Excerpt: Ready to Fire by Nambi Narayanan with Arun Ram
Scientist Nambi Narayanan, who was falsely accused of espionage in the ISRO spy case of the 1990s, exposes the international plot that delayed India’s development of a cryogenic engine. An excerpt from the book’s introductionbooks Updated: Mar 01, 2018 21:55 IST
By Parisian standards, it was an unusually bright morning when I stepped into the Paris–Le Bourget airport to see the Aerospace Exhibition, 1975. The rocket engines on display glistened in the light that streamed through the glass panes and bounced off the sober white walls. I walked past the array of items on display — a liquid propulsion engine here, a prototype of a dual-frequency radar there — with my colleague P Mohana Prasad in tow.
We often travelled together on such assignments. We enjoyed each other’s company, partly because of our shared passion to make India a space superpower, and partly because of our differences that helped fill the gaps between our common goal and our varying perceptions on how to achieve it.
Prasad, who went on to develop India’s Vikas engine with me, would brood over scientific puzzles for days. He would run multiple tests and cross-check results before commenting on something scientific. I, on the other hand, would sometimes be impulsive, even on scientific matters. I might look at a microscopic groove in an intricate engine, and, before scientific validation, instinctively say that the depth is two microns, and not one micron as planned. We all knew very well that the unaided human eye couldn’t see the difference; nevertheless I ‘saw’ something that impelled me to comment. Indeed, we would run it through tests to ascertain the depth of the groove — and my instant, scientifically unaided, observation would be correct, nine out of ten times.
That morning at the Paris-Le Bourget Airport presented me with one such moment of instant cognition — a ‘Blink’ moment, as Malcolm Gladwell called it. It was a moment that would eventually lead me to a series of incidents — apparently normal, some even unconnected —that would change my life and, to a great degree, alter the pace of India’s space research, some nineteen years later.
As we walked past a few charts on display, between a heat shield of a rocket and a model of an improvised payload, there sat a rocket engine from the USSR. It was grey, and it had everything the texts said about such an engine. There was nothing apparently remarkable about it, but I found myself staring at it longer than I wanted to.
Then I realised it: The engine wasn’t what its label read — RD-100. ‘They’ve got the label wrong,’ I told Prasad, as we were about to move on to the payload on display. But Prasad stopped to take closer look. We seemed to be having a difference of opinion here; so the first thing to do was to ask a Russian scientist for clarification. But there was none nearby. At a distance sat a seventy-five-something man, his clothes as wrinkled as his skin. He appeared to be a helper of some sort, one of those who understood little English and no science.
No sooner had we moved on than someone called out, ‘Now, gentleman, what makes you think it’s not an RD-100?’
It was the Russian, now his face even more wrinkled because of a frown. I walked up to him and, trying to be polite to the point of being apologetic (not for the comment I made about the engine, but for the assessment I made of him), said, ‘Because it doesn’t look like one.’
He insisted it was an RD-100, but I stuck to my guns. ‘An RD-100 has a different type of a cooling passage,’ I said, and went on rattling out whatever I knew about the engine and its inconsistencies with the piece on display.
The frown on the Russian’s face was now a scowl. He looked at me for a few seconds in silence and, as if ironing out those folds on his forehead, ran his palm over his eyebrows, and assumed the calmness of a disturbed saint. ‘Can we discuss this over dinner?’ he asked.
Later that evening, over delicious French soup and bread, the Russian explained to us the specifications of the engine on display. ‘And yes,’ he said after a noisy sip of tourin, ‘it is not what it’s labelled.’ It was another engine, the specifications of which the USSR did not want to divulge. There were several such pieces of secret pride in the Soviet storerooms, he said, one such was the KVD-1 cryogenic engine. ‘What’s the specific impulse of this KVD-1 engine?’ I asked, unable to hide my curiosity at the mention of the word ‘cryogenic’.
‘The specific impulse is,’ the Russian paused, ‘461 seconds’.
We all knew that the Americans and the Russians were in a space race, the latest being in the development of cryogenic engines. Cryogenics, the science of extreme low temperatures, has been a tricky thing to master, and the two countries had achieved quite a few breakthroughs. Like the space-faring giants the US and the USSR, India — which had just put its first satellite Aryabhatta in space with Russia’s help — had realised that only cryogenic engines could power rockets to take heavier satellites and make farther explorations in space. The specific impulse of an engine, broadly speaking, defines its strength. The Americans had developed engines with lesser specific impulse. Russians were great engineers — and much more amiable towards Indians than the Americans were — but they having developed anything better than the American cryogenic engine sounded farfetched.
‘You must be joking,’ I told him, trying to make it sound more like banter than an argument. The Russian wasn’t amused. He gulped down the soup, looked me in the eye with the same calmness he had the moment before he invited me for dinner, and said, ‘Come to Russia, and I will show you.’
It was a new beginning of a friendship between two countries that later fired India’s cryogenic dreams. Eighteen years later, when the Kerala police came knocking at my door in Thiruvananthapuram, that dream was threatened. I was to be branded a spy who sold rocket engine secrets to Pakistan through women spies from the Maldives — a conspiracy that would be eventually defeated, but not before dampening India’s space dreams and virtually demolishing my life.
But India’s space ambitions, fuelled by such greats as Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, would overcome the agnipariksha, as time proved. Curiously enough, it took another eighteen years for me to prove my innocence — and for others to accept that the sordid drama of the ISRO spy case was but a fallout of a reckless police sub inspector’s misadventure with a Maldivian woman; a drama that a foreign agency was only too eager to prolong and propel, penetrating into such agencies as the Indian Intelligence Bureau, and taking some of its officials as pawns, to scuttle India’s inevitable march to space.
This is the story of that conspiracy against my country. This is my story.