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Friday, August 4, 2017

Dr. UR Rao: A Scientist of International Repute

U R Rao, an exceptionally versatile scientist, technologist, and a passionate space application protagonist, who led India’s satellite program successfully with his innovative ideas, died on July 24.

Udupi Ramachandra Rao was born at Adamaru, Karnataka on March 10, 1932. His parents were Lakshminarayana Acharya and Krishnaveni Amma. He had his secondary education from Christian High School, Udupi. He had his B Sc from Government Arts and Science College, Anantapur and M Sc from Banaras Hindu University. He obtained PhD in 1960 from the University of Gujarat for his work on cosmic ray time variations under the supervision of Sarabhai. Joining MIT, he carried out fundamental investigations on solar wind using Mariner-2 observations. Working in 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 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.

On returning to India, in late 1968, Rao, at the request of Sarabhai, started work on designing a 100 kg satellite with a team of around 20 engineers and 20 scientists. 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 required to build satellites. With that young, inexperienced but committed team of scientists with 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. Rao’s ability to connect with subordinates is an attribute that is often admired by his followers as his best quality. Above all, Rao is a great institution builder. With his high levels of professional competence, and grit and determination, he withered away innumerable difficulties—failures of the satellites and launch vehicles in the experimental stage, restrictions and embargoes on transfer of sensitive technology from the west, lull in the international collaborations—by steadfastly working with his young colleagues, 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’.

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. He also promoted the use of satellite remote sensing for operational flood management and agricultural drought monitoring. 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.

To build self-reliance in launch vehicle technology, Rao, as the Chairman of ISRO, initiated the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) project. 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 tons class of satellites into geostationary orbit.

Leading the youngsters from the front, 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”, proved conclusively that India can master high-end technology and deliver world-class products.

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 was inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame in Washington by the Society of Satellite Professionals International in March 2013. India’s space program owes a lot to this great departed soul. 


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