On the shoulders of the soft-spoken M Annadurai rests a mission that will make history for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and for India. The man, who has worked on a dozen ISRO missions, is now the project director of the most ambitious of missions of ISRO till date. Annadurai, who went to a small school in his native Kothavady village near Coimbatore, is now preparing to send India’s first mission to the moon, Chandrayaan I.
The spacecraft, which will carry 11 payloads, of which five are from India and six from the US, Europe and Bulgaria, will be launched onboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle C11 (PSLV), with improved strap-on motors. On D-day (as of now, October 22), the PSLV’s lift-off will take India into the league of nations that have had a date with the moon, remotely. This could be just the warming up before an Indian lands on the moon.
The idea of an Indian scientific mission to moon was mooted at a meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1999. This was followed by discussions in the Astronautical Society of India in 2000. On the recommendations of the members of these fora, a National Lunar Mission Task Force was constituted by ISRO. Top Indian scientists and technologists deliberated and provided an assessment on the feasibility of an Indian mission to the moon and dwelt on the focus of such a mission and its possible configuration.
The soft-spoken and affable Annadurai has spent more time working on India’s space missions than on any other job. Having obtained a masters degree in engineering from the PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore, he joined ISRO in 1982.
During his nearly 26 years at ISRO, he was spacecraft operations manager for the Indian remote-sensing satellites (IRS) IRS-1 A in 1988 and IRS 1B in 1989, and Insat-2A in 1992, Insat 2B in 1993. Earlier, as the associate project director, he was responsible for the first Indian communication satellite built for the educational sector launched in 2004 — the Edusat. So when the time came to pick the man for the Mission Moon, ISRO chairman Gopalan Madhavan Nair knew who to pick.
Chandrayaan I was initially scheduled to be launched in 2007-2008 using a modified version of ISRO’s PSLV launch vehicle from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), at Sriharikota Range (SHAR). It carries instrumentation from ISRO and other international space agencies to accomplish systematic and simultaneous chemical, mineralogical, resource and topographic mapping of the entire lunar surface at high spatial and spectral resolutions.
Annadurai is thrilled about his task at hand, not nervous. “One of the interesting features of this remote-sensing mission is we will be able to have a closer look at the moon orbiting in a polar orbit just 100 km above. On the moon, there is only a tenuous atmosphere and its gravity is one-sixth of the earth’s,” he says.
Annadurai is busy assembling and integrating the mission. “All the parts and systems are ready and the payloads are coming in one by one. The spacecraft will orbit the moon for nearly two years,” he says.
The entire lifecycle of this mission will be tracked from a Deep Space Network (DSN) station in India, which has been set up at Byalalu, an unknown village till recently around 40 kms from Bangalore, which will now reach for the moon, literally.
Annadurai had earlier received the Hari Om Ashram Prerit Vikram Sarabhai Research Award for his contribution to systems analysis and space systems management in 2004.
He is also the recipient of a citation from ISRO for his contribution to the Insat systems mission management (2003) and the Team Excellence award for his contribution to the Indian space programme (2007).