At a function to mark 40 years of the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bangalore last month, the agenda consisted of celebrating both the institution and the launch of RISAT-1, India’s first microwave remote-sensing all-weather satellite, a few days ago. RISAT-1’s success could not have come at a more opportune moment — till then, ISRO had had little to celebrate in 2012. The year began on the worst-possible note for the illustrious space agency, with four of its senior scientists being blacklisted by the government over alleged irregularities in a deal to lease transponders to private firm Devas. In fact, one of them, former chairman Madhavan Nair, publicly declared that the organisation had gone to the dogs and that its current chairman and fellow-Malayali, Koppillil Radhakrishnan, did not know a satellite from a transponder.
But if the incident had left a bitter aftertaste, it was hardly tangible in ISAC’s air-conditioned auditorium that day, with former chairman K Kasturirangan referring to the silver-haired Radhakrishnan as “Rads”, and jokes being cracked by the luminaries gathered. The one discordant note, though not unexpected, was the absence of Nair on the dais. However, K N Shankara, one of the banned scientists, was present.
That is explained easily by Radhakrishnan when we meet a month later in his spacious office at Antariksh Bhawan, the Indian Space Research Organisation headquarters. Only former directors were on the dais, and Shankara happened to be one while Nair was not, says Radhakrishnan, who has discarded the black Nehru jacket, beige shirt and black trousers of that day for more formal full-sleeved, striped-blue shirt and dark trousers.
Nair may have courted the media when the controversy was raging, but Radhakrishnan, who had supported an investigation of the Antrix-Devas deal, had taken the opposite approach, barely commenting or granting interviews. The findings of the investigating committee, when made public later, seemed to vindicate the chairman’s stand on the issue. But instead of being triumphant, Radhakrishnan merely chooses to say that there was nothing personal about any of it.
What Radhakrishnan does talk about at length is ISRO’s future launches, and there seem to be plenty of them lined up. “The next two years are going to be full of activity — we have 26 missions planned, of which two have been completed,” says the 62-year-old who took over as chairman in October 2009. Apart from the launch of RISAT-1, ISRO also completed a ground test for its indigenous cryogenic engine last month. Next up will be the commercial launch of a French satellite, SPOT 6, using PSLV C21 in August, and a slew of other launches including the Indian Regional Navigation System, a constellation of seven satellites that will enable India to have its own regional navigation system, the first of which should be launched in early 2013. Besides these will be a series of communication satellites such as GSAT 10, GSAT 7, GSAT 15 & 16, GSAT 7A, GSAT 6 and a meteorological satellite, INSAT 3D.
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The launch of RISAT-1 was a major landmark in the country’s space programme which is now in its 50th year, says Radhakrishnan, who joined the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram as an avionics engineer in 1971, after a degree in electrical engineering from Kerala University. “Microwave remote-sensing gives us the ability for day and night, all-weather imaging for the first time. It is also one of the most complex satellites ISRO has built,” he elaborates. Images from the satellite will be particularly useful in agriculture and in monitoring natural disasters like floods.
But however critical the success of RISAT-1 was, it is the launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with an indigenous cryogenic stage and engine that everyone will be watching out for. With high-profile missions such as Chandrayaan 2, the next moon mission, and the human space flight, as well as the launches of several satellites all hinging on it, a successful flight of the GSLV is crucial for the future of the country’s space programme. ISRO has attempted seven GSLV missions since the programme was initiated in 1992 of which, in Radhakrishnan’s own words, three-and-a-half have been successful. However, the two most recent, both conducted in 2010, failed — the one in April because of a fault with the Indian cryogenic stage and the other in December due to a flaw in the Russian cryogenic stage. The chairman emphasises that there is no flaw in the GSLV design, and that the faults have always been with a component or a small subsystem. “Detailed failure analysis was done, and several modifications and improvements have been carried out.” Following the successful acceptance test of the cryogenic engine last month, two more major ground-level tests will be done. The space agency plans to have the cryogenic engine and stage ready by October for the launch of GSLV D5 in December. An experimental flight of GSLV Mark III (without the active cryogenic stage), for launching communication satellites of 4 tonne (compared to GSLV’s 2.2 tonne capacity), is scheduled for the second quarter of 2013.
There are many who feel the real litmus test of his chairmanship will be these GSLV flights. U R Rao, who helmed ISRO from 1984 to 1994, does not mince words when he says, “Radhakrishnan is a very good man and has been with ISRO for a long period, but we will have to see what he does now — GSLV has to succeed, and we have to have our own cryogenic engine.”
But if he is nervous about GSLV, Radhakrishnan does not show it. “There is a very high level of confidence for the next flight of GSLV, which will carry the communication satellite GSAT 14,” he says.
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Chandrayaan 2, which will be an Indo-Russian venture with the Russians providing the lander module and India doing everything else, is scheduled for a 2014 launch. Everything for the flight is on track, says the chairman, but he stresses that GSLV must have at least two successful flights before that.
The manned mission is a little more iffy. The space agency was originally looking to put a two-member crew in space for seven days, which could be done with the GSLV. But the focus has now shifted to GSLV Mark III as the launch vehicle since it will have better mass and volume, and will be able to carry three astronauts. Whichever the vehicle, it would need to be “human-rated” and absolutely reliable, something that still eludes ISRO. “We have not announced a programme for the human space flight because there is no point in doing so in the absence of a proper vehicle,” Radhakrishnan says candidly. “But we are working on all the technology critical for the flight, such as the crew module with environmental control and life support system.”
Competition on the international front, meanwhile, is hotting up with China having successfully achieved its first manned space docking on Monday, with one of the three astronauts being that country’s first woman in space.
ISRO’s other initiatives include enhancing the country’s transponder capacity, an orbiter for Mars, the Aditya mission to observe the sun, a space research complex in Chitradurga in Karnataka, a space technology park near Sriharikota in Tamil Nadu and a third launch pad at Sriharikota. Radhakrishnan says two other priorities are developing industry’s capability so that the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and some of the communication satellites, for example, can be produced by players outside the space agency which would allow ISRO to focus more on research-oriented activities, and greater involvement of academic institutions, which can be developed as centres of excellence for space research. The space agency, which currently has 18,000 employees, is also looking to prepare its next generation of leaders, he says.
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While his predecessor Nair may have been more charismatic and popular, Radhakrishnan’s strength is his administrative skills, say colleagues. “Radhakrishnan is a very good administrator, who handles issues boldly. He is a management expert who knows how to motivate people and take everybody along,” says T K Alex, the current director of ISRO Satellite Centre. After joining ISRO, Radhakrishnan had taken a sabbatical for an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. “Unlike others, he is both a scientist and a manager, and is using the skills he learnt at IIM-B effectively,” says Alex. Radhakrishnan later went on to complete a PhD from IIT Kharagpur.
Though he has his hands full, Radhakrishnan manages to find time to practice Carnatic music, one of his passions, for a couple of hours during weekends. He usually performs at the annual Chemabai music festival at the famous Guruvayoor temple in Kerala and adds with a laugh that his colleagues complain he plays only classical music on drives to various ISRO centres. He had to abandon his other passion, kathakali, in 1993 because he was unable to find time for it.
Radhakrishnan is known to be devout and sees no conflict between religion and science. “I have been to Sabarimala 50 times,” he says with pride, referring to the annual pilgrimage to the temple in Kerala, which is preceded by 41 days of fasting and austerity. Radhakrishnan even collected the order appointing him ISRO chairman from Guruvayoor temple, having got it faxed there. Spending time with family is a casualty though. The job, he says, involves a lot of travelling — so the joke is that when he is at home, it is as if he is visiting. Radhakrishnan’s wife is a retired bank officer; the couple have no children.
Coming back to the period of turbulence at ISRO earlier this year, the chairman denies that employee morale was affected. “We completed an unprecedented 17 missions in 30 months — this cannot happen unless employee morale is high,” is his argument, though Rao says “bad feelings” persist in the organisation. “For this job, you need not only grit and determination, but nerves of steel,” says Radhakrishnan. With so much riding on the launch of GSLV in a few months, nothing less will suffice.