The ‘Nambi’ effect: Things you need to know about ISRO scientist

As the much-awaited movie Rocketry: The Nambi effect hit the big screens today, let’s take a look at the scientist’s life, who was charged of espionage.
Scientist Nambi Narayanan
Scientist Nambi Narayanan

CHENNAI: Did you know? All three of India's active space rockets, the PSLV, GSLV, and GSLV Mark 3, have a technological trait: they are all (in one stage or another) propelled by the "Vikas" Engine. All Indian rockets use the liquid-fueled Vikas Engine, which is still in use today. Scientist Nambi Narayanan, recipient of the "Padma Bhushan" (third-highest civilian award in India), oversaw the creation of the Vikas Engine, which enabled India to advance quickly into the PSLV rocket era.

As the much-awaited movie Rocketry: The Nambi effect hit the big screens today, let’s take a look at the scientist’s life, who was charged of espionage:

* Narayanan, who came from a humble household in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, excelled in school and had a particular passion for mathematics.

* He went on to work as a trainee assistant engineer at a sugar plant after earning his engineering degree at the Thyagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai and quickly advanced through the ranks.

* When he was forced to leave his employment due to a family emergency, he came across a piece of paper that would change his life - a newspaper that was used to wrap groceries had invited Mechanical Engineers with a 'first class to join the TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Launch Station) in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram.

* In 1966, when it was known as INCOSPAR, Nambi Narayanan joined India's Space Programme, which would be renamed 'ISRO' in 1969. Working with what was India's first space science team.

* In 1994, he was charged with espionage and arrested. The charges against him were dismissed by the CBI in April 1996 and the Supreme Court declared him not guilty in 1998.

* He is currently 80 years old. In order to assist India in launching heavier satellites to higher orbits, he also envisioned and worked toward constructing a far more sophisticated cryogenic engine domestically.

Scientist Nambi Narayanan
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Nambi Narayanan at Princeton:

During the developing stage, in the 1960s and 1970s, ISRO experts disagreed over whether to construct solid-fuelled engines or liquid-fueled engines based on technical considerations. Since the technology associated with solid engines was comparatively more attainable, the vast majority of the erstwhile Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) believed in concentrating their energies and resources there. The development of liquid-fueled engines, however, was viewed as equivalent to pursuing a chimaera.

Technically speaking, liquid-fueled engines use less fuel because they can be started and stopped and can move heavier cargoes. In comparison to solid engines, liquid ones may burn for longer periods and have less vibration. While a solid engine burns away after usage, a liquid engine can be checked, cleaned, and then reassembled before being used again. The world's most advanced rockets are predominantly powered by liquid-fueled engines. Solids are only ever utilised for the first thrust (using boosters) at liftoff, if and when they are employed at all.

After some time, Nambi Narayanan, an ISRO scientist, who had completed his post-graduate studies at Princeton and is now regarded as the father of liquid propulsion engine technology in India, persuaded the organisation to consider allocating funds to quickly develop liquid-fuelled engines because they were the future of rocketry and because advanced nations were achieving more with them.

While the young Nambi was on deputation to Princeton while working at ISRO, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme, ensured that the bureaucratic rigmarole was cleared smoothly before he left. Significantly, Nambi Narayanan completed his course at Princeton (which typically takes around two years), in ten months.

When the Americans attempted to poach Nambi Narayanan after he finished his degree in a record amount of time by enticing him and showing him the luxurious American facilities, it was Sarabhai who gave Nambi advice. Nambi recalled being advised to leave the bad guys behind and board the next aircraft by the pioneer of India's space programme.

The Story of the Vikas (Vikram A Sarabhai) Engine:

The ISRO launched the LP-006 rocket in 1973 utilising a liquid engine with a 600 kg thrust. The 600kg thrust engine was tiny in comparison to the enormous 60 tonne engines that the Americans and Russians were utilising (clustered in four to obtain 240ton thrust). The performance of this liquid engine during its test flight, however, provided ISRO further motivation to work with the French to jointly create an engine with a 60-ton thrust (a 100-time increase over ISRO's 600kg thrust engine). The engine was a modified version of a smaller French engine from the Viking series, thus it wasn't a completely unique design.

The Indian side, under the leadership of Nambi Narayanan, who negotiated the contract, chose the Indian name Vikas instead of the French name Viking for their engine. In Sanskrit, the word "Vikas" signifies "progress," but Nambi noticed an altered anagram: "Vikram A Sarabhai." Only the late TN Seshan, a senior bureaucrat who eventually served as India's Chief Election Commissioner, was aware of this. Due to the formal processes and approvals that ISRO used while naming a project or a facility, Nambi kept the true meaning of Vikas a secret.

The contract was arranged by Nambi Narayanan, who led the Indian side and gave their engine the Indian name Vikas rather than the French moniker Viking. The term "Vikas" in Sanskrit means "progress," but Nambi discovered a modified anagram: "Vikram A Sarabhai." The only person who was aware of this was the late TN Seshan, a top bureaucrat who later served as India's Chief Election Commissioner. Nambi hid the true significance of Vikas because ISRO uses official procedures and clearances when naming a project or a facility.

The PSLV finally took off for the first time in 1993, but the mission ended in disaster due to a mistake that occurred mid-flight. Despite the mission's failure, the majority of the rocket's crucial systems were verified. But almost a year later, in October 1994, the PSLV triumphantly blasted off and demonstrated the rocket's ability to lift 1,000 kg into space.

The PSLV has flown more than 50 times since then and just 2 missions were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the "obstinate Vikas Engine," which Nambi Narayanan and his team created, had flown successfully on every trip. The Vikas Engine was later utilised in the rockets GSLV and GSLV Mk3.

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