Interview with Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair, Director, HSFC and VSSC in Malayalam

This is a Malaylam language interview on Asianet News with Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair. He is the Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (this is where Indian rockets and launch vehicles are built) and Human Spaceflight Center (this is where India’s human spaceflight programme is being developed with astronaut training etc.).

Link to the Malayalam article that accompanies this interview.

The interviewer is Arun Raj K M. You can follow him here on Twitter. Below was his announcement for the interview posted on Twitter. He erroneously says 2020 in the tweet but he means 2022.

I do not have a cable connection at home, so I watched it on YouTube. The video was originally shared on Gareeb Scientist’s Discord (link to his YouTube channel, his Discord is for members only). At least two people on Twitter asked me for the English translation of this interview. Hence, I decided to create the English notes of the interview to help me share it with others.

There may be mistakes in my notes. Please refer to the original in Malayalam if you understand the language. Please help me with corrections in the comments section of this blog post.

  • Congratulations on the PSLV-C52 launch.
  • ISRO thinking about how to clear backlog and return to launch after COVID-19.
  • Next launch will be PSLV C-53.
    • within 2-3 months.
    • exact date will be known later.
  • Small Satellite Launch Vehicle
    • designed to launch 500 kg payload to Low Earth Orbit.
    • Has a lot of commercial possibilities.
    • Three solid stage with a liquid velocity trimming module for fourth stage.
    • All important tests are done. Vehicle being integrated right now.
    • Launch from Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota.
  • Gaganyaan – India’s human space flight programme
    • Working on how Orbital module can be separated in flight.
    • It is not necessary to use GSLV Mk-III for these tests.
    • So, a Test Vehicle (TV) was developed using a single stage Vikas engine. This engine is derived from second stage of the PSLV (PS-2) and the liquid strap-ons used on the GSLV (L-40).
    • This vehicle will be used to create the conditions of flight to test the abort of the Orbital Module.
    • 1-2 flights of the Orbital Module will be undertaken this year. This gives us confidence to make sure that the Crew can escape in case of any issues in-flight.
    • TV is also being developed as a multi-purpose test platform.
    • TV will be used to test air-breathing propulsion system.
    • TV will also be used to create flight conditions for the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) for various tests like straight-line flights of the RLV.
  • Human Spaceflight Launch Vehicle
    • GSLV Mk III is converted into a human-rated launch vehicle.
    • Satellite and payload fairing used on GSLV Mk III is replaced with an Orbital Module and Crew Escape System.
    • Vehicle design has changed. Hence, vehicle undergoing tests like wind tunnel tests etc. Many of the hardware used for the vehicle is being realized at Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (India’s rocketry hub).
    • Each stage needs to be analyzed separately and together to identify points at which failure is possible. Then, need to provide redundancy to avoid failure.
    • Health parameters of the launch vehicle needs to be monitored constantly. If needed, flight should be aborted under appropriate conditions. Vehicle Health Monitoring System is being developed for this purpose.
  • Second Launch Pad
    • Second Launch pad is being modified to support human spaceflight.
    • Second Launch Pad will be able to launch both GSLV Mk III and human-rated GSLV Mk III.
    • Escape chutes are being developed on the Pad.
    • Testing facilities and other accessories needed for human spaceflight being added to Second Launch Pad.
  • Astronaut Training
    • 4 astronauts in Bengaluru at Human Space Flight Center.
    • Training provided in Russia was generic in nature.
    • The Indian training round involves familiarizing astronauts with the human rated launch vehicle and the Orbital Module.
    • It also involves theory, practical, mental fitness, physical fitness etc.
    • Training likely to take 1.5 years. (I am assuming this is the Indian training round and not the total training time.)
    • Understand which areas are accessible in the Orbital Module.
    • Astronauts will also undergo simulator training. Simulators are getting ready at a temporary facility being developed in Bengaluru. This will be inaugurated soon.
  • Collaborating with Glavkosmos, other collaborations? (This was the question asked, but Unnikrishnan replied about Indian contribution. I think the interviewer intended to ask about any other foreign collaboration.)
    • This is a truly national programme.
    • We are tying up with industries, academia and other national laboratories where the technology is already available.
      • DRDO lab in Agra provided us with the parachutes.
      • Defence Food Research Laboratory in Mysore is providing the astronauts with food.
      • We have signed 12 MoUs with various national laboratories.
  • Technology Transfer to the public in the future. (Again, I think the interviewer asked about generally but Unnikrishnan is answering from PoV of human spaceflight).
    • Life support system in capsule could help in living in high altitudes. (possibly, in locations like Siachen for the Indian Army)
    • Inflatable Habitat
    • Portable Life Support System
    • Flight Suits
    • There are also many other things that we cannot foresee today.
  • Private Ecosystem
    • Space was a largely the domain of the government in the 1950s and 1960s. Private companies are playing a bigger role in space across the world.
    • Especially in America, where today they are also involved in human spaceflight and dreams of travelling to Mars.
    • We need to increase private sector participation in the Indian space programme.
    • Mechanisms like IN-SPACe (India’s regulator for the space sector) help.
    • Incubators, access to ISRO faciliteis will help.
  • Do you see private companies like Skyroot etc. as competitors?
    • No.
    • We have to encourage private ecosystem in the space sector to lower cost, to foster technological innovations etc.
    • We need to handhold them today to help them achieve these tomorrow.
    • We help them in reviews, provide test facilities, identify research areas etc.
    • By doing this, we want to increase India’s share in the space economy.
    • ISRO will do science missions.
  • Chandrayaan-3 , India’s third lunar mission
    • It will happen this year.
    • VSSC’s responsibility is for the launch vehicle, the GSLV Mk III.
    • We will make sure that VSSC delivers the same on time.
  • Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle
    • Studies on this are on-going. They are not yet in project stage.
    • These are revealed to the public when a proposal is sent to the Government after study.
    • This will be based on capabilities of ISRO, Indian industrial capability etc.
  • GSLV (what was earlier called the GSLV Mk II)
    • The cause of the failure of the GSLV-F10 has been isolated.
    • We are working on fixing this issue. Fix implementation is in progress.
    • NAVIC’s Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS-1J) will be launched on the GSLV after the fixing the issue.
  • NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR)
    • Joint collaboration between ISRO and NASA. Work in progress.
    • Main responsibility of VSSC is the GSLV. Work in progress to make sure that the launch vehicle is ready to launch on time.
  • Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota (India’s space port)
    • We are developing the capability to launch multiple rockets and launch vehicle. These are in the final stages of implementation.
    • We are also building the capability to increase the number of PSLV launches. These are also in the final stages of development.
    • We are building the capability to assemble and integrate GSLV Mk III in two locations, brought to the launch pad and launched.
  • Science Missions
    • Aditya-L1 (Mission to study the Sun) – to be launched in the second half of this year.
    • Launch vehicle preparations are in progress in VSSC.
  • The change in naming conventions (from OceanSat, EduSAT to EOS and CMS etc.) is for better monitoring of the missions.
  • Semi-cryogenic engine
    • These are being built to uprate the capability of the GSLV Mk III (to help it carry more mass to orbit).
    • LPSC, Mahendragiri is working on developing this stage and associated testing facilities.
  • Vyom-mitra (a humanoid robot developed by ISRO)
    • It will fly on the first uncrewed mission of Gaganyaan.
    • It is now undergoing testing and qualification for space conditions for launch.
    • Robotics is an important area. We see these robots as co-travelers with humans to the Moon and Mars (for interplanetary missions).
    • Hence, we are testing and developing our capability in robotics.

Space, Nuclear and Quantum

I recently tweeted looking out for people in the civilian nuclear energy space:

Do share any people you may know about on Twitter. Thanks in advance.

Space

India has developed reasonable capabilities in space. It is now embarking on developing a civilian space sector. In the strategic sector, India has developed a Defence Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It has secured communication and remote sensing capabilities.

The importance of the space sector is to continue reliable communication, navigation and remote sensing capabilities without having to depend on foreign countries. It is also to build and develop products and services in India that can be provided to the world at competitive prices.

I think we may be late on this path but we are on the right path with respect to space.

Nuclear

India needs to grow. India needs energy for this growth. Meeting these energy needs using hydrocarbons is not sustainable.

I think nuclear will form a large percentage of sustainable energy production in the country.

Quantum

Quantum is important for research and computing today. But, in the future, there will be quantum computers that will need Indian expertise to operate and program.


My understanding of Quantum and Nuclear is limited. I have not been watching these fields as closely as I have watched Space. What I have listed above are my assumptions. This is the starting point for my thinking about these fields.

Back to Return to Earth

I wrote the last Chapter of Return to Earth on November 30, 2021. Return to Earth is a re-worked version of a novel that I was attempting to write for NaNoWriMo 2021.

Through December, 2021, I was busy with delivering work related projects before the end of the calendar year.

In January 2022, I was following up with a distraction. A short story idea that I had hoped to write and publish by end of January 2022. The short story consumed me. I was not able to think of returning to the novel. It took a bout of COVID-19 for me to drop the idea of pursuing the short story and return to the novel.

Another thing pushing the return to the novel, Return to Earth, was the kick-off of Cohort 2 of Long-form Writing which I had the honor of co-hosting with Hemant and Saurabh.

I returned to writing the novel, Return to Earth, again yesterday (on February 8, 2021). This is a short but important chapter in the novel.

COVID-19

This was initially written on February 6, 2022. Links added and post expanded with more details on February 8, 2022.

I tested positive for COVID-19 on January 26, 2022. I was fully vaccinated with COVAXIN.

I had high fever (102 degF) on January 25, 2022. Having Dolo 650 did not help in controlling the fever beyond reducing it marginally to 100 degF. I consulted with a doctor on the Government of India’s app eSanjeevani. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and suggested that I do an RT-PCR.

My wife did not sleep that night. She says she could feel me burning with fever. She then went on to apply wet cloth on my forehead to try and cool my head. Her efforts to check oxygen levels and temperature gave differing levels which increased her worry at night. I slept through this asking her not to worry. This did not help her.

The next day the fever subsided. It was followed by cold and episodic cough. But, I think the worst was the week after. I was exhausted and could not focus on anything.

Although the symptoms (including the episodic cough) subsided after a week, the exhaustion lasted till February 6, 2022. Only a lot of sleep and a lot of fluids help me overcome the exhaustion.

I spent the time watching YouTube videos of Matt Ragland. But, I slept through many of the videos. The exhaustion was a constant right through the last two weeks.

Suffering and Tranquility

In 2017, I listened to an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast with author and philosopher, William B Irvine. I, then, went on to listen to his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy on Audible.

Photo by mukesh s on Pexels.com

In the time of the Greeks and Romans, Philosophy was something that was practiced and not just thought. Students went to these schools for practical lessons in living.

Each philosophy taught that there was an ideal that played a central role more than all the others. Epicureans believed that pleasure played such a central role. Stoics believed that tranquility played a central role.

The book busts several myths about Stoicism. The Stoics were not emotionally dead. They offer several practical tips and tricks to prepare one for the emotional roller-coaster of life. These practices helped Stoics maintain tranquility.

In comparison, the various darsanas of Indian Philosophy seem to say that there is only one theme that plays the central role – the reduction of or end of suffering.

Evo-Devo Universe

I had written about the Evo-Devo universe on January 3, 2021. I got many questions from readers for more details about the Evo-Devo universe. I am still in the process of learning more about it myself.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Evo-Devo is a model of predicting the future of the universe. The model was developed by futurist John Smart and philosopher, Clement Vidal. It is a possible theoretical explanation for the Universe. The authors propose a model that mixes two other existing models – evolutionary and developmental model.

However, scientists, presently think that the universe is fully evolutionary.

Evolutionary in the Evo-Devo is the bottom-up process of evolution. This is what we see in biology and shown by Charles Darwin. The authors call this part of the process “chaotic, variety-producing, locally adaptive, and unpredictable”.

Developmental in the Evo-Devo is the top-down process of development by planning. The authors call this part of the process “stabilizing, convergently unifying, globally adaptive and predictable”.

The authors think that the mixture is in the Pareto ratio (80:20). This ratio could be 90:10, 95:5, 98:2 or could move in either direction as more data becomes available.

In his essay, The Goodness of the Universe, John Smart applies the above theory to show that the Universe becomes increasingly good as it evolves and develops into networks. As these networks miniaturize and becomes dense, it becomes more likely that humans will stay on Earth than go out into the cosmos.

Knowledge Work

Ryan Holiday had the above podcast episode with Cal Newport for the Daily Stoic podcast. While both practitioners shared their ideas of how they practiced their crafts, I especially liked the part where they spoke about knowledge work.

I consider what I do as knowledge work.

Cal shares that Peter Drucker defined knowledge work in the 1950s. Since then, he says not much has changed. Workers are given a task and are then left alone to do their task. The organisation does not interfere in the performance of this task.

He suggests that probably knowledge work may improve with the involvement of the organisation. He suggests that NBA and NFL teams in the US do this much better. They know what they want to get out of a player in terms of his personal performance, his team’s performance in the game and in the league.

On improving our own knowledge work, Cal suggests that we do lifestyle-centric career planning. This involves first understanding the type of lifestyle we would like to lead and then select a career accordingly for best results. For the first two years of one’s career, he suggests not letting anything fall through the cracks. This makes sure that managers stay out of the way and gives the knowledge worker more autonomy.

Another snippet that I liked in their conversation is how Cal approaches a new idea. He says that knowledge work involves a lot of thinking and the present day has no slack for this very important part of a knowledge worker’s work. He builds the idea by thinking about it, talking to others and writing about it. This progression places more and more burden to be structured and relevant levels of research.

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Book World

Although I have lived in Pune for two-and-a-half years, the Pandemic meant that I have not explored the city.

I was looking for book stores in Pune. There are many of the ones that play an academic role. Many shut down during the Pandemic. Pagdandi seems to the city-wide favorite. However, I was not happy how they treated my wife and daughter when I was inside the store. I have not returned there since.

The search for another bookstore began. A search revealed Book World. This is a bookstore on Pune’s Fergusson College Road (FC Road). The Google review says they have a good manga collection.

I went there on the two wheeler expecting parking to be an issue. I left my two wheeler a little way off and walked on FC Road. I loved the vibe on FC Road. There were road side shops selling clothes and books. There was place to sit and hang out. There was a Kalakar Katta where artists were seen drawing portraits. I am not sure if there were writers or readers there.

I went down the steps and to Book World to see books on a center table and spread from floor to ceiling on the walls around. I spotted some of the latest books on the shelves there including some old copies of famous books. They had a really good collection of books there.

I bought a copy of Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic for myself. I bought a copy of Mahabharatee by Shruti Hajirnis Gupte for my wife. I bought a few children’s story books for my daughter.

Atrangi Re (2021)

We watched this movie in the morning of the first day of the new year. We were looking for something light-hearted. I had not read any of the reviews and things got pretty serious very fast.

From a Radically Networked Society to an Evo-Devo Universe

During the time I spent in Takshashila, I heard a lot about Radically Networked Societies. It is a framework to think about societies structured in the Information Age. In a paper/book by Nitin Pai and Sneha Shankar, they define it thus:

A networked society is flat, its demands are diverse and often inchoate, decision-making processes are amorphous, and leadership diffuse.

– Nitin Pai and Sneha Shankar, Networked Societies and Hierarchical States: The Emerging Challenge to Political Order

Nitin had a TEDx Bangalore talk on similarly organizing government at the level of cities (to begin with) to better respond to citizen’s demands in the information age.

Yesterday, I read a blog post titled, The Goodness of the Universe on the excellent, Centauri Dreams blog. The paragraph that caught my eye in the blog post was this:

At its core, life has never been about either individual or group success. Instead, life’s processes have self-organized, under selection, to advance network success. Well-built networks, not individuals or even groups, always progress. As a network, life is immortal, increasingly diverse and complex, and always improving its stability, resiliency, and intelligence.

John Smart, The Goodness of the Universe

There it was again. The mention of networks. This is networks at the level of the planetary scale. He believes that both evolutionary and developmental processes are work in the Universe. He calls this the Evo-Devo Universe. In this paradigm, he believes that we are more likely to head to a non-dystopian, post-biological future.

I am also convinced we are rapidly and mostly unconsciously creating a civilization that will be ever more organized around our increasingly life-like machines. We can already see that these machines will be far smarter, faster, more capable, more miniaturized, more resource-independent, and more sustainable than our biology.

John Smart, The Goodness of the Universe

The author goes on to say that at this level, the ethics and empathy in the network grows. The longer we live in this post-biological future, the more good we get. His conclusion also was interesting to me, when he says:

Also, far too many of us still believe we are headed for the stars, when our history to date shows that the most complex networks are always headed inward, into zones of ever-greater locality, miniaturization, complexity, consciousness, ethics, empathy, and adaptiveness. As I say in my books, it seems that our destiny is density, and dematerialization.

John Smart, The Goodness of the Universe

We see this in part in the growth of our cities, to some extent. I think the Evo-Devo Universe is the end point for which a Radically Networked Society is the starting point. As always, it is the middle that is interesting.