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Monday, February 9, 2015

ISRO’s Amazing Accomplishments: An Analysis

Indian space research activities can well be traced to the early 1920s when S K Mitra, a scientist from Calcutta, conducted experiments leading to the sounding of the ionosphere by application of ground-based radio methods. By 1940s, space research had graduated into balloon-borne experiments. The real momentum leading to organized space research had, of course, emanated from the active research undertaken by Vikram Sarabhai from Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad and Homi Bhabha from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay in 1945. Initially, the experiments were centered around studying cosmic radiation, high altitude and airborne testing of instruments, deep underground experimentation in one of the deepest mining sites in the world, Kolar mines, studies of the upper atmosphere, etc. It is however, with the establishment of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) with Homi Bhabha as its founder secretary in 1950 that the formal funding of space research commenced that obviously encouraged universities too to study various aspects of meteorology and earth’s magnetic field.

Against this backdrop, an attempt has been made here to trace the incredible accomplishments of ISRO that today stands out as the most successful scientific institute in the country and analyze how a government-owned institute could steer itself through such an amazing streak of success, that too, in an ever challenging environment of space technology and bring laurels to itself and the nation. The rest of the paper is organized thus: I – Tracing the Establishment of ISRO; II – ISRO: Organizational Setup; III – ISRO’s Accomplishments; IV – Role of Leadership Behind ISRO’s Amazing Success; and V – Discussion and Conclusion.

I. Establishment of ISRO
It is said that prompted by the successful launching of Sputnik by the then Soviet Union in 1957, Prof. Sarabhai successfully convinced the Government of India about the importance of a space research program for India. As a result, in 1961, Government of India entrusted the task of studying various aspects of space research and its peaceful uses to the DAE. In 1962, DAE set up Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with Sarabhai as the chairman to organize a national space program. And it is with the establishment of INCOSPAR that the modern era of space research formally began in India.

Immediately after its formation, INCOSPAR identified Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram—the site, over which, the geomagnetic equator of earth passed—and established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) to launch sounding rockets to carry out meteorological and upper atmospheric research. It is on the historical day of November 21, 1963 that the rocket-based space research—measuring the equatorial electrojet parameters; studying upper atmospheric phenomena, cosmic rays and energetic X-ray and gamma rays—began in the country with the firing of Nike Apache, the imported rocket from the US, from the TERLS, Thumba.

Realizing the importance of developing indigenous competence in space technology, Sarabhai established  
Space Science and Technology Center (SSTC) in Thumba to work on rocket technology. Later, sponsoring TERLS as an international sounding rocket launching facility, India formally dedicated it to the United Nations (UN) on February 2, 1968 at the hands of the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. At the dedication ceremony, Sarabhai elaborated India’s vision for space research thus: “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the explorations of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, which we find in our country.”1 By dedicating TERLS to the UN, Sarabhai had ensured that the young Indian science community had the benefit of rubbing shoulders with scientists from several countries such as the USA, USSR, France, Japan, West Germany and UK who have utilized and continued to utilize the TERLS facility for conducting rocket-based experiments.

In 1969, DAE reconstituted INCOSPAR as an advisory body under the India National Science Academy (INSA) and established the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as the prime institution of the government to develop space technology and its application for national interests and Sarabhai became its first Chairman. Later, Government of India constituted the Space Commission and established the Department of Space (DOS) and brought ISRO under DOS on June 01, 1972. The Space Commission formulates policies and oversees their implementation, while DOS gets the policies implemented through ISRO and other institutes by providing necessary financial support.

II. ISRO: Organizational Setup
Over the last five decades, ISRO, gaining considerable mastery over the ever challenging task of developing space technology and its utilization, has graduated from experimental and demonstration phases to an operation era by offering its potential to address the national needs.

It has become largely self-reliant to design and build satellites that can provide vital services like telecommunications, television broadcasting, meteorological forecasts, disaster management support and natural resources survey, and launch them using indigenously designed and developed launch vehicles. All of this has been achieved through a string of amorphous institutions that are welded together into a dynamic structure capable of producing results time and again. Some of the important units are listed hereunder along with their main responsibilities:
•  Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC) at Thiruvananthapuram is the ISRO’s lead center for launch vehicles. It undertakes design, development and integration of satellite launch vehicles for various missions. It is engaged in technology development, qualification and realization of various subsystems; development of avionics, control systems, aeronautics and solid propulsion. It undertakes advanced R&D pertaining to satellite launch vehicles to ensure self-reliance in launch vehicle technology and spacecraft subsystems for ISRO’s satellite program.
•  ISRO Satellite Center at Bengaluru is engaged in the development of satellite technology for scientific, technological and application missions. Accordingly, it is divided into five functional units: mechanical systems area, including thermal systems and spacecraft mechanisms; digital and communications area; integration and power area; and controls and mission area. It also offers facilities to test and ensure that the subsystems and systems match the requirements of space environment. It has so far developed more than 50 satellites such as scientific, communication and remote sensing satellites.
•   Space Vehicle Launch Center at Sriharikota has two launch pads offering necessary infrastructure for launching satellites into low-earth orbit, polar orbit and geostationary transfer orbits. It also provides complete support for vehicle assembly, fueling, checkout and launch operations. It also facilitates launching of sounding rockets to study the earth’s atmosphere.
•   Space Applications Center at Ahmedabad is one of the major centers of ISRO playing a vital role in harnessing space technology for a wide variety of applications for societal benefits. Primarily responsible to design and develop payloads, societal applications, capacity building and space sciences. It carries out several application programs like mapping natural resources, weather and environmental studies, disaster monitoring, etc. It indeed creates a synergy of technology, science and applications.
•  National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) at Hyderabad acquires and processes remote sensing satellite data and disseminates to the user organizations. It provides disaster management support services. It also undertakes execution of remote sensing application projects in collaboration with the users.
•   Liquid Propulsion Systems Center (LPSC) operates from two centers: Valiamala center researches development of Earth Storable and Cryogenic propulsion, engines along with associated control systems and components for launch vehicles and spacecrafts. Bengaluru center undertakes integration of satellite propulsion systems with GEOSAT and IRS programs. It designs and develops monopropellant propulsion system, system engineering, transducer and spacecraft propellant tanks. It also researches into development of electric propulsion system, propellant gauging system for spacecraft, advanced transducers, etc.
•   ISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC) at Mahendragiri offers infrastructure support for critical activities like assembly, integration and testing of earth storable propellant engines for Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and GSLV MKIII launch vehicles; assembly, integration and testing of cryogenic engines and stages for GSLV and GSLV MKIII launch vehicles; high altitude testing of upper stage engines and spacecraft thrusters; automatic testing of various subsystems of launch vehicles and satellites; structural test facility for pressurized hardware up to 5 m diameter, etc. It also produces cryogenic propellants for cryogenic rocket programs.
•  ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command (TTC) Network headquartered at Bengaluru, with TTC ground stations at Bengaluru, Lucknow, SHAR (Sriharikota), Thiruvananthapuram, Port Blair Island, Brunei, Biak (Indonesia) and Mauritius, offers TTC support services for the launch vehicle and low-earth orbiting spacecraft and deep space missions of ISRO and other space agencies around the world.
•   Master Control Facility at Hassan facilitates monitoring and control of all the geostationary satellites of ISRO. It carries out operations meant for initial orbit raising of satellites, in-orbit payload testing, and on-orbit operations throughout the life of these satellites. Also, continuously tracks and commands satellites, carries out special operations like eclipse management, station-keeping maneuvers, etc.
Besides these major centers, there are several other units, agencies, facilities and laboratories that are spread across the country such as Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), National Atmospheric Research Laboratory (NARL), North Eastern-Space Applications Center (NE-SAC) and Semi-Conductor Laboratory (SCL) which cater to the needs of ISRO’s programs. There are also many private corporates that are roped in to fabricate supply of essential materials/fabricate parts that go into the assembling of launch vehicles, spacecrafts, etc. from time to time as the program demanded.

III. ISRO’s Accomplishments
“Indians are very proud of the ‘constellation’ of more than a dozen of the country’s satellites in orbit, a feat performed on, what the well-known United States-based magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology called a few years ago, a ‘shoestring’ budget”2, said Roddam Narasimha, Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. And that is what keeps ISRO on a high pedestal in the eyes of every Indian. For, who would not be proud of an institution that carried a 700 kg French satellite and a 15 kg Japanese student satellite into space through its PSLV rocket.
Exhibit 1: ISRO - Chronology of Important Achievements
The first sounding rocket was launched from TERLS on November 21.
Space Science and Technology Center (SSTC) was established in Thumba. 
Satellite Telecommunication Earth Station was erected at Ahmedabad. 
Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was created in the DAE.
Sriharikota (AP) rocket launching station established.
The government established the Space Commission and the Department of Space (DOS) in June. DOS reports directly to the Prime Minister. 
ISRO placed under DOS on June 1. 
 ISRO made a government organization on April 1.
 Aryabhata, the first Indian space satellite, was launched for India on April 19. 
Bhaskara-I, an experimental satellite for earth observations, launched on June 7. 
The first experimental launch of an SLV-3 rocket on August 10 failed to place its Rohini Technology Payload satellite in the orbit. 
On July 18, India successfully launched its own Rohini-1 satellite with an indigenously developed Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) rocket from the Sriharikota launch station. 
Rohini-3, communications satellite, was launched in August to offer nationwide television coverage.
Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma, a 35-year-old Indian Air Force pilot, became the first Indian cosmonaut, the 138th man in space when he spent eight days aboard the USSR's space station Salyut 7.
The first developmental launch of a larger Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) rocket on March 24 failed to place its SROSS-1 satellite in the orbit. However, it could lift a 300-lb satellite to an orbit 250 miles above earth.
 The second developmental launch of an ASLV in July also failed. However, the subsequent third and fourth attempts were successful. 
The Indian-built INSAT-2 geostationary communications and meteorological satellite superseded an American-built INSAT-1. 
Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) debuted in September, but failed to attain orbit.
The first launch of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket was successful on April 18.
Launch of Kalpana-1 satellite on board a PSLV rocket.
Launch of GSAT-2 on board GSLV and Resourcesat-1 by PSLV.
Launch of EDUSAT by GSLV's first operational flight.
Second launch pad was commissioned at Sriharikota. Launch of Cartosat-1 and Hamsat by PSLV.
Second operational flight of GSLV with INSAT-4C. For the first time, an Indian rocket carried a communication satellite. But the mission failed.
Launch of Cartosat-2 with Space Capsule Recovery Experiment and two foreign satellites and successful recovery of the space capsule. Launch of Italian satellite AGILE by PSLV and INSAT-4CR by GSLV.
Launch of Israeli satellite Tecsar by PSLV. Launch of two Indian and eight foreign satellites by a single PSLV.
India's first moon mission Chandrayaan-1 by PSLV.
Launch of Radar Imaging Satellite (RISAT-2) and ANUSAT from Anna University (first satellite from an Indian university) by PSLV. Launch of seven satellites by PSLV, including India's Oceansat.
Failure of two GSLV missions. Launch of Cartosat-2B, STUDSAT and three small foreign satellites by PSLV.
Launch of Resourcesat-2 and two small satellites by PSLV. Launch of GSAT-12 by PSLV. Launch of Megha-Tropiques and three small satellites by PSLV.
Launch of RISAT-1 by PSLV. Launch of French satellite SPOT 6 and Japanese satellite Proiteres.
Mars Orbiter Mission, India's first interplanetary probe to Mars was launched successfully by PSLV-C25on November 05, 2013.
Spacecraft successfully enters Martian Orbit and captures first image of Mars. 

Commenting on ISRO’s Mangalyaan success, American weekly news magazine Time3 said: “Nobody gets Mars right on the first try. The US didn’t, Russia didn’t, the Europeans didn’t. But on September 24, India did. That’s when the Mangalyaan ... went into orbit around the Red Planet, a technological feat no other Asian nation has yet achieved.” The Mars spacecraft that costed ISRO US$74 mn, has been called by Time as “The Supersmart Spacecraft.” And it picked up ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission for inclusion among the 25 best inventions of 2014 that made “the world better, smarter and—in some cases—a little more fun.”

There are of course, critiques who question ISRO’s extraterrestrial projects a waste of money, for two-fifths of children in India remain stunted from malnutrition. But space programs help us put satellites into Earth orbit to better our communications, better our abilities to monitor weather behavior that ultimately benefit common man immensely. For instance, Economist4 states that a fierce cyclone that hit India’s east coast in the last month of 2013 killed few, whereas a similar-strength one in the same spot, in 1999, killed over 10,000. And the reason for it is: Indian weather satellites helped to make possible far more accurate predictions of where and when the storm would hit.

To sum up the accomplishments of ISRO and the general good it did for spreading the scientific temper across India that our first Prime Minister wished for, it makes great sense to quote here what Dr. Mayank Vahia, Scientist, TIFR said in his reply to a question, “How do you summarize the development and changes in Indian science education compared to 25 years back?”: “I think India has made great strides. In the 1980s, we had to go to USA to conduct space studies (and I was involved in an experiment on Space Station in 1986), then we could send instrument up on Russian satellites. Now we are completely self-sufficient. If you have a good idea and are willing to pursue it with vigor, you can do it from India.”5

IV. Role of Leadership Behind ISRO’s Amazing Success

It is always difficult to identify all the reasons behind the success of any institution and particularly, it is all the more difficult to carry out such an exercise when it comes to evaluating a government institution. Nevertheless, often, leadership emerges out as the most obvious reason, for whenever there is an objective to be achieved or a task to be carried out by more than one person, leadership—“activity of influencing people to strive willingly for group objectives”; “interpersonal influences exercised in a situation and directed through the communication process, towards the attainment of a specialized goal or goals”—automatically makes its presence felt. As an effective conductor of a symphony, a leader strives to build an “expression of a harmonious and effective unity” and also make it “a going affair” in an organization so as to “orchestrate the energies of people around” him towards the goal. The criticality of leader and leadership for a successful journey of any institution can be gauged from what Peter Drucker once said: “The most critical people decision, and the one that is hardest to undo, is the succession to the top.”6

Ever since ISRO was established, a galaxy of scientists/technocrats headed it as chairman offering right leadership from time to time (see Exhibit 2).
Exhibit 2: ISRO – Chairmen
Vikram Sarabhai
9 years
M G K Menon

Jan. 1972- Sept. 1972
9 months
Satish Dhawan
12 years
U R Rao
10 years
K Kasturirangan
1994-August 27, 2003
9 years
G Madhavan Nair
Sept. 2003-Oct. 29, 2009
6 years
K Radhakrishnan
Oct. 30, 2009 - Dec.2014
5 years
We shall now take a critical look at the role played by the successive leaders in sustaining such a high rate of success in ISRO for almost more than half a century, making it a visionary institution of the Government of India.

Vikram Sarabhai: The Founder Chairman Who Laid a Strong Foundation for ‘Achievement-Culture’ in ISRO

In 1962, Prof. Vikram Sarabhai, having been invited by Prime Minister Nehru to organize India’s space research7, founded India’s space program. While the superpowers were developing space technology for strengthening their military power, Sarabhai, as the founder Chairman of INCOSPAR dreamt of a unique space program for India: using satellites for mass education, for developing communication, weather forecasting and mineral prospecting. He drew up plans to transmit education to remote villages across India with the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). Drawing vision by itself, of course, would not deliver results; they need to be executed and Sarabhai—a man of multifaceted character—initiated right action to translate the vision into reality with utmost passion. His innovative ideas coupled with his “excellent sense of economics and managerial skills” helped him align the workforce towards the organizational vision and accomplish success.
A Creative Leader
In 1962, COSPAR had pointed out that “The equatorial region has special scientific interest for meteorology and aeronomy. In particular, the magnetic equator is highly significant in the investigation of the Earth’s magnetic field and the ionosphere”. Now, driven by this observation of COSPAR and considering that the equatorial electrojet phenomena, confined to a narrow region over the magnetic equator that passes through South India, Sarabhai decided to establish the Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) at Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, for carrying out aeronomy and astronomy experiments. But Sarabhai encountered the problem of acquiring the piece of land that he and his team found ideally suited for carrying out the electrojet research, for the place is populated by fishing folks. There was also an ancient prayer house within the area: St. Mary Magdalene Church. The political system being what it was, the Kerala government expressed its inability to allocate the said land for the project.
Sarabhai, being what he was, did not give it up. He, along with his team went to Rev. Father Peter Bernard Pereria and obviously explained him how important it is for the nation, for the cause of very science to establish the proposed research station in that very premises, while promising to build within a year near the sea coast alternative facilities to the existing. Listening to Sarabhai, Rev. Father asked him to come to church on Sunday morning. Narrating the event, Dr. Abdul Kalam8 said that the Bishop, explaining the scientist’s work and his request for the abode of the fisher folk, abode of the Rev. Father and even the abode of the God to carry out a great scientific mission, asked them, “Dear children, can we give our and our God’s abode?” As Kalam shared, after a total silence, everyone stood up and said in chorus, “Amen”.
Thus the church became the design and assembly center for rockets of the initial Indian space program, while Bishop’s residence became working space for the scientists. It is the perseverance and innovative approach of Sarabhai that ultimately led to the establishment of Thumba TERLS at the very place where the science wanted it to be.
Later, convinced of the need to develop indigenous competence in space technology to realize the immense benefits likely to accrue from space research in the fields of communication, education and management of natural resources, Sarabhai established the Space Science and Technology Center in Thumba, which after the sudden demise of Sarabhai, rechristened as Vikram Sarabhai Space Center that ultimately gave the nation its launch vehicles that carried India’s flag into the Mars orbit even.
Sarabhai, a Visonary Leader 
Peter Drucker (2004) commented that “nothing may seem simple or more obvious than to know what company’s business is.” He goes on to say: ‘What is our business?’ is almost always a difficult question and the right answer is usually anything but obvious. For, according to him, it is to be answered only by looking at the business from the outside, from the point of view of the customer and the market.
And in the case of ISRO, it is to be defined from the point of view of taxpaying citizen and the nation. That’s what Sarabhai exactly did: He drafted a shining vision for ISRO: “A positive approach out of our predicament lies in finding solutions where the particular disadvantage of developing nations, which is that they have little to build on, is made an asset rather than a liability. It is necessary for them to develop competence in advanced technologies and to deploy them for the solution of their own particular problems, not for prestige, but based on sound technical and economic evaluation involving commitment of real resources.” He then so earnestly and meaningfully institutionalized it that it was and is fully shared by the successive leaders and their followers too. For, “it is a vision meant for enabling India to leapfrog into the future through the adoption of appropriate technologies”, said Dr. U R Rao, the former Chairman of ISRO. It is no wonder if his vision continues to be the guiding light of our space program even today.
The Ardent Institute Builder
His craving to extend the benefits of science to all aspects of socioeconomic development of India made him an ace institute builder: he was instrumental in nurturing 30 institutions—both in public and private sectors. Soon after his returning from Cambridge with PhD and at a very young age of 27 years, he had established the PRL in November 1947 in Ahmedabad with the donations collected from his parents, industrialists and other philanthropists. With K R Ramanathan as the founder director of PRL and small group of young research students like Rao and others, Sarabhai built up PRL into an outstanding institution dedicated to fundamental research in cosmic rays, aeronomy and space sciences. Under his visionary stewardship, PRL has indeed become a cradle of India’s space program.
In 1963, he formed the Group for the Improvement of Science Education (GISE) in the same institution, which later became a part of the Nehru Foundation for Development. In 1966, he established the Community Science Center in Ahmedabad with an objective to create interest in science and to promote experimentation among students, teachers, and the public.
He had also established Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association (ATIRA) at Ahmedabad to function as a think tank for the development of textile industry under his guidance. He had also established Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, to make efficient managers available for India to run its businesses. Along with his wife, he established Darpan Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad.
In spite of his astonishing diversity of interests, he could ensure success of each institution that he had established with consistency in his approach that involved usage of “scientific methods, sound financial planning and a clear nationalistic purpose.”
Leader with a Knack to Pick Right People and Mentor Them into Leaders
If India has demonstrated indigenous capability in making low-cost satellites, of successfully launching its own Moon probe—Chandrayaan and Mars Mangalyaan, the credit certainly goes to the foundation laid by Vikram Sarabhai. Focusing on strengths and strengths alone, he chose a passionate team9—A P J Kalam, E V Chitnis, Vasant Gowarikar, Pramod Kale, U R Rao, K Kasturirangan and other pioneers—and nurtured it assiduously to carry forward his vision even in his absence.
For instance, Rao, on returning from the US and joining PRL made himself busy in carrying out his space science activities, Sarabhai, convinced of Rao’s immense potential, requested him to prepare a blueprint for the development of satellite technology and its applications. Once it was made ready, Sarabhai convinced a reluctant Rao—the only person then having working experience on spacecraft systems at NASA—to take charge and shape the Indian satellite program. In 1972, the reluctant Rao thus assumed the responsibility of satellite design center and the rest is history: he designed, fabricated and launched over 15 satellites besides becoming the Chairman of ISRO in 1984.
Sarabhai could find time even to interview student seeking admission into PhD at PRL, for he wants to pick a student with right attitude for research. Here, it is worth recalling how Dr. K Kasturirangan, the former Chairman of ISRO, turned away from astrophysics to space for it reveals how Sarabhai motivated and inspired youngsters, of course, with right set of skills and attitude to work in space program that he was heading.
Obtaining his PhD, as Kasturirangan was planning to go abroad in search of greener pastures, Sarabhai called him enquiring about his plans. Hearing his plans, Sarabhai reminded him what he told Kasturirangan six years back—while interviewing him for PhD admission—that India is going to be a promising experience in terms of its space programs and that there are lot of vacant positions for youngsters with relevant experience like him. According to Kasturirangan, Sarabhai motivated him, inspired him considerably and gave me so much of confidence that he can work and succeed here and that he really does not have to look for greener pastures abroad.
When Kasturirangan posed the question that being basically a physicist and not an engineer how could he work in space program that involves a set of engineering techniques, to quote Kasturirangan,10 Sarabhai seemed to have “allayed all my [his] doubts listing out various tasks in a space program which requires knowledge of several areas and disciplines and pointing out that I am [he is] uniquely placed than any engineer because I [he has] have knowledge of end-to-end systems and an understanding of all the elements of the system. He also said the best people who have built satellite systems across the world, particularly in America for example, like Fred Singer or John Simpson, were all physicists. He persuasively argued so much on that aspect that I myself got excited that I should work in space.” Obviously, Kasturirangan got excited that he should work in space sciences and accordingly when he joined the program, Sarabhai placed him under “one of his illustrious students, Rao to work on the project meant for building Aryabhata. Thus, Sarabhai mentored a young physicist—indeed a future Chairman of ISRO.
In a similar vein, he handpicked the young Kalam in the early 1960s to get trained at NASA.11 It is his NASA training that facilitated the first sounding rocket launch from TERLS in 1963. In fact, that is only the beginning of his long journey to become a “missile man”.
Sarabhai, the Scientist
Returning from Cambridge with PhD for his thesis on “Cosmic ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes”, Sarabhai, setting up a number of cosmic ray telescopes at different places in India, carried out along with his students, extensive studies of the day to day changes of cosmic ray intensity, which provided the instantaneous snapshot of the highly varying electromagnetic state of the interplanetary space.
Later realizing the importance of the changing magnetic field irregularities on the Sun and their effect on the interplanetary space, Sarabhai, setting up a giant meson monitor at Chacaltaya, Bolivia, at a height of about 5340 m above sea level in collaboration with MIT, studied very short period variations of 1-30 cycles per hour in the cosmic ray intensity. Based on these observations, he and his team established a complete correspondence in spectral changes in interplanetary space, magnetosphere and in cosmic rays measured on Earth. He had also worked out the implications of the non-uniform solar wind, particularly as the fast plasma overtakes the preceding solar plasma creating shock transitions and turbulent conditions. Looking at the effect of such shock transitions on cosmic ray intensity, Sarabhai proposed a new mechanism for explaining 27-day recurrent effects and the so-called large Forbush decreases of cosmic ray intensity observed in space and on the ground.
Later, Sarabhai’s interest shifted to the study of fluctuations in the geomagnetic field and their origin. Using the data from the precise measurements of the horizontal component of the geomagnetic field (H) from several low latitude observatories across the world, Sarabhai and his group studied the diurnal changes in H. Based on these studies, they interpreted that a considerable part of the changes in H is due to the changes in the current system at the magnetopause and in the magnetotail, induced by the changes in the interplanetary solar wind plasma.
The extraordinary pace of research carried out by Sarabhai and his colleagues made PRL an outstanding school of cosmic ray scientists, besides achieving international recognition. What is more important to notice here is: PRL nurtured by Sarabhai became an unique institution for carrying out space science research contributing its own might for the successes of later ISRO.
Sarabhai, the Leader Who Built ISRO with an ‘Uncanny Artistic Intuition’
By the late 1960s, Sarabhai, sensing the difficulty of getting foreign assistance for taking forward India’s space program—indeed he voiced his concern so explicitly in one meeting: “the military overtones of a launcher development program of course complicate the free transmittal of technology involved in these applications”12—had made India’s first-ever-study for development of its own space launch vehicle. In his palpable hurry for developing a launch vehicle with indigenous capability, he had also got the cost analysis of building a launch vehicle program. The drawings were indeed got ready, and of the six, he ticked the third design and that is how the name of SLV-3 emerged. It is of course a different matter that with his sudden demise and the 1971 Indo-Pak war, India’s launch vehicle building program had obviously suffered a setback.
However, the impact of Sarabhai’s personality in making his colleagues to carry forward his vision for ISRO can well be understood from what Rao had to say: “The dynamism and purposefulness he infused, contagious enthusiasm and inspiration he transmitted and the deep concern and love for people he showed made a strong impact on his close colleagues and the institutions he built.”
Bruno Russi, the celebrated scientist from MIT with whom Sarabhai collaborated, very aptly summed up Sarabhai’s contribution to science at the special session of the Cosmic Ray Conference held at Denver in 1972 as, “I believe that the stature of Vikram Sarabhai as a scientist depends not so much on any specific achievement as on the unique character of his scientific personality. For him scientific research was an act of love towards nature. He had an almost uncanny capability to absorb and store in his mind a vast amount of experimental and theoretical data. Having done that and guided by what I am tempted to call an artistic intuition, he would then proceed to arrange these data into a self-consistent picture bringing out hidden regularities and relationships; a picture which, through the years, would progressively evolve and become more precise. This is why his death dealt such a hard blow not only to the personal feelings of his fellow scientists, but to science itself’.”
Sarabhai, the founder Chairman of ISRO, as Rao observed, being an amalgamation of a great scientist, an administrator, industrialist, a social reformer, a manager, a skillful diplomat and above all being a very warm and charming person, always smiling and never losing his poise even in the face of most adverse situations laid strong foundation for ‘achievement culture’ in ISRO. In fitness of the fact, it must be said here that Sarabhai, “working against time”, as though he was aware of the short time he had within which he had to compulsively achieve his goal—the goal of innovatively “linking the culture of fundamental research, the culture of research and development, and the culture of industry”13 that would automatically make India self-reliant in space technology paving the way for the ultimate development of the nation—devotedly pursued his mission (for instance, once gave appointment to Kalam at 3.30 a.m.!) and in the process burnt the candle at both ends and died of a heart attack on December 30, 1971, at a very young age of 52 years. And another great legacy that he left behind is: as he said in his speech delivered at the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of TIFR, “One of Bhabha’s greatest accomplishments was that when he died suddenly, he left the state of affairs in the hands of people who shared a common trust and a common culture and could manage to develop these institutions further as a joint group or family.”14 Sarabhai too left ISRO exactly in the same style. And, the current state of ISRO indeed testifies his leadership legacy.

Satish Dhawan
Prof. Satish Dhawan is considered as the father of experimental fluid dynamics research in India and one of the most eminent researchers in the field of turbulence and boundary layers. After the sudden death of Sarabhai, he succeeded him as the Chairman of ISRO in 1972. He was also the Chairman of the Space Commission and Secretary to the Government of India in the DoS. Simultaneously, he continued as the Director of Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru too, for that was his first love. Even as the head of the Indian space program, he continued to devote considerable time and effort towards boundary layer research. His contributions are presented in the seminal book, Boundary Layer Theory by Hermann Schlichting, even to date.
During his tenure as Chairman, he, with his dedication, breadth of vision, meticulousness, humanity, and extraordinary scientific and technological abilities steered ISRO through a period of extraordinary growth and spectacular achievement. Hence, it is often said by the scientific community that it is Dhawan who “lent substance to Vikram Sarabhai’s vision” and built ISRO as a vibrant body that it is today.
Leader with a Knack to Pick Right People for Key Seats
Immediately after becoming the Chairman of ISRO in 1972, Dhawan brought Brahm Prakash from the DAE as the head of the newly-formed VSSC at Trivandrum to streamline its functioning.15 They together transformed the VSSC—an institute with activities fragmented, with different groups working independently, at times at cross purposes—into a dynamic structure capable of delivering results time and again.
Continuing with his mission to pick right people to man critical missions of ISRO, Dhawan along with Brahm Prakash, one day called Dr. Abdul Kalam, one of the technologists in VSSC, and said: “Kalam I have good news for you! You are going to run a huge program for ISRO. I and Director, VSSC have decided to appoint you as the project director Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV). I am going to give all the money required for the project, the management structure and the human power needed. But you guy, by 1980, you should show that you can launch Rohini Satellite using our own launch vehicle.” Recalling the incident, Kalam16 said that as he was dumfounded at the enormous responsibility that they were assigning him, Dhawan coming to his rescue said, “We believe in your capacity, we believe in your team-building capacity and above all the knowledge required you can assemble and integrate … when you undertake a big mission like the satellite launch vehicle project, there will be many challenges—technological, leadership, and also some unexpected critical problems which you cannot visualize… Kalam remembers, you should not let problems become your captain. Instead, you become the captain of your problems, defeat the problems and succeed.” Kalam said that it is this advice of Dhawan that “reinforced my [his] thinking and action” and also made him “accept the project.” And the results are all around to testify Dhawan’s eye for right people for the right job.
A Leader Who Is Ready to Accept Failures but Pass on the Success to Followers
Initially, ISRO was to face many failures. But Dhawan never lost his faith in the capabilities of ISRO and its young crop of scientists/technocrats. In 1979, as the countdown for launching the test flight of SLV was on, Kalam,17 recalling the episode, said that four minutes before the launch, computer put the launch on hold, for a glitch was noticed. Believing that their manual calculations proved otherwise, they switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. As a result, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.
After the incident, Dhawan, conducting a press conference himself, took the responsibility for the failure upon himself saying that though the team had worked very hard there appeared a need for more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. This gesture of Dhawan naturally doubled the vigor of the project director and his team that enabled them to come up exactly within a year with a new rocket and launched it successfully in July 1980. That is the visionary leadership of Dhawan: Making Kalam and his team “see that it is not his purpose which is to be achieved, but a common purpose, born of the desires and the activities of the group”18 ensured the success of the project and in the process he too became a successful leader in making ISRO self-reliant in launch vehicles. And the creative leadership of Dhawan had not ended there: he called Kalam and said, “You conduct the press conference today.”
A Great Mentor
Sharing his relationship with Dhawan, Kalam said that on July 18, 1980, as India put a 40 kg Rohini satellite in a low-earth orbit through SLV-3 which took off at 0805 hrs, everyone in the control room at Sriharikota turned at once jubilant—in an emotionally charged atmosphere they were shouting, hugging and lifting each other. For, it was a great accomplishment for the scientists, especially after an unsuccessful earlier mission on August 10, 1979. Amidst that cacophony, it seems that Dhawan, taking Kalam aside to a silent place and sitting on the launcher and watching the waves of the Bay of Bengal in silence, said to him: “Kalam, you know you have been working hard for the last eight years. You encountered a number of problems and failures. You faced them all with utmost courage, patience and perseverance. For all the efforts that you put in, today we have got the results. I want to thank you for your excellent work. I will remember it and cherish it.”19 And Kalam says, “I have never come across such a beautiful day till then.” That is the subtle way of telling a colleague that he did matter for the Chairman and in the process letting him know that he had all that the organization needed. What else mentoring is!
The Change Leader
“To make the future is highly risky”20, said Drucker. But a change leader sees change as an opportunity: he knows how to find the right changes, and also knows how to make them functional. And that is what Dhawan did: drafting the services of Kalam for the space launch vehicle directorate at ISRO Headquarters, Dhawan assigned him with the responsibility of drawing space program for “remote sensing and communication satellites linking the corresponding launch vehicle systems including the launch complex.” After ten months of intensive interdisciplinary dialogs, they could design and develop a six degree of freedom simulation model integrating the progress of technology in different disciplines. But Dhawan’s devotion for the national cause was such that one evening, he, knowing fully well that the “most effective style of managing change is to create it”, sat down and drew the entire road map for the space program and depicted them in his own hand in two simple graphs which, according to Abdul Kalam, became the driving force for the entire space department for the next two decades.
Ace Manager of Knowledge Professionals and Their Knowledge
“Management of knowledge workers is a marketing job”, said Drucker. This concept had been fully
exploited by Dhawan when he was to relieve Kalam when he was transferred to Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). As Kalam was to finally move in 1982 to DRDO, Hyderabad, Dhawan, organizing an ISRO Council Meeting that was attended by all the Directors of ISRO laboratories and headquarters, asked Kalam and his team to present the space vision profile to the ISRO directors. By announcing the transfer of Kalam at the end of the day long presentation, Dhawan made Kalam feel that he not only elegantly made him “a part of the future space program but also honored him with a warm farewell.” It also ensured transfer of knowledge—knowledge that went into drafting of the space vision—to the successors who are going to execute it in Kalam’s absence, which in terms of organizational requirement is a must for success. That is the leadership of Dhawan!
Dhawan as a Teacher
Narrating his approaching Dhawan seeking his guidance to design a contra propelling rotator, Kalam21 describes the unique feature of Dhawan’s teaching thus: “He creates a spirit of research and inquiry in the taught by teaching how to design without giving the design. Indeed, he worked at enriching the design capability of the taught. By following through the implementation and test phase and just by asking more and more questions and making the taught find the answers for them”, Dhawan appeared to have enhanced the self-confidence of the taught—as it indeed happened in the case of Kalam—in taking up future design problems.
Dhawan thus ran the country’s space program by first drawing such programs which are societally conscious with objectives that are easily understood by everyone engaged in its execution; second, exhibiting immense faith in the ability of Indian engineers and scientists; third keeping the technology development work open and transparent through an elaborate system of reviews; fourth, maintaining accountability through peer pressure, but shielding the engineers from blame for honest failures; and, fifth, adopting a promotion and assessment system that had some unique features, which enabled the more productive engineers to move ahead of their colleagues, but not too rapidly and thus retained the confidence of the bulk of the staff in the fairness of the system.22 It is this idealism and commitment of him that influenced his colleagues in substantial measure as is reflected in the ultimate success that ISRO had accomplished.

U R Rao
U R Rao, an exceptionally versatile scientist with a wide-ranging expertise in many contemporary topics, took over as Chairman of ISRO in 1984. He is a gifted space scientist, technologist, and a passionate space application protagonist. He is known among the space-scientists for his sharp analytical bent of mind and enormous intellectual ability. He is an inspirational leader par excellence with forthright views and innovative ideas.
In late 1968, Rao, at the request of Sarabhai, started work on designing a 100 kg satellite with a team of around 20 engineers from SSTC and 20 young scientists from PRL that was then named as Satellite Systems Division. It was supposed to be launched by an American Scout Launch Vehicle, but was abandoned half the way due to changing political equations in the international arena. Later, Moscow came forward offering India a free launch. Drawing fresh plans, ISRO, naming Rao as the Project Director of the Indian Scientific Satellite Project, directed him to get the satellite ready within 36 months for launch by a Soviet launcher. Relying heavily on his project management and system engineering abilities, Rao created a sophisticated electronic laboratory, a clean room for assembling satellite, and a small thermo-vacuum chamber and other infrastructure in the industrial sheds allotted by Karnataka government. Simultaneously, he recruited 150 young engineers and scientists and commenced work on the satellite. With that young inexperienced but committed team of an average age of 25 with a ‘never-say-impossible’ attitude, Rao assembled the 358 kg Aryabhata satellite that was launched in 1975 from USSR. Later, becoming the first Director of the ISRO Satellite Center, Bengaluru, Rao designed, fabricated and launched over 15 satellites including INSAT-1 and INSAT-2 series of multipurpose satellites and IRS series of remote sensing satellites. Thus, he played a stellar role in “building an endogenous space technology capability in India”.23 

A Scientist of International Repute
Rao obtained PhD in 1960 from the University of Gujarat for his work on cosmic ray time variations under the supervision of Sarabhai. Joining MIT as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, he carried out fundamental investigations on solar wind using Mariner-2 observations. Working along with Conway Snyder and Marcia Neugabauer of the JPL, Rao made a path breaking discovery of the “continuous emission of the solar wind , their characteristics and correlation with the geomagnetic disturbance.” Later, joining the University of Texas at Dallas as Assistant Professor in 1963, he, as the prime experimenter on Pioneer 6, 7, 8 and 9 Deep Space Probes and Explorer 34 and 41 Spacecrafts, carried out research on solar as well as galactic cosmic ray phenomena and the electromagnetic state of the interplanetary space. Returning to India, he joined PRL and started research on X-ray and Gamma-ray high energy astronomy using balloon, rocket, and satellite-borne payloads.
Rao is an internationally acclaimed space scientist and rated by the coveted Space News magazine in 2004 as one of the top 10 international personalities who made a difference in civil, commerce and military space in the world since 1989. Acclaiming his professional skills that built “a robust space program in a democratic country, which is much more difficult than in countries with autocratic rulers”, Rao has been inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame in Washington by the Society of Satellite Professionals International in March 2013.
A Leader with Spontaneous Geniality
Rao’s ability to connect with subordinates is an attribute that is often admired by his followers as his best quality. He had enormous concern for his team members. The courage he displayed to stand up to this reputation during the days preceding the launch of IRS-1B from the then USSR in August 1991 was exemplary. As his team landed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome with the spacecraft for its launching, the August Coup in Russia assumed threatening propositions. Looking to the intensity of the ongoing civil disturbances in Russia, Government of India advised Rao to avoid travelling to USSR. Yet, defying the warning, Rao flew to Soviet Union, for he simply wanted to be with his team during the moment of crisis. Though President Gorbachev had resigned as general secretary of Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) on August 24, 1991, and the mighty Soviet Union collapsed in the next few days, IRS-1B was launched without any hitch on August 29, 1991 from Baikonur. And the presence of Rao, needless to say, served as a balm, keeping ISRO team’s morale high as also kept their attention focused on mission, while their families back home heaved a sigh of relief knowing that Rao was with the team in Russia. That was Rao’s spontaneous geniality!
An Ardent Institute Builder
Above all, Rao is a great institution builder. Like his predecessors, Sarabhai and Dhawan, he too focused the vision and mission of the Indian space program on national development. While pursuing it, Rao, with his high levels of professional competence, and grit and determination, withered away innumerable difficulties—initial failures of the satellites and launch vehicles in the experimental stage, restrictions and embargos on transfer of sensitive technology by the developed world, lull in the international collaborations—by steadfastly working with his young infusing mutual respect and team spirit in the organization, and could succeed in building self-reliance in spacecraft and launch vehicle technology. His leadership style created the much desired trust that became the organizational norm and continues to be the guiding force in defining what is known today as ‘ISRO culture’.
An Enthusiastic Space Application Protagonist
Rao had evinced great interest to harvest the vast benefits that the space technology offered for the development of communication, education, management of natural resources and disaster management in the country. One of the most significant initiatives that Rao launched was the Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development (IMSD) that was carried out in 84 mha in 175 districts in the country around 1992 to prepare resource maps using remote sensing as a key tool and evolve action plans at watershed level to provide grassroot solutions towards conserving the land and water resources.
He also promoted the use of satellite remote sensing for operational flood management and agricultural drought monitoring. At his constant urging, the National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring System (NADAMS) was launched and NRSA brought out biweekly drought bulletins covering many states. Likewise, the flood mapping became operational in Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra basins with a combination of optical and microwave data.
Yet another ambitious and socially relevant project that Rao advocated was using remote sensing data to map prospective zones for groundwater occurrence, and locations for constructing recharge structures. It has become a major success, for the groundwater prospect maps thus drawn provided more than 90% success rate.
His passion for using remote sensing for national development well reflects in his carving out time from his preoccupations with steering ISRO to write a masterly book—Space Technology for Sustainable Development—that bagged the Outstanding Book Award of the International Academy of Astronautics in 1997.
Rao, as the Chairman, realizing the need to develop and establish self-reliance in launch vehicle technology, decided to go in for the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV)— upgrading the first stage of SLV-3 with two strap-on boosters, with motors identical to that of the first stage. Many massive facilities were created within and outside ISRO to support the development of operational launch vehicles. Unfortunately, the first two developmental flights of ASLV carried out in March 1987 and July 1988 did not succeed. These failures seemed to have threatened the confidence of ISRO launch community. But Rao, as Chairman, standing behind them stoically, prodded them to fight back. Ultimately, the failure analysis of ASLV paid the dividends: the inputs of the report made the third and fourth flights of ASLV, carried out in May 1992 and May 1994, fully successful. This obviously encouraged the team to go for bigger challenges: ISRO took up the more challenging task of designing PSLV and GSLV launch vehicles. During the same period, Rao also initiated the development of cryo-technology and the development of GSLV capable of launching 2-2.5 tonnes class of satellites into geostationary orbit. He had also set up ANTRIX Corporation in 1992 as fully wholly owned company of Government of India to market space products and services that ISRO could offer.
Leading the youngsters from the front, bestowing confidence and encouragement, and posing adequate scientific and technological challenges, Rao introducing the “matrix management structure for optimal utilization of scarce human resources across the projects, decentralizing decision making to the level where technological expertise is available, and emphasizing on configuration management and systems engineering practices of enhanced coordination, interface control, quality assurance and professional documentation”,24 proved conclusively that India can master high-end technology and deliver world-class products.
Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan
Dr. Kasturirangan, essentially an astrophysicist of repute with research interests in high energy X-ray and gamma ray astronomy as well as optical astronomy who made extensive and significant contributions to studies of Cosmic X-ray sources, celestial gamma-ray and effect of cosmic X-rays in the lower atmosphere, had steered ISRO as its Chairman for nine glorious years.
Kasturirangan started his career with ISRO as Physicist at ISRO Satellite Center in 1971 and subsequently became the head of the Physics group in Aryabhatta Project Management Board. He once shared that keeping Rao as a role model, he attempted to execute every assignment that ISRO gave him: as Project Director of India’s first two experimental earth observation satellites, he built Bhaskara I and II satellites. Following it, he was entrusted with the responsibility of heading India’s first operational satellite program, the IRS. Later, becoming the Director of ISRO Satellite Center (1990-94), he oversaw the development of new generation spacecraft— Indian National Satellite (INSAT-2) and Indian Remote Sensing Satellites (IRS-1A & 1B) as well as scientific satellites.

Then, becoming Chairman of ISRO in 1994, he said, he felt nervous because that was a tremendous responsibility. Sharing his then trepidation, he said: “I thought I should have a style, an outlook and a culture to run the program and it has to be professional because any unprofessional activity in space can be disastrous. Luckily for me, I had seen working of Sarabhai, Dhawan and Rao closely and thought I should have an amalgam of all these three styles of functioning and try to bring in my own style of functioning.”25 Guided by that philosophy, he steered ISRO through the successful launching and operationalization of PSLV and the first successful flight testing of GSLV. He had also overseen the design, development and launching of the world’s best civilian satellites, IRS-1C and 1D, realization of the second generation and initiation of third generation INSAT satellites, besides launching ocean observation satellites IRS-P3/P4. These efforts have put India as a preeminent space-faring nation among the handful of six countries that have major space programs.
Intriguingly, what he said in one of his interviews after laying down the office of the Chairman merits our attention. He said: “There are good examples of working in teams. But there is a need to strengthen that culture, the ability to work together with transparency. We need to have lot of aspiration and ambition that nothing is impossible. That ambition should fire us and propel us to the next level of development.”26 One needs to ponder over these remarks, for: Is this an expression of anguish at the waning of these traits in ISRO of today?
G Madhavan Nair
Nair, who joined TERLS in 1967, rising through the cadre with illustrious milestones—during his tenure as the Director of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre from 1995-99, ISRO’s efforts towards indigenous development of cryogenic technology took concrete shape and vital infrastructures were built and critical technologies were developed; and during his tenure as the Director of VSSC from 1999 till he took over as Chairman , GSLV launch vehicle capable of placing/carrying 2000 kg class of satellite into geotransfer orbit was developed and launched successfully in the very first attempt and declared operational in 2003— in his long career became the Chairman of ISRO in 2003.
As Chairman, he had initiated action for the development of futuristic technologies to enhance the space system’s capabilities as well as to reduce the cost of access to space. Major thrust was given for exploration of outer space through the ASTROSAT and Chandrayaan (Moon) missions. He also provided guidance to undertake new technology developments related to launch vehicle, spacecrafts for communication, remote sensing and applications programs to meet societal needs.
K Radhakrishnan
The current Chairman of ISRO is a technocrat par excellence with management education and a PhD from IIT Kharagpur (2000) for his thesis “Some Strategies for Indian Earth Observation System.” A dynamic and result-oriented manager with very fine personal and interpersonal qualities credited with nurturing leadership skills in the younger generation.
Starting his career as an Avionics Engineer in 1971 at ISRO’s VSSC, Trivandrum, he commendably held several decisive positions in ISRO—such as Director of National Natural Resources Management System, Director of National Remote Sensing Agency (2005-08); Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (2007-09), and Member, Space Commission (October 2008-October 2009)—before becoming the chairman.
As the Director of VSSC, he played a crucial role in the first Indian Lunar Mission ,the Chandrayaan-1, being responsible for realization of PSLV C-11 launch vehicle with a new set of strap-on motors and a new mission design and Moon Impact Probe (MIP) that impacted on the surface of Moon in mid-November 2008.
During 2000-05, he had a stint in the Ministry of Earth Sciences as the Founder Director of Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services and the first Project Director of Indian National Tsunami Warning System.
During his tenure as Chairman, ISRO launched its Mars Orbiter Mission on November 5, 2013, which successfully entered the Mars orbit on September 24, 2014, making India the first nation to succeed in its maiden attempt, and ISRO the first Asian space agency to reach Mars orbit.
As could be seen from the foregoing, ISRO has had committed leadership all along to steer it through successfully. All of them either being scientists of repute or technocrats par excellence could command the loyalty of their cadre and ensure that organizational vision is properly aligned with its human resources as is reflected in its output till date.

Discussion and Conclusion

History tells that the modern economic growth has been inspired by a rapid and relentless upgradation of scientific knowhow and technology. Realizing this criticality of science and technology in ushering in societal welfare, our early policy planners gave tremendous importance to setting up a number of research and teaching institutions across the country. ISRO is one among such establishments—exclusively meant for harnessing the space technology for the socioeconomic development of the country.

Yet, the functioning of several such governmental institutions is often felt far from satisfactory. Amidst such a gloomy scenario, ISRO stands out as a rare jewel, delivering results—as examined here before—the fruits of which in terms of better communication, mapping of national resources, weather forecasting, disaster management, etc. are being palpably enjoyed by the common man today.

Now the big question is: How is that ISRO, a Government of India body governed by the same set of rules that are applicable to every other institute in the country, could deliver over its chartered objectives, that too, consistently year after year for over half a decade, while the rest are way behind in realizing worth mentioning return on their investment?

That said, the challenge we now face is: there is no single answer for such an amazing streak of success that ISRO is adorned with. Nevertheless, the following emerge out as the most obvious:
•   The first four Chairmen—Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U R Rao and K Kasturirangan —are all outstanding scientists, while the later two—G Madhavan Nair and K Radhakrishnan—are technocrats, besides being fine managers of men and resources. They are visionaries with rare human qualities.
•   Obviously, these natural endowments of the Chairmen came quite handy for them in inspiring confidence among their young followers that their mission is in competent hands and given a sincere collective-try, they all could realize whatever they are aiming at. Indeed, the buzz was: “when others could do, we could also do—do better even”.
•   This unique strength of these Chairmen lent ‘credibility’ to whatever they attempted and in the process accomplishment of the tasks such as demanding performance that could deliver the sought-after results, building of values and their reaffirmation and building effective teams and developing them for tomorrow have become a cakewalk.
•   And interestingly, all the Chairmen of ISRO have had long innings to make a meaningful contribution and almost all of them came from within the space community and importantly always appreciated what their predecessors have done and indeed taken it forward to its logical conclusion. And these seemingly simple essentials that are quite glaring by their absence in the rest of the institutions, have ensured that ISRO has always had an unwavering ‘vision’ that obviously afforded ‘strategic clarity’ for the team to aim at realizing the goals.
•   The early associates of ISRO—Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U R Rao, Brahma Prakash, A P J Kalam, E V Chitnis, Vasant Gowarikar, Pramod Kale, K Kasturirangan and other pioneers—all evidently fired by a ‘national purpose’, have dedicated their lives for the cause of mastering the space with indigenous technology.
•   The founding Chairman, Sarabhai—essentially a lover of fundamental research, who realized the need for establishing an institute of management for supplying effective managers to Indian businesses for making them productive—as though taught by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter27 who made a fundamental distinction between invention: discovery of new techniques, generally performed by the inventor; and innovation: the practical application of an invention in production for the market which is usually done by an entrepreneur—sown the right seeds at the very beginning of the journey of ISRO to build a sustainable link between these agencies. Encouragingly, this philosophy continued to interest the succeeding Chairmen too. And the results are there for us to see: it has paved the way for smoothly taking forward the vision of India’s space program with such ‘shoestring’ budget even.

•   Sarabhai, as a Chairman, could think about people long before the decision on filling a job has to be made and independently of it even. His decisions about people essentially reflected his urgency to maximize the strength of the organization. To start with, he was willing to select people more for what they can do rather than be solely guided by what the job requires, or what the qualifications one is tagged with. He looked for performance—“What does he contribute?” “What can he do uncommonly well? not conformance. And, by and large this trend appeared to have been continued by the successive Chairmen as a result of which we see ordinary people hailing from ordinary institutes performing extraordinary deeds in ISRO.
•   Collegiate atmosphere is the in-thing of ISRO. Paying tributes to Dhawan, Roddam Narasimha said that Dhawan held review meetings pertaining to technology development in an open and transparent atmosphere where it had almost become a tradition that the junior-most engineer could ask awkward questions to senior project leaders. And Dhawan, who often described himself as a teacher, was known to invite even leading professionals from outside ISRO to participate in such technology review meetings. Dhawan, being an extraordinary scientist, was known to ask very detailed questions, perhaps, with an interest to unearth several options to solve a given problem. And every problem was tackled by analyzing all the options before picking up the best option. Such traditions besides obviously paving the way for the organization becoming a learning institution, also helped to foster team spirit.
•   ISRO is the most open and transparent organization where failure is discussed openly to unearth the reasons with the sole objective of correcting them rather than to punish the cause. For instance when SLV-3 flight in 1979 failed, the Chairman took personal responsibility for the failure but did take up failure analysis to make the next flight in 1980 successful. Similarly, when the consecutive failure of ASLV flights in 1987 and 1988 threatened the confidence of launch community, Rao stood by the community but at the same time carried out failure analysis threadbare, the inputs of which ultimately made the subsequent launch carried out in 1992 fully successful. That kind of leadership obviously made engineers and scientists never to be afraid of honest failures. And, failures never deterred them from dreaming big too.
•   The most unusual thing to happen at ISRO, but a pleasant one to live with, is the least amount of red tape. One may say that its absence in ISRO is no wonder, for it cannot penetrate, say for instance, when the countdown starts for launching a vehicle, there would be no room for taking shelter under funny rules. But the truth is, red tape does not walk in on its own, rather it is the people manning the business who invite it in for obvious reasons.
•   ‘Emphasis only on performance’ is the mantra of ISRO for managing human resources. This has obviously kept the morale of the young and aspiring scientists and engineers high which fact well reflects in ISRO’s achievements.

•   Team spirit is the hallmark of ISRO. The leadership succeeded well in effectively harmonizing the efforts of all the team members towards a common goal and realizing the objective. And, it is not once or twice, project after project we could see this happening as a matter of a ‘given’. Indeed, we experience this phenomena watching the photos released by ISRO after launching a vehicle with significant payload that exhibit visibly excited men and women, young and old, traditional and conservative, atheists and theists but truly a replica of India, all enjoying the success of their efforts to the hilt with wide opened eyes and broad smiles. And, this speaks well of the leadership across the hierarchy.
The great leaders that the ISRO had the luck to have are known to see themselves as not all that important but felt the need to look beyond themselves and build an executive team and craft a culture of performance based on societal needs that do not rely on any single leader. Knowing fully well that integrity is an important aspect of leadership, its demands on the system in terms of measurement, accountability, visibility, and active participation was never unfair, which obviously encouraged every employee to give his might willingly hoping for his due share of benefit as an automata. Above all, its leaders, besides being themselves fired by ‘national-fervour’, were often found fretting over how to instill a sense of purpose and honorable inquisitiveness into organization so that it could live beyond their own time. The value system that the pioneering leaders created had thus infused ability in the system to bounce back from failures, even from cataclysmic catastrophes stronger than before.

Nevertheless, looking to the skirmishes that recently appeared in press about the differences among the past and present top associates of ISRO, one wonders if that kind of leadership has become history. In an organization like ISRO where the phenomenon of work shifting from ‘hands to mind’ is so nakedly visible, it is all the more necessary to further strengthen the practice of ‘soft-HRM’—motivating knowledge workers with “vision, culture, structure, strategy, and processes” rather than merely with contractual rewards. That is where ISRO should think anew: Leaders must become more “a shepherd, staying behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, where upon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

To conclude, it must be said that the set of rules that bind the scientific institutions of the government are the same for the ISRO and the others; yet, ISRO could deliver amazing results. It thus calls for an in-depth study of ISRO, its incredulous performance, the role of leadership in making ISRO what it is today and its style of nurturing leadership in the organization for so long and so successfully. The findings of such a study would certainly help other institutions to better their functioning, besides being of interest to ISRO too, for as Jim Collins observed, “Every institution is vulnerable, no matter how great. No matter how much you’ve achieved, no matter how far you have gone, no matter how much power you’ve garnered, you are vulnerable to decline. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fall and most eventually do.”28 For instance, recall if you have heard anything about ICAR after Dr. M S Swaminathan? Nor did we hear anything significant about other institutions like CSIR, ICMR, etc. It is in this
context that the findings of such study could help ISRO: to institutionalize its process of self-improvement in such a way that it becomes a way of life; to create internal competition with demanding performance targets for the divisions; build up such mechanisms that would not allow complacency and stagnation to creep in; and define its vision and mission in such a way that it automatically makes ISRO build for the future, no matter who the leader is. Importantly, the revelations of such a study are sure to enable ISRO adapt a different operating logic such as the one proposed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter29—a common purpose, a long-term focus, emotional engagement, partnering with the public, innovation and self-organization —which is sure to alter its leadership and organizational behavior radically and in turn enable ISRO “get better and better”.

Courtesy: Effective Executive (A quarterly Journal from IUP), Vol.17, No. 4.


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