S. Nambi Narayanan- An ‘extraordinary’ story of an ISRO Scientist

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From being a wonderful scientist who was accused (wrongly) in an espionage case, to finally being conferred with the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award of the nation, the journey of S. Nambi Narayanan is worth telling and reading.

Nambi Narayanan is a well-known name in the field of missile technology in India. He played a vital role in the development of Vikas Engine, which was used in the launch of the first Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) by India. This engine was the heart of the launch vehicles that were used by Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) in its historical missions, including theChandrayaan and Mangalyaan.

Little did he know that fate has something else in the bag for him! Who would have thought that from being a crucial part of Indian Space missions, he will have to fight for 24 years to prove his innocence?

He was one of the first vocal advocates of engaging liquid propulsion technology, at the time when India had an ability to just handle solid fuels, and for that too; we were majorly dependant on foreign countries for advanced rocket propulsion technologies. Although it was over an ambitious idea for his seniors including Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Satish Dhawan, and Vikram Sarabhai, they didn’t discourage him from working for this technology.

He was offered to study rocket propulsion in detail at the Princeton University, the chance which he was waiting for. On completion of the course, he spent half a decade working on the French Viking engine and mastered the liquid propulsion technology. This is the same technology that became predecessor for the development of the Vikas engine which is still being employed to the ISRO. By 1994, he was already heading the ISRO’s cryogenic engine project.

But with great power comes great responsibility.  And being the in-charge of an important wing, he held many secrets of India’s space missions. It was then and because of this, he was falsely caught up in an espionage case.

On the charges of leaking key defense secrets to two Maldivian intelligence officers namely Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan, Narayanan and his four colleagues were arrested. He was also severely tortured during his 50 days stay in police custody. Then the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). It was May 1996, when CBI submitted its investigation report to a Kerala court stating that all the charges against the accused were baseless.  It was too late as irreparable harm had already been done on Narayanan’s image.  He was branded as a traitor and he and his family were subjected to insults wherever they went.

The problems didn’t end here. What followed this was again a long legal battle that was ended in 2018 by the Supreme Court of India. The court cleared all the charges against him and directed the Kerala government to give ₹50 lakh as compensation to him.

And finally, it took the Indian judicial system 24 years to pronounce a scientist innocent and clear the taint of spying against his own country from him.

In 2019, he has been felicitated with the Padma Bhushan for his remarkable contributions to the space technology of India.

While going through this turmoil, he found solace in writing and have penned downed his journey in books titled ‘Ready to Fire: How India’, ‘I Survived the ISRO Spy Case’, and ‘Ormakalude Bhramanapatham’. Soon his life would be featured on a big screen in a movie called ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’.

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