Each man held two bricks as they walked through slush towards the four metal sheds in the Peenya industrial estate in the outskirts of Bengaluru. They would deposit one brick each as they walked to make a pathway. In an obscure corner of then Bangalore, these men were given four makeshift sheds and one big dream – make India’s first satellite.
Among them was 26-year-old Surendra Pal who was responsible for the development and fabrication of all telecommunication systems for Aryabhata. Irreverent to the importance of the task at his hands, the pigeons who had a free reign in these sheds often targeted his thick curly hair.
“The facilities were minimal. We were working out of sheds. But what happened in those sheds is a true testament to our aspirations and abilities. We were building a satellite without anyone’s help, without sufficient books for consultation or enough facilities. Most of us had not a seen a satellite in real life when started,” said Pal.
The story of the Aryabhata and the four sheds in Peenya started around 1968 when Vikram Sarabhai who was heading India’s space programme asked one of his students, UR Rao, to come up with a plan for the development of satellite technology in India. By 1969 UR Rao assembled a team of about 20 engineers to be built India’s first satellite.
Rao in his book ‘India’s Rise As A Space Power’ writes that by August 1971, the Soviets agreed to launch India’s satellites. As per the Soviet agreement, India had to design, fabricate and test the satellites and they would launch a satellite for free. After finalizing the specification of the satellite, they approached Indira Gandhi with a budget. He proposed a budget of ₹3 crores, and it was approved. The next step was finding a location to build it.
Until that point, India’s Thumba in Kerala was the hub of India’s space programme, but Rao decided that the development of the project would take place in Bengaluru. “One of the reasons for the decision was the access to a number of industries and scientific institutes in the city. Rao met the then chief minister of the state Devaraj Urs and he allocated a property in Peenya for the development of the project,” says Pal.
Pal recollected that unlike the Peenya of today, which is a buzzing industrial hub, his colleagues and he were welcome by a large, deserted area. “At the point, the space programme was still under the department of atomic energy and buses in ‘atomic energy grey colour’ would drop us to Peenya. When it rains, the entire place would be slushy. So, we would carry bricks to that we can make our way through it,” he remembers.
While today India’s space programmes are guarded by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), back then two policemen with rifles provided security at Peenya when work on Aryabhata began. “It’s funny actually. More than the satellite that was under fabrication in the sheds, the policemen were used to worry more about their rifles. Because they feared someone would steal it, they used to lock them inside a room,” he says.
The sheds were not the most comfortable places to work in. Out of the four, one was converted into a laboratory and another was a clean room, while the other two sheds were used for all other tasks. “The first task our day was to clean all the tables and equipment. Then there would be bird droppings. My thick curly hair too was a target for these pigeons,” he says.
These little inconveniences were often forgotten because they had a bigger task of making a satellite from scratch, especially since these engineers, with an average age of 26, had never seen a satellite in their lives before. “Since the country was under sanctions, there was no transfer of technology and we had to figure how to build a satellite on our own. There were no reference books. I still remember that the only book that was available was a 1968 publication from Bell Telephone Labs which talked about early-bird satellites and some papers from Nasa,” Pal says.
Even Pal’s college education didn’t prepare him for the task he was entrusted with. “It was all our thinking and innovation. Most importantly, UR Rao allowed us to innovate and do whatever it takes. Whenever I use to approach him saying I wanted to consult someone about some issue. He used to tell me that there is no one and no one knows more about the topic than me. Then he would ask to figure it out myself and I did,” Pal says.
After years of hard work, the satellite was finally ready by 1975. It was only after the dates of the tentative launch were fixed the scientists realised the satellite had no name. Three names were sent to Prime Minister Gandhi – Jawahar, Maitri, Aryabhata and she chose Aryabhata.
Finally, on April 16, 1975, Aryabhata, a dream that began in sheds of Peenya in Bengaluru, took off to the skies at the Kapustin Yar Cosmodrome near Volgograd in Russia. Twelve minutes after launch, Aryabhata was placed in its designated orbit at a height. “UR Rao was emotional; he hugged each one of us. Satish Dhawan brought us samosas and sweets to celebrate, but the samosas got spoilt. He promised to get us all samosas when we returned to Moscow,” remembers Pal with a smile.
Pal says that after all these years, when he sits down to think about those days, it still baffles how some men in their 20’s managed to build a satellite from scratch from metal sheds.