How the Indian space agency thrived despite the massive poaching during the IT boom

The place where magic happens.
The place where magic happens.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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The Brahm Prakash Hall at SHAR (Sriharikota High Altitude Range) brims with engineers shuffling their data sheets and reports. They speak excitedly to each other about their subsystems. To a stranger, however technically advanced, their exchanges sound like Greek and Latin, riddled with acronyms and jargon. Only the assembly of 400-odd engineers can understand each other perfectly.

The Mission Readiness Review (MRR) is in session. We are just a few days away from a major launch campaign. Each of the engineers responsible for a particular subsystem is getting ready to go on stage and present details of the tests carried out on it. Problems, solutions, tests, last-minute tweaks—everything is covered.

The group is an amazing mix of veterans and greenhorns and everyone in between. Anyone who is part of the project and has something to say is there. I sit next to the chairman and senior centre directors. Retired pioneers like me who are experienced experts in certain fields form an integral part of the MRR. To the newest recruit attending an MRR for the first time it is a thrilling and challenging experience.

As one of the senior engineers finishes his presentation, a voice from the last row raises an issue. It is a junior engineer. There is absolute silence as everyone in the room gives him a patient hearing. The engineer who is making the presentation takes notes and gives a detailed response. It really does not matter that the questioner is quite junior in the hierarchy, for in that hall there is absolute technical democracy and no voice is stifled. Everyone knows that many an important issue has come to light at an MRR and at times major failures have been averted because someone raised a pertinent question.

The MRR epitomizes the functioning of ISRO, where the work ethics had evolved over the years. Democracy has always been the key word. Every issue raised is analysed and addressed with utmost seriousness. This in turn has yielded results which are unique and unusual in a government-run scientific department.

Homi Bhabha, the innovator who changed the bureaucratic style of running scientific organizations, made sure that scientists determined their own policies. He also insisted that they were the administrative heads of their organizations and were answerable only to the prime minister. ISRO under Sarabhai followed the same path, with more procedural innovations suited to the unforgiving nature of space technology.

Openness has been the hallmark of ISRO in all its activities. The MRR is just one example. Whether it is in the planning process or long-term goals definition, budget formulation or progress reviews, design reviews, quality and reliability assessment, recruitment or promotion of personnel, transparency has always played a vital role.

Because of its strategic nature, space technology is closely guarded by its creators. ISRO therefore had to develop its own technology from scratch with a great deal of trial and error. But our results have always been open for free scrutiny by the public. Failures and successes in our field are splashed across the sky for all to see. Our major missions are conducted in the full glare of live media spotlight and the world can learn in real time of our success or failure.

Today, we are no longer a mere handful of engineers experimenting with sounding rockets. The annual budget of the organization was a few lakhs of rupees in 1963. This has grown to several thousand crores. ISRO has more than 20,000 employees. In fact, we are now seriously trying not to add to the numbers by transferring repetitive work to the industry.

But most importantly, ISRO has built a strong and confident human resource pool ready to take on many more challenges. Advanced countries have recognized that ISRO is on par with many developed countries in the field of space technology. And we achieved this by ourselves, on a shoestring budget. The average Indian is proud of ISRO’s achievements and that means a lot to us.

Our centres are seamlessly filled with fresh technical personnel every decade without any discontinuity of the programmes. Most of the technical manpower is drawn from graduates from all over the country who come from lesser-known institutions. and many of these engineers and scientists have turned out to be outstanding leaders in their own fields.

By the late 1990s, when the IT boom in the country hit our programmes, our young recruits were lured away with fat salaries. But the trend reversed when the government revised its salaries upwards and offered lifelong perks which could never be matched by the IT firms. More importantly, ISRO still had exciting programmes compared to the mindnumbing jobs the software companies had to offer. Slowly the young people began to trickle back.

Around that time I was asked by the then chairman, Kasturirangan, to tour the ISRO centres and talk to the scientists and engineers, particularly the young ones, to find out what they felt about their work environment. I visited all the centres and spoke to them about their joys and frustrations, and asked them what needed to be done to keep them at ISRO.

Two surprising findings came through. One, that they all were quite happy with their assignments and the visibility of the overall goals of the organization vis-à-vis their contributions. Two, the salary differences between ISRO and the private organizations did not bother them as much as we had feared. Their complaints were more mundane ones about the non-availability of high-speed internet connections and access to PCs. We were able to tackle these issues quite easily over the next couple of months.

ISRO today is often held up as an example of a particularly well-run and result-oriented government organization.


The ISRO family has considerable job satisfaction because we can see for ourselves the application of our contribution to national development. We have even been able to monetize our products even though we are not a commercial organization. For example, today, products and services including satellite launch services are made available to national and international users on a commercial basis through ISRO’s commercial arm, the Antrix Corporation.

By 2015, within a short span of forty-odd years, ISRO had built and launched seventy-two satellites of increasing complexities. Our own remote sensing satellites, communication satellites and science satellites circled the earth in polar and geosynchronous orbits. The Chandrayaan moon mission and the Mars Orbiter Mission caught the imagination of the nation. The capability of ISRO in the satellite-building area rivalled that of the most advanced countries of the world and the data from the satellites were in demand internationally

Side by side, by 2015 more than twenty-five successful launches of PSLV had taken place successively, setting a kind of international record. With regular improvements in performance and optimization, the payload capacity increased from 1000 kg to about 1850 kg, depending on the choice of configuration.

The PSLV vehicle, now internationally recognized as a highly reliable and cost-effective rocket, is much soughtafter by various countries for launching their remote sensing satellites into sun synchronous polar orbits. Variants of PSLV launched the lunar mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission and even a small GSAT synchronous satellite. Our own fleet of remote-sensing satellites is also performing excellently. And so are the large INSAT communication spacecraft orbited aboard Ariane rockets.

By this time so many chairmen have come and gone—Sarabhai, MGK Menon, Dhawan, UR Rao, Kasturirangan, Madhavan Nair and Radhakrishnan—and not once was there a glitch in the programme because the man at the helm had changed. In 2015 at a GSLV launch when an important Indian-made cryostage proved its worth, I realized something exciting. Almost every single person at the helm, right from the ISRO chairman down to the mission director, was new! They had all assumed charge just a few months before.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from the book, ISRO: A Personal Story, authored by R Aravamudan, a senior space scientist, and Gita Aravamudan, a journalist. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.