Nambi Narayanan, The Genius You Should Know About  

By Raza Mehdi

July 8, 2022

Born to a modest family on 12 December 1941 in Tamil Nadu, Narayanan was a brilliant student and had a keen interest in Mathematics. After completing his engineering, he started working early as an assistant engineer in a sugar factory due to his father's death.

On September 12, 1966, he joined Thumba Equatorial Launch Station in Kerala (which was then under ISRO) through a newspaper ad inviting Mechanical Engineers with a first-class degree.

Image: ISRO

Narayanan soon joined ISRO and became a member of India's first space science team. He went on to work with a number of stalwarts of India's space programme, such as scientists like Vikram Sarabhai (founder and first chairman), Satish Dhawan (his successor), and APJ Abdul Kalam.

Image: ISRO

At ISRO, he rapidly rose through the ranks until he won a prestigious NASA fellowship scholarship in 1969 to study rocket propulsion systems at Princeton University. Significantly, he completed his course at Princeton in just 10 months, which typically takes around two years.

Image: Princeton University

After completing his course, the Americans tried to recruit him to NASA by showing him their high-end facilities and offering him US citizenship. It was none other than Vikram Sarabhai who advised Narayanan to come back to India.

Image: Alamy

In its nascent stage, ISRO was using solid-fuelled engines. But Narayanan argued in favour of developing liquid-fuelled engines, given how they were the future of rocketry and all the advanced nations were achieving more with these engines.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

In the early 1980s, Narayanan and his team developed a liquid propulsion engine - named Vikas. The development of an indigenous liquid fuel engine helped India leapfrog into the era of PSLV rockets.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Vikas is still at the heart of India's rockets – PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mark 3 – all three of which are powered by this engine. It is the Vikas that made missions like Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan possible.

Image: Alamy

After this great feat, Narayanan began working to develop a more advanced Cryogenic Engine, to help India launch heavier satellites into higher orbits.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

In 1994, while he was heading the Cryogenics Division of ISRO, Narayanan was arrested on charges of espionage. He was accused of leaking confidential information about India’s space development to foreign agents.

Image: File Photo

Narayanan had to spend nearly a month and a half in prison and was allegedly subjected to third-degree torture as part of the interrogation. After the ordeal, Narayanan made fighting this case his life’s mission.

Image: Pexels

Finally, the charges against him were dismissed by the CBI in April 1996 and the Supreme Court declared him not guilty in 1998. But the case cost the former ISRO scientist his career and over two decades of his life and academic work.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Recognising his contribution to the development of Vikas, the Government of India conferred Narayanan with the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third-highest civilian award, in 2019.

Image: Facebook/ President of India