APPLE on a bullock cart and other stories

The virtual exhibition ‘ISRO & CNES: A Common History’ presents glimpses of collaboration between India and France in the 1960s and 70s

One of the popular archival images from ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) is that of APPLE (Ariane Passenger PayLoad Experiment) communication satellite being carried on a bullock cart for telemetry test in 1981. The humble bullock cart was chosen since the scientists wanted a non-magnetic environment. More such nuggets from history form a part of the ongoing virtual exhibition ‘India and France in Space; ISRO & CNES: A Common History’, curated by Hyderabad-based scientist Pranav Sharma for the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES).

Jacques Blamont and Vikram Sarabhai at Thumba, 1963 | Photo Credit: CNES

It was meant to be a travelling exhibition, touring different cities in India and France. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it will now be online (ciihive.in). The exhibition is organised by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) in partnership with France. Following an inaugural address by Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of CNES, on September 15, the exhibition went online and will be on view till October 10.

One has to register on ciihive.in, and sign in to take a virtual tour of the pavilions to get a glimpse of the history of collaboration between India and France in space research from 1962 to the late 1970s. The CNES and ISRO partnership began with the meeting of Jacques Blamont, founder of the French Space Agency and Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian Space Program, during the Fifth General Assembly of Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) in Washington, DC in 1962.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of fairing of the French Centaure rocket in 1968 | Photo Credit: CNES

“The idea of the exhibition was to highlight the humane side of science projects,” says curator Sharma. He calls the mounting of APPLE on a bullock cart an example of Indian ‘jugaad’: “It’s the height of innovation and yet so simple.”

Sharma is a national award-winning science communicator who has curated India’s first interdisciplinary Space Museum in Hyderabad, and believes that the history of science is as important as the science itself.

Sharma says the virtual exhibition will have 25 panels that present anthropological, cultural, scientific and human stories from the beginning of Indian and French space programs, thus encapsulating the history of friendship, personal memoirs, and tales of triumphs.

Pranav Sharma  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

To highlight why understanding the history of science is important, Sharma cites another example of how professor M S Swaminathan and the early scientists of independent India came together to use satellite imagery to study crops and spot pests. “This exhibition will offer people a sample of how space scientists from India and France worked together with sociologists and agriculture scientists,” he says.

Among the other highlights are how the CNES supported the sounding rocket programme of ISRO during its nascent stage. Indian Space Program was launched with the taking off of the ‘Nike Apache’ rocket in 1963. The VIKRAM engine was developed by India by learning from liquid propulsion technology developed by CNES and shared with India after the Societe Europeenne de Propulsion (SEP) – ISRO Agreement signed in 1974.

(‘India and France in Space; ISRO & CNES: A Common History’ is on view at ciihive.in)

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