Before the televised excitement of Chandrayaan-2 and inspired movies like Mission Mangal, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was once just a pipe dream. Over five decades ago, India broke into a bastion of space programmes held by an elite clutch of countries. At the time, all it had was an idea, some support from NASA, and the extraordinary vision of space scientist Vikram Sarabhai.
In a new coffee table book titled Ever Upwards: ISRO in Images, PV Manoranjan Rao, BN Suresh, and VP Balagangadharan, veterans of the space organisation, chronicle its amazing history, humble beginnings and audacious goals.
In an age when Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy is constantly under the scanner, the authors of the book write that India’s first prime minister was Sarabhai’s first ally. His second ally was Homi Bhabha, the “czar of organised research” in India. The first two chapters of the book are dedicated to the fathers of the Indian space programme—Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan. “While many Indians may have heard about ISRO or read about the organisation, or seen some videos of rocket take offs, very few of them, if any, have any idea of the people who created ISRO and how they did it. The first two chapters in the book are about these historical personalities,” Rao told Quartz. “One ought to know one’s roots, especially in these post-truth days of fake news.”
Through black-and-white photographs, the book offers a colourful and rare insight into how India’s space research institute was set up, how everyday Indians responded to the country’s forays into space, the political leadership backing these missions, and an overall sense of nationalistic pride without today’s jingoism. In the chapter dedicated to Sarabhai, his kurta-pyjama and the bicycles in the backdrop of large rockets present a commentary on the socio-political reality of a newly independent, emerging nation state.
Here are some rare photos of the time leading up to ISRO’s formalisation in 1969.