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Isro’s agent Mars: The name is Arunan

Author: Arun Ram
Publication: The Times of India
Date: September 25, 2014
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Isros-agent-Mars-The-name-is-Arunan/articleshow/43366888.cms

Sometime early last year, when Indian Space Research Organisation was firming up plans to launch a Mars mission, the top brass looked around for a project director. There were several brilliant young scientists, but Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan didn't take long before picking S Arunan.

 He was young (then 50), had experience as the associate project director of Chandrayaan, and had the ability to look far ahead. What the chairman probably didn't know was his Agent Mars was also a hardcore James Bond fan.

 "I love Bond for his uncanny ability to get difficult assignments," says Arunan. "And what I got into was equally exciting."

With just 10 months for the launch, Arunan plunged into research. Getting to the moon was a cosmic trapeze act. To launch a spacecraft from a moving Earth to a moving Mars and capture just the right moment, when the red planet came around, would be much tougher.

 Poring over papers by foreign scientists, he arrived at a method based on pure mathematics. Escaping the earth orbit was a bit like Chandrayaan, but the rest of the mission was vastly different. "The mission was much bigger," he says. "We had never communicated with satellites beyond 36,000km, and here we had to do it across 400 million km. We had to develop an autonomous system for the spacecraft to travel on its own and carry out pre-fed commands."

 The mechanical engineering graduate from Coimbatore Institute of Technology attributes the mission's success to complex mathematics and simple thinking. Simplicity comes naturally to Arunan who is from a middleclass family in Tirunelveli. His father Subbiah, a school headmaster, inculcated the scientific spirit in him. "The other inspiration has been my fatherin-law Nambi Narayanan, a former Isro scientist who was a pioneer in India's liquid propulsion systems," Arunan says.

Insiders say when Isro suggested the idea of launching a Mars mission at Rs450 crore, some foreign scientists smirked. Today, some of them have offered Arunan jobs that he is not keen on. Arunan and his team of 200 scientists virtually lived at mission control in Bangalore for 300 days. "He would come home well past midnight and leave before dawn. I wondered if he was sleepwalking," says Arunan's wife Geetha.

 How did he fight stress? "Watching Bond movies, of course," laughs Arunan.

 
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