Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Rocket People

Recently, India has seen quite a few scams, and the entire country is extremely unhappy with these instances of corruption in public life. Nothing seems to be sacred. People from the three pillars of our democracy, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary have been found involved in questionable practices. The fourth pillar of the free press was found to be involved in backroom dealings on political appointments. And, top brass in the military have been court marshaled for graft. But, there was one organization that people thought to be above reproach. The Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO is India's equivalent of NASA. And recently, there was a shady spectrum deal in the S-Band, that could have involved some top people with ISRO connections. Although ISRO moved very quickly on making amends, this entire event took a terrible toll on employee morale. Of  engineers and scientists, that have selflessly served the nation for many decades now.

When a much revered organization is criticized, sometimes, people think about its historical achievements. When you compare the glories of the past to the vagaries of the present, you wonder what is happening. And, rather sentimentally, I recalled two photographs that have captured my imagination for decades.

The first one is from the early days of ISRO, when the organization had big dreams for the people of India, but, it had a small wallet to pursue those dreams. So, nose cones of rockets had to be carried on bicycles, and this picture has become rather iconic for many Indians, who are fascinated by their very own space program, and its early days. The second one is from the early eighties, when a satellite was carried on a bullock cart. In a strange irony of sorts, it captures the  the dreams of many Indians on chasing the moon while they went about their daily business riding bullock carts.

Today, ISRO is a world class organization in its own right. It launches satellites for many developed nations. It has launched a spacecraft to the moon and landed the Indian flag on our planet's only natural satellite. It has developed technologies that have helped India's farmers in predicting weather. And, many in India look at this organization with a lot of affection, since according to them, the people who shoot rockets into the blue, are big dreamers. And dreamers, cannot go wrong.

If I had to pick my favorite person from amongst the many rocket people of India, I would pick Dr. Satish Dhawan without any hesitation. In 1951, he completed a Ph.D. from Caltech in Aerospace Engineering, and while most of the fresh Ph.Ds were  making a beeline for NASA to be involved with the Apollo program, he came back home to pursue a dream, which involved carrying nose-cones on bicycles. He was an extremely talented person, who became the first engineer ever to become the director of India's flagship research institution, the Indian Institute of Science. And, after Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India's space program passed away, he became the chairman of ISRO. Dr. Dhawan was a master administrator as well, and I found a really interesting anecdote of those times at ISRO in an article by Mr. Manoranjan Rao.

The early days saw many failures. Through all those difficult times, Dhawan never lost faith in ISRO’s capabilities. He took personal responsibility for failure but when success came, he always attributed it to ISRO and his colleagues. Thus, when the first flight of SLV-3 in 1979 failed, Dhawan faced the press. When the second flight succeeded, Dhawan kept himself in the background while Kalam spoke to the press. With this kind of leadership, engineers and scientists in ISRO were never afraid to face honest failures. 

We all know that the Dr. Kalam mentioned in this article, went on to become India's missile man, and eventually, a much respected and much loved president of India.  We have come a long way from the days of bicycles carrying nose cones for rockets. The bigger challenge today is to keep our institutions free of corruption and political interference, because, we still have people like Dr. Dhawan. They just need a chance to prove themselves.

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