In 1968, Prof. Sarabhai came to Thumba on one of his routine visits. He was shown the operation of the nose-cone jettisoning mechanism.
As always, we were all anxious to share the results of our work with prof. Sarabhai. We requested Prof. Sarabhai to formally activate the pyro system through a timer circuit.
Prof. Sarabhai smiled and pressed the button. To our horror, nothing happened. We were dumbstruck. I looked at Pramod Kale, who had designed and integrated the timer circuit.
In a flash, each of us mentally went through an analysis of the failure. We requested Prof. Sarabhai to wait for a few minutes, then we detached the timer device, giving a direct connection to the pyros. Prof. Sarabhaipressed the button again.
The pyros were fired and the nose cone was jettisoned. Prof. Sarabhai congratulated Kale and me, but his expression suggested that his thoughts were elsewhere.
We could not guess what was on his mind. The suspense did not last for long and I got a call from prof. Sarabhai’s secretary to meet him after dinner for an important discussion. Prof. Sarabhai was staying at the Kovalam Palace Hotel, his usual home whenever he was in Trivandrum.
I was slightly perplexed by the summons. Prof. Sarabhai greeted me with his customary warmth. He talked of the rocket launching station, envisaging facilities like launchpads, blockhouses, radar, telemetry, and so on—things which are taken for granted in Indian space research today.
Then he brought up the incident that had occurred that morning. This was exactly what I had feared. My apprehension of reproach from my leader, however, was unfounded. Prof. Sarabhai did not conclude that the failure of the Pyrotimer circuit was the outcome of insufficient knowledge and lack of skill on the part of his people or of faulty understanding at the direction stage.
He asked me instead if we were unenthused by a job that did not pose a sufficient challenge. He also asked me to consider if my work was possibly being affected by any problem of which I was hitherto unaware.
He finally put his finger on the key issue. We lacked a single roof to carry out system integration of all our rocket stages and rocket systems.
Electrical and mechanical integration work was going on with a significant phase difference—both in time and in space.
There was little effort to bring together the disparate work on electrical and mechanical integration. Prof. Sarabhai spent the next hour re-defining our tasks, and, in the small hours of the morning, the decision to set up a RocketEngineering Section was taken.
Mistakes can delay or prevent the proper achievement of the objectives of individuals and organizations, but a visionary like Prof.Sarabhai can use errors as opportunities to promote innovation and the development of new ideas.
He was not especially concerned with the mistake in the timer circuit, least of all with pinning the blame for it. Prof. Sarabhai’s approach to mistakes rested on the assumption that they were inevitable but generally manageable.
It was in the handling of the crises that arose as a consequence that talent could often be revealed. I later realized by experience, that the best way to prevent errors was to anticipate them.
But this time, by a strange twist of fate, the failure of the timer circuit led to the birth of a rocket engineering laboratory.
It was my usual practice to brief Prof. Sarabhai after every MissilePanel Meeting. After attending one such meeting in Delhi on 30 December 1971, I was returned to Trivandrum. Prof. Sarabhai was visiting Thumba that very day to review the SLV design.
I spoke to him on the telephone from the airport lounge about the salient points that had emerged at the panel meeting.
He instructed me to wait at TrivandrumAirport after disembarking from the Delhi flight and to meet him there before his departure for Bombay the same night.
When I reached Trivandrum, a pall of gloom hung in the air. The aircraft ladder operator Kutty told me in a choked voice that Prof.Sarabhai was no more.
He had passed away a few hours ago, following a cardiac arrest. I was shocked to the core; it had happened within an hour of our conversation. It was a great blow to me and a huge loss to Indian science.
That night passed in preparations for airlifting Prof.Sarabhai’s body for the cremation in Ahmedabad. For five years, between 1966 to 1971, about 22 scientists and engineers had worked closely with Prof. Sarabhai. All of them were later to take charge of important scientific projects. Not only was Prof. Sarabhai a great scientist, but also a great leader. I still remember him reviewing the bi-monthly progress of the design projects of SLV-3 in June 1970.
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