On a floor of the MG Science College in Navrangpura from where the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) first took root in 1947 “with a budget of Rs 100” – Pune-based Professor Eknath Chitnis (98) recalled how he met and later worked with Dr Vikram Sarabhai on India’s space programme.
On Wednesday as Chandrayaan-3 made a successful soft landing on the Moon, Prof Chitnis, former director of the ISRO’s Space Application Centre (SAC) in Ahmedabad, told The Indian Express, “This is a part of the whole story…still unfolding …”.
Chitnis had come to Ahmedabad with a Masters in Physics from Pune for a job interview at the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) founded by Dr Vikram Sarabhai. Ahmedabad back then was an “overgrown village”, he said, recollecting memories only of the “textile mills, the Gandhi Vidyapith, ATIRA and PRL”.
As Sarabhai interviewed him for the job, he told him, ‘I don’t want to work here; I want to work in PRL’. “And he (Sarabhai) asked me to see Dr (K R) Ramanathan who was a director at PRL”, Chitnis, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1985, recalled.”We started out from a small laboratory at the MG Science College, some 3-4 rooms were given to us. There was no money, no car …Dr Ramnathan, a student of CV Raman like Vikram Sarabhai after doing his PhD in Cambridge, was the director at PRL. Then Nehru (the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) inaugurated the PRL, only a two-storey building…. We had only Rs 100 to carry out the research at that time,” said Prof Chitnis.Nehru inaugurated the PRL in 1954, two years after Raman laid its foundation stone.
“Back then we had no idea what exactly to do, how to go about it. Slowly and slowly, the government supported us. Not even one rupee was allotted for the space programme, but Nehru said, ‘Go ahead’…,” recalled Chitnis, praising the “Indian education system” which, he said, was “self-confident and self-reliant. “.”We do not get defeated by failure, but we overcome it. From Nehru onwards, all prime ministers supported us…It (the space programme) was like our first child…and everything first is exciting. But you cannot stop at that, you have to build…we felt there was a method in our madness”, asserted Chitnis who, after retirement from the SAC went on to establish a Department of Communication at Pune University.The PRL had started out from Sarabhai’s home – The Retreat- to research Cosmic Rays, then had a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Sarabhai appointed Chitnis in charge of the collaboration’s Indian side. Chitnis remembers that period as “very exciting times” as Russia had launched Sputnik “giving a blow to America”, which launched a space programme. “We realised that many interesting scientific experiments could be done with the magnetic equator which is close to India and it was that that we established Thumba (Equatorial Rocket Launching Station- TERLS),” said Chitnis who is credited with helping Sarabhai locate Thumba.The TERLS in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, is close to the magnetic equator and was established in 1963, and it was here that former president APJ Abdul Kalam joined the team.
Prof Chitnis remembered Kalam, “who had just passed out of MIT – Madras Institute of Technology)”. “His father was a boatman who ferried people from India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and back; His sister sold all her marriage ornaments to fund his education and he joined Thumba and was one of the pioneers “, he recalled.Chitnis had then started a station at Thumba to “get data from American, Russian and Canadian satellites”.