Farce and friction over an Indian astronaut

When we met Mr [Morarji] Desai, he was totally relaxed even after the long journey from Delhi. Squatting on a carpet in the Kremlin and spinning his favourite charka, he received us very gracefully and congratulated us on the impressive achievement [the launch of Bhaskara-I on June 7, 1979]. He then proceeded to express his own view against sending an Indian astronaut on a Soviet mission saying, “How will it help the country if an Indian astronaut goes up into space and comes down?” He was extremely pleased to note that our views coincided with his own and jokingly told Prof. Dhawan, “Why don’t you convince Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, our foreign minister sitting in the next room, who is keen on sending an Indian into space?” Even more interesting was that he turned to me saying, “This is in line with what Vikram believed, isn’t it?”

– UR Rao, India’s Rise as a Space Power (2014)

But then times did change after Desai’s term ended and Indira Gandhi, who was more enthusiastic about Leonid Brezhnev’s offer to fly an Indian astronaut on a Soviet mission, assumed power in 1980. Thus, Rakesh Sharma’s flight happened in 1984 – although not without the Indian bureaucracy raising its ridiculous head…

When H.J. Bhabha wrote the extraordinary one-page constitution of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was later adopted by the Department of Space, he had specifically invested the commission with appropriate powers to avoid ‘the needlessly inelastic bureaucratic rules of the Government’. About a year prior to thr actual flight of Sq Ldr Rakesh Sharma, who was finally selected as the prime candidate for the joined manned mission with Mr [Ravish] Malhotra being designated as the standby, Ministry of Defence came up with two trivial bureaucratic objections. The first was whether both of these officers who were undergoing training on ground at the Star City were eligible to receive a flying allowance of Rs 500 a month. The second was whether the announced reward of a modest amount of Rs 25,000 should be given to both the candidates or restricted only to the astronaut who finally goes to space. Mr R Venkataraman, who was the then Minister of Defence and who later became the President of India, invited Prof. Dhawan and me to discuss the above two issues. Both Prof. Dhawan and myself told the defence minister that it is regrettable that silly suggestions such as stopping the flying allowance and not extending the honorarium to both the chosen candidates were brought up for discussion at the highest level. Fortunately, Mr Venkataraman after listening to our righteous indignation not only agreed with our view but also pulled up the bureaucracy for bringing up such outrageous issues, resulting in both the chosen astronaut candidates continuing to receive the flying allowance and becoming eligible for receiving the honorarium.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of course, the tables have turned somewhat, with the enthusiastic support of his office for the ambitious Gaganyaan mission allowing work to proceed as smoothly as possible. Bhabha’s and Sarabhai’s visions for the Indian space programme fundamentally included ease access to the upper echelons of decision-making in the nascent new national government, with avid reciprocation by the prime ministers of their time (especially Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi). But as these barriers no longer exist for the space programme and the national government is using the programme as a way to project its own power and vision, it is time to insert some ‘friction’ between ISRO and the government, more so since its missions are now becoming more sophisticated and expensive, and nudge it to the levels of accountability expected of other public-sector institutions.