal was uneventful, except for one sudden computer that generated hold at about T-5 minutes; this was a big surprise – since there was no scheduled action at that event – generating panic reactions and actions to place the vehicle under safe mode by resetting automatic sequencing electronics. On enquiry, it was determined that some senior person had initiated this hold by deliberating removing a monitoring-line connector, from the backside of the automatic checkout system, to introduce error in the measurement chain, with the objective of testing the efficacy of the automatic countdown system, and the alertness of the checkout team. Obviously, this was unauthorised and very risky for the fully charged vehicle on the launch pad. An emergency meeting was called to warn everyone about such mischievous actions, so much so that it was decided that no one would be allowed to move around during such automatic sequences, forcing them to sit in their designated seats at consoles.

VP Sandlas

SHAR people preferred a day of no work on July 17, to give a break to their staff and to allow their families (and visitors) to visit the launch complex. This was not acceptable to us – we were not happy about keeping the live launch vehicle ready on the launch pad, unnecessarily waiting for visitors to see, especially because of uncertainties related to the weather, among other things. Of course, there were a couple of days of delay during the last week because of some unforeseen technical problems, upsetting SHAR’s plans to take a break and show the SLV-3 to families and visitors. Anyway, it was decided to go ahead with plans to launch on July 18. The launch preparations proceeded quite smoothly till about 06.00 hrs when a hold had to be imposed for 90 minutes because of rain clouds and heavily overcast sky.

The SLV-3-E-02 was successfully launched on July 18, 1980 at 08.03.45 hrs, satisfactorily injecting the 35-kg Rohini Satellite, RS-1 into a near-earth orbit after 10 minutes.

This demonstrated the real strength of ISRO, ISRO people, and our indigenous science and technology. The event signified India’s entry into the exclusive space club of nations with satellite launch vehicle capability; the other five countries were the Soviet Union (Sputnik-I launch by Sputnik-PS on October 4, 1957), United States (Explorer-I launch by Juno-1 on January 31, 1958), France (Asterix launch by Diamant A on November 26, 1965), Japan (Osumi launch by Lambda 4S on February 11, 1970) and China (Dongfanghong-I launch by Chang Zheng-1 on April 24, 1970). A day earlier, the press had speculated about India becoming a space and missile power; equating the SLV-3 with many such capabilities and options.

Earlier in the morning, the launch schedule had to be readjusted, and delayed by about an hour and a half because of rain clouds over SHAR. Soon after the launch, a quick look at the telemetry data indicated slight overperformance, indicated by higher injection velocity, and longer visibility at the Trivandrum ground station. The Down Range Station (DRSN) at Car Nicobar could not track it because of missed visibility and difficulties in time synchronising of the tracking antenna. The injection point was too far away from the ISTRAC station at SHAR, therefore they could not confirm the final performance. I maintained real-time contact with the Trivandrum station, prompting them at the right moment to look for RS-1 in the southeast direction, at about 5-10 degree elevation, almost at the horizon. I could hear the sudden emergence of the background hissing sound of RS-1 telemetry, followed by the jubilant cries of the operators. The continuation of the visibility of RS-1 for about half a minute more than what had been predicted was sufficient for me to confirm overperformance and significantly higher perigee.

On reaching the Control Centre, I noticed Prof Dhawan and others sitting quietly with fingers crossed; they were informed by ISTRAC to wait for 90 minutes before they could confirm a healthy RS-1 in Earth’s orbit, when it would become visible at SHAR in its next orbit. I almost burst out shouting: “What more confirmation is necessary? SLV-3 has over performed, the injection velocity was higher than normal, and the Trivandrum station has confirmed higher orbit through telemetry signals, which must have leaked out by now. Please do not wait any longer, making press speculate and creating wrong news.” Prof Dhawan was smiling and looking at me in appreciation, holding the telephone in his right hand, followed by announcing the success to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who then announced the news to the nation, as the first item of the day in Parliament.

Coming out of the control centre, we were greeted by a large cheering crowd consisting of local SHAR employees and the VSSC/ SLV-3 team, all pushing us one by one to stand up on a table and join them in joyful endless clapping.

A beaming Prof Dhawan addressed the press, after lunch, at about 2.00 pm, saying, “The Hero of the day is Kalam, Abdul Kalam.” He highlighted that the SLV-3 was conceived, designed, built and tested by Indians, and was an entirely self-reliant venture. He also emphasised that the SLV-3 was more modern and sophisticated than the launch vehicles used by other countries fifteen years ago to launch satellites. Abdul Kalam shyly introduced his team and read out the salient features of the SLV-3.

There was special coverage by Doordarshan, occupying most of the prime time slot in the evening, complete with a film division movie on the SLV-3, and interviews with many of us. The BBC and VOA covered the news by way of some critical negative comments on the danger posed by India’s entry into space and missile race. Most of the seniors left SHAR by the evening of July 18. There was no celebration or special dinner at SHAR; perhaps most of us were too tired or were watching TV. Dr Gowariker and Abdul Kalam reached Trivandrum the next morning to a tremendous welcome by VSSC [Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre] employees and local press gathered at the airport tarmac, with much garlanding.

The newspapers on July 19 covered the event with all praise and compliments, featuring the bio-data and photographs of many of us from the main SLV-3 team: Kalam, Srinivasan, Sasikumar, Majeed, Madhavan Nair, Dev and I. Most of us returned to Trivandrum on July 19-20, the weekend, followed by a couple of weeks of celebrations and felicitation functions in Trivandrum city. Prof Dhawan addressed the entire VSSC community on July 23, his voice tinged with emotion: “Congratulations! VSSC will launch SLVs in future, but first time is first time. It is time to celebrate. Let us celebrate.”

Excerpted with permission from The Leapfroggers: An Insider’s Account of ISRO, VP Sandlas, HarperCollins India.