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The Hindu
The Hindu
Jacob Koshy

ISRO Chairman Somanath withdraws memoir after controversy

S. Somanath, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said on Saturday that he was withdrawing the publication of his Malayalam memoir, Nilavu Kudicha Simhangal (loosely translated as ‘The lions that drank the moonlight’).

The decision followed a report in the Malayala Manorama on Saturday that quoted excerpts from the book suggesting that K. Sivan, former ISRO Chairman and Mr. Somanath’s immediate predecessor, may have hindered key promotions that Mr. Somanath thought were due.

Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Somanath said: “There has been some misinterpretation. At no point have I said that Dr. Sivan tried to prevent me from becoming the Chairman. All I said was that being made a member of the Space Commission is generally seen as a stepping stone to [ISRO’s chairmanship]. However, a director from another [ISRO centre] was placed, so naturally that trimmed my chances [at chairmanship].”

“Secondly the book isn’t officially released. My publisher may have released a few copies... but after all this controversy, I have decided to withhold publication,” he said.

A spokesperson for Lipi Books, the Kozhikode-based publisher, confirmed to The Hindu that it was withdrawing the publication.

Mr. Somanath said the purpose of writing the book was to write a motivational story, on the personal challenges he faced in his journey of becoming a space technologist and in executing the Chandrayaan missions. “It was not to create controversy.”

On Chandrayaan-2

Excerpts from the book, which The Hindu has viewed, do bring out Mr. Somanath’s discomfort with the “Chairman [Dr. Sivan’s]” decision not to be explicit about the reasons for the failure of the Chandrayaan-2 mission [which was expected to land a rover]. The issue was a software glitch but was publicly communicated as an “inability to communicate with the lander”.

Chandrayaan-2 mission was originally scheduled for July 15, 2019, with then President Ramnath Kovind in attendance. The launch was called off an hour ahead, due to a “technical snag”. Chandrayaan-2 eventually lifted off on July 22 but the Vikram lander, which was to smoothly descend onto the moon and then release the Pragyaan rover, deviated from its planned trajectory and crashed on the moon.

“That a software glitch was at fault was known only subsequently. However, the crashing of the lander was known on that day itself (September 6, 2019). There was no point in calling it a communication failure... [as Chairman Sivan had described it]. However, every Chairman can choose what they communicate. I believe that whatever success or failure happens should be transparently communicated. I’m not criticising Dr. Sivan though,” said Mr. Somanath.

He said that he was in “constant touch” with Dr. Sivan as the latter continued to be an adviser to the ISRO and regularly gave inputs for future missions.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission incorporated several technical upgrades following what was learnt after the Chandrayaan-2’s failure. Following the launch on July 14, 2023, the mission culminated in the Vikram lander successfully touching down on the moon’s south pole on August 23, 2023, and releasing a rover to explore a sliver of the lunar surface.

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