‘I learnt how to build an institution by seeing how IIM Bangalore was built’: Dr K Radhakrishna The ISRO Chairman, who is a distinguished alumnus of the PGP batch of 1976, lists the future thrust areas of ISRO and dwells on the role of a Chief Executive in organization building and succession planning

Update: 27th Feb, 2018: K Radhakrishnan, is the chairman of the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, since December 2014.

Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, ISRO Chairman, received the Padma Bhushan Award on the eve of Republic Day (January 26, 2014) for his immense contribution to Science and Engineering, especially in the field of Space Science and Technology. In this interview, he shares his assessment of what has been achieved so far in India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and what lies ahead. Dr. Radhakrishnan, who is Chairman, Space Commission and Secretary, Department of Space, also walks down memory lane and talks about time spent at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, of which he is a distinguished alumnus from the PGP batch of 1976.

How would you describe your own mission so far, where you have led Team ISRO to achieve great things? India is a leading space power in the world and has achieved this success in a short span of time.

Padma Bhushan Dr. K. Radhakrishnan during his address, ‘Dream Big’ at IIMB

Essentially, I would like to focus on the contribution of the Indian Space Program to the country’s development process and specifically the benefits that the people in the country have received. I would also like to focus on the technology development that India has been able to achieve in this area of Space Research.

You have dedicated the Padma Bhushan to Team ISRO…

On both fronts – the contribution of the Indian Space Program to the country’s development and the technology development in the area of Space Research, the work done by the organization has been recognized with the recent Padma Awards. Along with me, three senior scientists at ISRO have been honoured with the Padma Awards. They are the directors of the Space Application Centre (SAC) at Ahmedabad, the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) at Sriharikota, and the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Thiruvananthapuram. That makes it 4 Padma Awards for ISRO!

The Awards are symbolic of the Government’s appreciation to what the entire ISRO Team has done for the country, especially over the last few years. The ISRO Team comprises nearly 16,500 people. It is really team work that makes ISRO excel and ensures synergy between stakeholders and the Government at the Centre and in the States. On the supply chain side, we have the Indian industry participating very closely with us and we also have good amount of interaction with the academic community.

How did Team ISRO and its leadership build this synergy?
Well, this has been a process that has happened over the last five decades. The Space program started in the year 1961. At that time, Space Science was the driving force. In the early 70’s, the Department of Space was carved out of the Department of Atomic Energy. The Space Commission was formed and we started getting into building of satellites, building of rockets, and building of Space application programs. That is the time we started creating the institutions required for executing these programs. We also put in place the organizational framework for doing this. We established links with the user community and we brought in the Indian industry. Basically, it is the 70’s which saw organizational building to execute the program. In the 60’s, it was a very small program essentially in Thiruvananthapuram. But in the 70’s we launched major programs like GSLV, Aryabhatta etc.

I joined ISRO in 1971 at Thiruvananthapuram. ISRO was then in the nascent stage. It was doing the study for the development of a program for satellite launch. ISRO offered challenges to the scientific and technical community – something which the country had not done so far. It provided opportunity. It is an excellent organization to grow in. On a personal note, ISRO has facilitated my higher studies – my MBA as well as my PhD. The organization takes care of its people and helps them grow. So, naturally, when I did my Post Graduate Program (PGP) in Management from IIM Bangalore in 1976, there was no thinking in me that I would go anywhere else but back to ISRO. That was one of the best decisions I have taken.

How did the two-year programme at IIM Bangalore help you, especially in the context that you had already decided to return to ISRO after completing the programme?
When I started my career, after earning my engineering degree, I was a design engineer. But I had a liking for pursuing management studies. As one has to grow up in an organization – from engineer to manager to leader to developer of leaders, the formal course at IIM Bangalore certainly helped me to get to this progression slightly faster. One learns techniques, one learns how to get on with organized teams and one learns to look at things in a larger, organizational perspective in the two-year management education program.

I belonged to the first batch of PGP students at IIM Bangalore. That automatically creates a special bond between students and faculty. We had excellent interaction with the faculty members. They treated us like family. Our learning went beyond the classroom. We learnt from peers, and we learnt from interacting with visiting faculty and industry leaders.

At that time, IIM Bangalore was also in the nascent stage. That was another good learning on how IIM Bangalore was mentored by the then director and his team, beginning with establishing a new campus to mobilizing resources. I learnt how to build an institution by seeing how IIM Bangalore was built.

What do you think of collaborations between premier institutes in the country? How do you think they can shape the quality of education in the country?
From the perspective of the ISRO Team, there are two important aspects: interaction with academia and interaction with industry. The ISRO Team is interested in the development of cutting-edge technologies and doing research into such technologies. We require industry and their capabilities and capacities to realize the Space systems, especially the operational systems. We require also the academic institutions to do research that benefits us in the long term. Academic institutions need to feed good people into premier organizations.

One unique thing about India’s Space program is that ISRO is built on the products of Indian universities. Except for a dozen people who came from abroad, all the rest are from Indian universities. Our talent is homegrown; it comprises people who learnt on the job.

There was a time, may be in the late 80’s or the early 90’s when the attraction from outside (abroad) was high and we had some trouble in attracting and retaining the best talent that we required. However, the scenario is vastly different today.

Of 16,500 persons in the ISRO family today, nearly 11,000 are engaged in hardcore scientific activity and nearly 4,000 of them are those who have been recruited over the last 15 years. And if you look at the progress that ISRO has made in the last one decade that itself is a testimony to the contributions of these people. We have a good amount of talent in ISRO from within the country, not necessarily from the premier academic institutions but from engineering colleges across the country.

Three things that ISRO does to attract and retain top talent would be…
The challenge offered by the Space program – the ‘kick’ that you get when you work with cutting-edge technology and you see the result of your work – that itself is a great motivator for top talent to seek opportunities at ISRO. Second, the organization enables one to flourish. Third, is the remuneration, which is very attractive.

What are the future thrust areas of ISRO?
The Indian Space program focuses on certain key portfolios. First, is Space applications. The vision of the Indian Space program is how to use Space technology to find solutions to the problems of the common man. This was the focus in the past; it is our focus in the present and it will be our focus in the future. Space applications and services need satellites – communication satellites, navigation satellites and remote sensing satellites. We also need to launch these satellites from the country. So we have the PSLV or the GSLV.

Science is our driving force because Space exploration puts demands on technology. This is a small but significant element of our program, where at least 8 per cent of our resources are set aside for Space Science.

We also focus on the advanced systems development. For example, when we talk about human space flight, which is the logical next step in our space exploration journey, we talk about low cost access to Space, which needs new work in Space systems for which we allocate part of our resources.

ISRO has now completed 111 Space missions in terms of major satellites and launches. Out of these 111 missions, I can proudly say 29 missions have been done in the last 4 years. That is an indicator of the quantum of work that ISRO has done in the last 4 years.

As far as complexity is concerned also, the complexity of the Space systems has been going up over the years. Initially, it was learning, then it was building on that learning and now it is creation of advanced systems.

If you look at our recent two missions, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is a major leap forward for us. It is the first interplanetary probe of India. We have spent Rs 450 crore on this mission. It is just Rs 4 per head in the country, but what it gives is very high. This mission has become a model for other countries.

The launch vehicle capability of the country hinges on PSLV and GSLV. PSLV has done 24 successful missions. It has launched not only the national satellites for different applications, but also international ones.

As far as GSLV is concerned, we had a few failures in the last one decade and we have been trying to make it fly successfully. Recently, on January 5, 2014 we had a successful mission of GSLV and the first successful flight test of indigenous cryogenic engine stage. It was a landmark, indeed.

In the last one year, we have enhanced the Indian capability in several areas. The GSAT-7 provided a strategic dimension to the Space with a satellite which has footprint over the entire Indian Ocean. The previous satellites for communication had footprint over the landmass. Now, we have Indian Ocean covered. The INSAT-3D provides a unique weather monitoring system. The GSAT-10 and the GSAT-14 have enhanced the communication capacity of the country. IRNSS-1A, launched in July 2013, is bringing a new dimension to the Space application by starting satellite navigation – India’s own satellite navigation system. So, we’ve had many firsts over the last one year. The year 2013 was a challenging year. We achieved 10 successful missions, of which 2 were very complex missions, in one year by the same number of people. That is the backdrop in which ISRO Team is working in today. Complexities for the future and challenges are all there. We are working, one dimension, on a series of PSLVs for launching the navigation satellite constellation.

Beyond GSLV, we want to enhance the capability of India to put communication satellites of higher mass. GSLV can put a satellite of nearly 2-2.5 tonnes into geo-stationary transfer orbit. We are developing a launch vehicle called GSLV Mk-III which can double this. Much of the development work has been completed except for the qualification of the high thrust cryogenic engine required for GSLV Mk-III. We are taking up an experimental mission, by May-June 2014, of the GSLV Mk- III vehicle. It will have a passive cryogenic stage. In this experimental mission, we are looking at the atmospheric characterization which is a very difficult phase. In that mission, we are also testing the crew module of the human space flight as part of critical technology development. Essentially, our objective in this flight is to characterize this crew module as it re-enters the atmosphere.

Then, of course, we have a series of communication satellites to enhance capacity as well as capability. When we talk of enhancing capability in communication, we are looking at a high-throughput satellite of 6-tonne class which can work in a frequency band called KA. In terms of the output power, it will be three times that of the output power that we are giving today. We should be able to do this in 4-5 years.

On the Earth Observation front, we have 4 major focus areas – to look at weather forecast, to look at land and water resources, to look at oceans, and to look at high resolution imaging capability.

In the navigation area, we have a plan to build a constellation of 7 satellites of IRNSS by 2015. We will enhance their coverage.

On the Space Science front, Mars Orbiter should be orbiting Mars by September 24, 2014.

On the organization front, I believe succession planning is the job of the Chief Executive. This program has been going on in ISRO. On one side, the younger generation is inducted and trained; we also have a program to develop a new generation of leaders. As far as the future of the organization goes, Research & Development in new areas is given due focus. We have an R&D program called Respond which graduated in the Space technology cells which we now want to develop into Centres of Excellence in premier institutions.

Talking of the younger generation, ISRO, which embarked on a massive public outreach exercise through Facebook and Twitter, has decided to go a step further – the organization launching its own YouTube channel. Is the new cyberspace ‘vehicle’ all about building a better connect with young followers?
Communication within the organization is as important as communicating with the outside world. Thanks to the leaders who founded the organization and the systems across the organization, ISRO is different and continues to be different.

Yes, we need to communicate to the world about our programs and missions. We communicate through print, electronic media and social media. We are transparent and we are accountable. There is a new generation that we want to target. We want this generation to live with us and that is why we launched our FaceBook presence with the Mars Orbiter Mission. We wanted to carry them with us on the one-year Mars Orbiter Mission. We have more than 3 lakh followers on FB for MOM at present. Our new media has become a discussion forum, not just an information dissemination platform. Since we deal with launches, which have a dynamic element, we decided to launch our YouTube channel. We are carefully planning this. Twitter has brought us in touch with influencers, opinion leaders and decision makers. There is no psychological distance between the team handling social media and the team handling the missions. Our guidelines very clearly state that the task of the social media team, as any other communication team at ISRO, is to promote the organization and its missions, not individuals.

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