'the leapfroggers -- an insider's account of ISRO' review: at the launchpad

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Book Cover-And India's most important launch vehicle the SLV-3 being launched for he first time

Recording early days of India’s space odyssey

India’s steady successes in the realm of launching satellites and building reliable launch vehicles is the result of a generation of engineers, who were fresh out of college in the 1960s, and immediately absorbed into the budding Indian Space Research Organisation. These early pioneers, led by Vikram Sarabhai, were effectively learning on the job and scrambling to close the formidable headway made by the United States, the erstwhile Soviet Union and France, among others. This first-generation, in the last few years, have been effervescing an assembly-line of memoirs about their time in the organisation, their challenges, the influence of ISRO’s early chairpersons such as Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and ‘missile man’ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

In this oeuvre comes a memoir by Ved Prakash Sandlas, who was a part of Kalam’s core team in the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) program and eventually became that group’s leader in 1980. The Leapfroggers: An Insider’s Account of ISRO has an intriguing premise. “Leapfrogging is not like long-jump... it relies upon stored energy and leaping above unexplored territory with calculated risk... this is a storybook, rather than a history or chronology document.”

Sandlas’ account begins from his posting at Thumba, the nondescript fishing village in Kerala, that served as India’s first rocket launching centre. Born in Punjab, his first anecdotes are about acclimatising to life in Kerala and its differences from north India for instance, a “matriarchal or matrilineal system,” and “all-women (bank) branch,” the way houses were spaced close to each other, an efficient garbage-disposal system and extortionist practices by trade unions.

There are two chapters on Sandlas’ childhood and his training as an engineer where he discusses his exposure to ham radios and how this has remained a lifelong passion and was intricately connected to his career as an ISRO engineer. Subsequently follows a fairly long description of SLV minutiae, down to various project leaders and the frenetic pace at which engineers would work — often sacrificing dinners and holidays — to achieve “impossible deadlines” especially those set by Kalam.

For a historian of the ISRO and interested in the nitty-gritty of the SLV, Sandlas’ book may be an important reference guide.

However insight — aside of the well-trodden ground of ISRO’s work culture and luminous leaders — or anecdote is mostly lacking.

There’s an excessive reliance on technical documents both in terms of language and documentation — and an inordinate focus on ISRO heads (who’ve anyway had reams written about them). Unfortunately, the book doesn’t quite read like the storybook it is promised to be.

The Leapfroggers: An Insider’s Account of ISRO; Ved Prakash Sandlas, HarperCollins, ₹399

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