We spoke to non-fiction writer Gurbir Singh.
Gurbir Singh is a UK-based space writer. He works full time in the IT sector as Senior Cyber Security Consultant for a large IT company. He studied science and computing and holds a science and an arts degree. Once keen on aviation, he has a private pilot’s licence for the UK, USA and Australia. He was one of 13,000 unsuccessful applicants responding to the 1989 advert for the first British astronaut in the UK– “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary”. Helen Sharman was eventually selected and flew on the Soviet space station MIR in 1991.
He is also the publisher of www.astrotalkuk.org, a not-for-profit astronomy and space podcast established in 2008. In 2011, he published his first book, Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester. The book traces the visit of the world’s first spaceman’s visit to England with first-hand accounts from the people who saw and met him. His second book, The Indian Space Programme, published in October 2017, is an account of the origin of India’s space programme, its current capabilities, and achievements and future ambitions. Born in India, he has been living in the UK since 1966, with the exception of one year in Australia.
Your bio is interesting….you explain that you were one of 13,000 unsuccessful applicants to a 1989 advert for an inexperienced astronaut. What is it about outer space that interests you?
Genuine interest in space and astronomy is nothing unique to me. I think a very large majority, if not all of us, have such an interest during childhood. I just never lost it. I was too young to understand the Apollo missions that took men to the moon but perhaps just the right age to be inspired by them. Later as a teenager, I spent many nights observing planets and deep sky objects through my telescope. My curiosity was never fully satisfied. The advert arrived just after I had graduated. In addition to a computing degree, I had some experience in aviation and foreign languages. I seemed to tick all the boxes for a potential applicant. There was a long list and a shortlist. I made neither!
The Indian Space Programme is a heavily researched book. Could you tell us about your writing process? It would help aspiring non-fiction writers when they write their books. Tell us how much time you spend on researching before you write, how you source pictures and conduct interviews (if any) and where you source your research material from.
I live in the UK, so much of my research was conducted via telephone, Skype and email. India’s early space programme relied heavily on international collaboration. I made contact with key individuals in US, France as well as India. I made three research trips to India, each about two weeks in duration. I visited Sikkim, Srirangapatna, Kolkata, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram, Coonoor, Chennai, Sriharikota and, of course, Bangalore. For my research, I used the archives at the IISc in Bangalore, the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, Sikkim State Archives in Gangtok. In addition to material from archives, I was able to secure photos and notes from the personal collections of my interviewees for the book. I interviewed Rakesh Sharma (India’s first astronaut), directors of several ISRO centers and a former ISRO chairman. The face to face meetings I had with the individuals who had first-hand experience of working on the projects I was researching were the most rewarding. Many of these interviews are available online via my blog and my YouTube channel.
Why is so little known about the Indian Space Programme? Did you decide to write the book when you realized this?
Yes. In fact, it was the absence of such information that motivated me to write this book. If a similar book had existed, I would not have embarked on this project. The reason so little is written about the Indian Space Programme is not clear. One is that ISRO themselves do not have a large, effective, fully funded outreach programme. NASA, ESA and other agencies understand the importance and power of modern social media and have developed a sophisticated public engagement programme. ISRO established its Facebook and Twitter account in 2013 after the launch of the Mars mission but the online activity is minimal.
Why did you opt for self-publishing through Pothi.com? Tell us how your experience has been.
I had an offer of a contract from a publisher but two issues prevented progress. One was that the publisher (US-based) would not agree to keep the price of the book low in India. Also, I felt embarrassed because I kept failing to meet deadlines for completion, so I never signed the contract. To get the end product as I wanted it took six years. In retrospect, had I signed a contract, I would have probably published earlier but it would not have been the book I intended it to be. Self-publishing offered me the editorial freedom to produce the final product as I wanted it. Pothi.com is an integral part of the story behind this book. With a reliable POD service in India, I was able to meet another key objective, through Pothi.com, to allow readers in India a cost-effective access to this book.
Tell us about your website https://astrotalkuk.org/.
It is a website I set up in 2008, initially for blogging and then podcasting. I have just relaunched the podcast after a pause. Podcasting is a fabulous way to make contact and have a shared learning experience. I have been fortunate to meet several astronauts who have been to the moon and engineers and scientists who have designed built and operated spacecrafts. Many of the interviews I recorded during my visits to the ISRO center in India are available online. There are 73 episodes now with another two scheduled.
Cloud computing and astronomy how do these worlds collide?
My day job is associated with information security. I write part-time (another reason it takes so long). Today the security concerns around cloud computing have largely been replaced by a more generic term Cybersecurity – which is now part of my job title. Most of us use cloud-based services without even knowing about it. Online threats to our personal data, online systems used by government institutions, industry and personal devices (phones, tablets, Alexa, even the smart systems built-in to cars) are at risk of attack by someone we have never met who most likely lives in another country. Cybersecurity and astronomy collide only in my diary.
Any future projects you would like to tell your readers about?
I have an idea for another book but it is a much smaller project. beyond that – no plans as yet. I have relaunched my podcast, after the publication of this book. I have received several invitations to speak and write. I have been surprised and delighted by the reviews.