Jan 6, 2015

Gowariker: Always a step ahead

It was a deluge of anecdotes and memories at the condolence meeting held yesterday to remember Dr. Vasant Gowariker. A wonderful human being, a wonderful mentor, and a great leader -- that’s what he was for the people who had the fortune of working with Dr. VRG. For others like the guy who broke into his house in Trivandrum in early seventies, he was a life changer. He was adored by all even outside office and a story had gone around that the militant headload workers refused to accept wages from him, which he had to thrust into their pockets.

A true nationalist who believed in indigenous technology, and the man who’s rightfully called as the father of India’s solid propellant technology, Dr. Gowariker breathed his last in Pune on January 2, 2015. He was 81.

His mentees who thronged the meeting shared vivid memories of the early days of Propellant Engineering Division (PED) and VSSC. As someone mentioned at the meeting, such men are born only once in a thousand years. Though a fatherly figure to many, he treated his mentees as equals and called them by their first names. The boss who spoke with his arms on our shoulders, the boss who treated us to coffee at his home, the boss who spent money from his own pocket to reward us for our professional successes, the boss for whom we would work long hours without cribbing -- Dr. VRG was a boss that anyone would dream of having. The PED Fund which grew into the VSSC Benevolent Fund, Countdown -- VSSC’s in-house magazine which still chronicles the successes and failures of the Center, the tree-lined avenues at VSSC -- Dr. VRG’s legacy lives through these and many more. When the Civil Engineering Division raised a flag to his idea of planting avenue trees, indicating the presence of underground power cables, he wrote on the file:  “Cables can be replaced”. Even his 8am-5:30pm PED Shift was accepted without a murmur.  That was his charm. He did not hesitate in offering a lift, even to bunking employees. Of course, they stopped bunking after that.

The author handing over a conference kit to Dr. Gowariker
At times he found pleasure in addressing duty officer meetings, sitting on a table  with his foot on a chair, even as Director, VSSC -- something that would have got VSSC “cool workplace” brownies had it been today. “Brainstorming Room”, read the signboard outside his cabin. It indeed was. He was a step ahead of others -- back in the seventies he started working on green energy, and trying to convert oils from non-edible seeds into biofuel. He called it space crude. Even after four decades, he believed that biofuels can reduce petroleum imports. Back in the 1970s, much before the advent of fuel cell technology, he initiated a programme for splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Dr.Gowariker was a protege of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who recruited him from the UK. Dr. VRG started propellant engineering and pyrotechnic research in the then Space Science and Technology Centre(SSTC). He pioneered the development of solid propellants in the country and created an illustrious band of scientists and technologists for India’s rocket related programmes. But for his solid propellants, ISRO would not have been what it is today. He started propellant research from scratch starting with cordite. After numerous experiments with various composite propellant formulations, the final recipe using Hydroxyl Terminated Polybutadiene (HTPB) was chosen as the benchmark. HTPB-propellant provides energy for ISRO’s huge solid motors including the S-200 motor used in GSLV-Mk-III CARE mission. To make resin in-house, he created the Propellant Fuel Complex. He established the Ammonium Perchlorate Experimental Plant (APEP) at Aluva to produce the much needed oxidiser. He founded the Polymer Complex to research on the fine chemicals needed for space research. Dr. VRG made ISRO self sufficient in chemicals and materials.

Under him, the Propellant Engineering Division (PED), in his own words, "was just a cub". He envisioned the cub growing into a lion in a video shown at the inauguration of SPROB (Solid Propellant Rocket Booster Plant). True to his dream, the PED has now grown into a ‘lion’.

He succeeded Dr. Brahm Prakash as the second Director of VSSC. Dr. Satish Dhawan, a close associate and a tall senior colleague of Dr. Gowariker, was then the Chairman of ISRO. After leaving VSSC, he had a short stint at the Stanford University, on deputation from ISRO. Later he served as the Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, and the Vice Chancellor of Pune University. Even after retirement, he had a lot of energy and out of the box thoughts. He created the Fertilizer Encyclopedia and the Pesticide Encyclopedia.

No one who has known Gowariker can ever think or say anything but praise for the great-handsome-gentleman-scientist-administrator. He was a rare blend of technology, science, management and humility. He was the man behind the country's first monsoon forecast model, and was famously known as the 'Father of Indian Monsoon Model'. He started the National Science Day celebrations which have come to stay. He was one step ahead of all. He kept that precedence even in his death. He died on January 2, one day ahead of the death anniversaries of Dr. Brahm Prakash and Dr. Satish Dhawan, two of his great associates, who died on January 3, though in different years.

May his great soul rest in peace.