India’s moon mission rides on basketballer turned rocket scientist

October 13th, 2008 - 12:03 pm ICT by IANS  

ISROChennai, Oct 13 (IANS) As a Kerala state player, George Koshy used to shoot the ball into the basket during his college days. Today, as a rocket scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the tall, 58-year-old M.Tech from IIT-Bombay is the project director for Chandrayaan-1, India’s maiden unmanned moon mission, and on his broad shoulders rests the venture’s success.As things stand, on Oct 22, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV C11) rocket carrying the lunar orbiter and six other satellites will blast off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.

Like a basketball player without any fixed positions, Koshy joining ISRO in 1972 and was rotated in different departments - fabrication, tool design, the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) project - ISRO’s first rocket - and development of the PSLV separation systems.

For Koshy, Chandrayaan will be his third major space mission.

He was mission director when ISRO launched an Israeli satellite in a stripped down version of PSLV in January and played a similar role when the space agency sent up a cluster of 10 satellites in April.

While the PSLV rocket for the previous missions and the current one are the same, Koshy terms each launch as unique, with its own set of challenges and calculations.

Speaking about the moon rocket, Koshy told IANS: “The vehicle structure was altered to accomodate bigger strap-on motors.”

Traditionally the PSLV’s six strap-on motors are 10 metres in length and carry nine tonnes of solid propellant each. For the moon mission, they have been extended to 13.5 metres and will each carry 12 tonnes of fuel.

“All the six motors have been ground tested,” Koshy said.

As a matter of abundant caution, the PSLV rocket has been padded up with additional thermal insulation.

Koshy said the fabrication of the 316-tonne rocket started two years ago and its integration with the lunar orbiter took another two months.

The rocket will sling into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GSO) the cuboid-shaped spacecraft.

With a lifespan of two years, the spacecraft will start orbiting the moon from Nov 8. It will also release a moon impact probe that will land on the lunar surface on Nov 14 - celebrated in India as Children’s Day to mark the birthday of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The other notable feature of the moon rocket is that it will be the last one to be guided by ISRO’s old avionics systems.

“We have developed our own processor that would start guiding our rockets from next year,” Koshy said.

According to him, ISRO is working on plans to increase the thrust of the rocket’s upper stage and carry more fuel in the second stage.

Koshy said ISRO is getting enquiries for the launch of 500-600 kg satellites. A new vehicle with ideal capacity would lower launch costs, he added.

As ISRO sends around four rockets up every year, one year’s production was always in the pipeline, he pointed out.

Hailing from a big family of seven sisters and one brother, Koshy, the son of a Maths professor, is the only rocket scientist in his family. Even his daughter and son have stayed away from this tricky craft while his wife Rani Mary George is a principal scientist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute at Thiruvananthapuram.

Slated to retire in 2010, the rocket scientist has no career regrets.

“If I have to start my career all over again, I will choose ISRO as my employer,” he asserted.

Meanwhile, the basketball fraternity can be proud that one amongst them is getting India on to the moon!

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