By Sharon St Joan
In 1960, NASA had begun to develop new communications satellites. In 1969, they launched the ATS 5, and made its use available to several nations. First, in a stationary orbit over Africa, it was used by a number of African nations for research purposes. Next was to be India’s turn, for one year, and the satellite would be in orbit over India in communication with an antenna on the ground known as the Delhi earth station.
The project was named the Satellite Instruction Television Experiment. Arthur C. Clarke, the renowned science fiction writer and futurist, called it “the greatest communication experiment in history.” In a bold new venture, it would reach rural Indian villages that had little access to modern education and information.
In order to seize this opportunity, India needed to build a ground antenna that could communicate with the satellite. The contract to make the antenna had been given to the Electronics Corporation of India in Hyderabad – which, unfortunately, had not been able to fulfill their commitment.
This left the Indian government scrambling at the last minute to find another company that could deliver the antenna – a correct antenna that could do the job – on time. The problem that ECI had was that it couldn’t achieve the required accuracy for the surface panels. The panels needed to have an absolutely smooth surface, to a tolerance of one fortieth of an inch.
When it became clear that the ECI was many months late, the Indian Department of Space started to lose patience. They placed an ad asking for bids for the project. A young Dr. Chinny Krishna had started his company, Aspick Engineering, just one year before, in 1973. It was a brand new company and still quite small. He had sold his motorcycle to help with the funding needed to start Aspick.
Having attended AC Tech Engineering College, Chennai, and then Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Dr. Krishna returned to India in 1972, when he joined the faculty of IIT Chennai to teach while preparing to start his company, which would design and manufacture special purpose machinery out of steel and other metals.
Today, forty years later, Aspick Engineering is one of the most outstanding and highly successful companies of its kind, executing special orders for customers throughout India and around the world.
At that time, in 1974, when Dr. Krishna placed a bid for the chance to built the antenna for the NASA communications satellite, hardly anyone had ever heard of Aspick Engineering.
The antenna was to receive signals from the satellite which was in geo-synchronous orbit. This meant that the antenna, which was approximately 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above the earth, would move at such a speed that, to an observer on the ground, it would appear to be stationary. The satellite would complete one orbit around the earth in precisely one sidereal day intentionally matching the earth’s rotation period of 23 hours 56 minutes and 4.9 seconds. However, there would be small movements of a fraction of a degree of drift of the satellite and the antenna would have to continuously make small changes in its orientation to track the satellite precisely.
There would be 65 panels, made of hand-treated aluminum, and the final alignment could only be made by adjusting it manually. Around a dozen people at Aspick eventually worked on it.
Aspick sent in their bid to the Department of Space, which sent a team to Chennai in south India to visit Aspick to pre-qualify them. The team were especially careful in their appraisal because they had just been let down by the Hyderabad company after so many months of expectation. Dr. Krishna gave the team a tour of the factory and the offices. He felt entirely confidant that Aspick had the ability to meet all the precise qualifications for the antenna. The team were suitably impressed, and they pre-qualified Aspick.
The opening of the bids for the contract to build the antenna took place at the Shastri Bhavan Offices of the Department of Space. As was his habit, Dr. Krishna sat in the back of the room. He’d always done that, including throughout his school days.
To be continued in part two…
Top photo: Courtesy of Aspick Engineering / The satellite antenna.
Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr. Chinny Krishna
Third photo: Courtesy of Aspick Engineering / Other machinery manufactured by Aspick.