From Railway staff quarters to Moon: Trajectory of Chandrayaan-3 Project Director Veera Muthuvel

Veera Muthuvel was an average student till he joined a diploma course in engineering and found his calling.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Aug 24, 2023 | 4:32 PMUpdatedAug 24, 2023 | 4:32 PM

P Veera Muthuvel. (Supplied)

P Veera Muthuvel was disappointed and restless. He gazed at the night sky, the Moon in particular, through a telescope from the rooftop of his residence on the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) campus in Bengaluru.

A while ago, on 7 September, 2019, India had seen a crestfallen and inconsolable K Sivan, the ISRO chairman, silently lamenting the loss of Vikram, the Chandrayaan-2’s Lander Module. It was a slip between the cup and the lip when years of hard work — and a nation’s dream — crashed and shattered on the lunar surface.

The gloom, it seemed, affected the September night as well.

However, Muthuvel was also adamant. In coordination with NASA, he kept scanning the lunar surface until he came across a bouncing glitter, which was later confirmed as the debris of Chandrayaan-2.

“Despite the loss, getting that close to the surface was an amazing achievement,” NASA said of India’s attempt to land on the Moon.

Muthuvel was then the Deputy Director of ISRO’s Space Infrastructure Programme Office. He later became the Project Director of Chandrayaan-3.

India overcame the setback, learnt lessons, and marched forward. On Wednesday, 23 August, the country landed on the Moon.

Related: Not just sons, Tamil Nadu contributed soil too to the lunar mission

Average student turns India’s pride 

The branches of rain trees on the Railway Mixed High School campus at Villupuram keep reaching up to the sky, like the ignited mind of its celebrated alumnus Muthuvel.

The crash site and debris of Chandrayaan-2. (NASA)

The crash site and debris of Chandrayaan-2. (NASA)

Born into a middle-class family in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district on 22 October, 1976, Muthuvel did his schooling up to Class X in the Railway Mixed High School.

His father Palanivel was a technician with the Southern Railway. The boy spent most of his life in the railway quarters where they resided. Muthuvel cleared his board exams with average marks before pursuing a diploma in Mechanical Engineering in Villuppuram.

“My parents did not have much education. There was no one to guide me in my higher studies. Since I had no idea what to do after schooling, I chose the engineering diploma course along with my friends,” Muthuvel said in a motivational video he had released after he took charge of the Chandrayaan-3 project.

The decision to join the diploma course was the turning point in Muthuvel’s life. “While pursuing the diploma, I got interested in Engineering. I secured 90 percent marks in all papers and got into BE under the merit quota,” he said.

Later, Muthuvel completed his Master’s in Engineering from NIT, Tiruchy.

Related: Why ISRO chose South Pole of Moon for landing Chandrayaan-3

Space and beyond

Muthuvel excelled in the campus interviews while doing his ME, and joined Lakshmi Machine Works Industry at Coimbatore as a senior engineer. It was while in Coimbatore that he took an interest in space science.

He later joined the Rotary Wing Research and Design Unit of Hindustan Aeronautical Limited’s Helicopter Division in Bengaluru as a design engineer. His dream was taking wings.

In 2004, Muthuvel joined the ISRO as an engineer and later played the lead role in several projects. These included the Mangalyaan, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) — India’s first interplanetary mission to planet Mars.

After joining ISRO, Muthuvel did his PhD on the ‘Vibration Suppression of Electronics Package Satellite’ at IIT-Madras. He also worked on several remote sensor and scientific projects.

While serving as deputy director in the Space Infrastructure Programme Office, Muthuvel was chosen to lead the Chandrayaan-3 project.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.