‘From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet’ – Book Review & Commentary

Recently Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) released ‘From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet’, a book with an edited compendium collection of 53 articles, interviews and reproductions starting from initiation of the Indian space program to the roadmap to the human spaceflight programme.

The book is probably the first account of publicly available documentation that provides non-ISRO space enthusiasts logical connections to the foundation, structuring and the operation style of ISRO. The articles clearly showcase the aura Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (regarded as the Father of the Space Programme) possessed. He not only laid down a three-decade vision as to what India must do in space but also had the right political, bureaucratic and international connections to fast track much of the ideas.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai – An Irreplaceable leader!

Dr. Sarabhai was a scientist, entrepreneur, institution builder, all at once, which is a rarity. Doing science, being politically and internationally connected to decision makers are mostly different islands for a scientist sitting in the developing world, where technology ecosystem which is mostly non-entrepreneurial. The fact that all these islands were connected the way Dr. Sarabhai (being within the government quarters) is an achievement of a scale that may very well not be surpassed by any future Chairmen of ISRO. This can be simply because they all come with the inertia of the now large organisation and have been institutionalised within the system.

To put the above in perspective, a couple of great stories can be quoted from the articles in the book. Dr. Sarabhai is most likely the only scientist in the developing world who brought together the cold war enemies along with other partners (such as European countries) to explore science in India by establishing an international site at Thumba. In an anecdote, Dr. Aravamudan provides an account on how Dr. Sarabhai brought in the immediate intervention of the then Finance Minister when ISRO scientists trying to bid for an Australian ground station called Gove in an auction were refused foreign exchange via an open demand draft by Reserve Bank Officials. Today, with the success of rockets, satellites, Moon and Mars, the story is quite different.

Foundation of ISRO

Prof M.G.K Menon and Prof Satish Dhawan talk about the very structural foundations that were laid in formation of the Department of Space (DoS) / ISRO, creation of the space commission and positioning one person for the three roles of the secretary of DoS, Chaiman ISRO, Chairman Space Commission. This was late 60s and early 70s, when much of these decisions were very logical in making matters simpler for ISRO to function for the betterment of our society by keeping it away from the traditional bureaucracy. However, with the advent of privatisation, globalisation and liberalisation much has changed in the entire space ecosystem both nationally and internationally for which the structural changes in the foundation of DoS/Space Commission have not been kept up pace with. But this is not a feature of DoS/Space Commission alone, it Is probably a feature that is common among such large scale government non-direct-consumer related technology driven organisations. A parallel can probably be drawn to Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) as well.

Transformation of ISRO as an institution of space research and applications over the decades is evident. Prof E.V Chitnis and Prof Yashpal mentioned that initally ISRO had a large band of social scientists who were actively involved in developing its programmes. However, today the landscape has changed with its active engagement in developing independent systems in remote sensing, navigation, scientific missions that doesn’t necessarily have a purely societal framework, but is also tending towards geo-politics and security.

Tapping Talent

One of the key elements of the strong foundation that was laid down in the formation of ISRO is the process employed by Dr. Sarabhai of hand picking talent that can propel the utilisation of space for the benefits of the country. Today, ISRO being a 15,000+ member organisation, this may not be possible anymore due to the recruitment processes set in place. However, there is immense talent among fellow Indians with international experiences from premier space agencies, universities and the industry. There needs to a mechanism to tap into such talent. Lessons can be drawn from China where thousands of students/scientists/engineers have returned to contribute to the development of their space programme.

Leadership in International Forums

The book describes India’s contribution to the United Nations conference on the Exploration and Peaceful uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE) through all the three UNISPACE conferences. In fact, Prof U R Rao was unanimously voted as the Chairman of UNCOPUOS in 1997. There is a need for ISRO to further actively engage in international policy and rulemaking which should reflect in the more pro-active/new-generation forums such as Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) so that the leadership through UNISPACE conferences can be carried through.

Closing the Gender Gap

On another important note, not a single article has been authored by a woman, which clearly shows that there exists a 50-year inertia to closing the gender gap in institutional leadership (which is probably prominent also in other government sector peers of ISRO) that needs to change in the current generation of scientists/engineers in ISRO.

Connecting the Islands of Excellence

There are views of each of the former ISRO Chairmen on what the organisation must focus on and they provide their take on the future missions, including possible human spaceflight. Bold moves have been especially suggested by Dr. Kasturirangan in re-inventing the way ISRO engages with academia and Industry. Dr. Rangan provides much needed suggestions to build capacity in the country to do first rate science and allow ISRO to invest resources for tackling novel problems in development of space systems and applications.

International Cooperation

While the recent media buzz word (at least in the past decade) has been ‘indigenous’, ISRO is an organisation that has largely benefitted by international cooperation. The witness to this is the way Thumba grew internationally as a centre of space science, the launch of APPLE/Aryabhata, technology experiences from Vikas Engine and many more. The only incident that has largely eclipsed international cooperation is the denial of technology for the cryogenic engines. International cooperation may well be one of the pillars on which ISRO currently stands firm, while other governmental peers without having had such cooperation are far behind in their scale of achievements. Therefore, ISRO must continue to cooperate internationally and look to extend its participation in conducting experiments in projects such as the International Space Station (ISS), planetary exploration, etc.

Effects of Leadership Changes

One of the inferences from connecting the dots of messages by the former ISRO heads is that there is some discordance in views of consecutive leaders of ISRO. For example, Dr. Kasturirangan specifically mentions that ‘ISRO should not brand planetary missions as technology demonstrators’. However, Mangalyaan indeed was positioned as a technology demonstrator. The question is whether this is possibly a change due to the inherent changes in the political hierarchy that governs ISRO or of the heads of ISRO themselves.

Insights on decision making

Dr. P S Goel, a veteran scientist of ISRO provides an account on decision making in ISRO at the Chairman level. He writes, ‘Decision-making process is highly individualistic and each leader has his or her own style and method. ISRO leadership is no exception. But there are some common features that have come from the organisational culture and these features do impact on the individual’s characteristics’, which is characteristic of not just ISRO but other government run peers as wells. The question here is of inclusive growth of academia, industry. Unless a more process driven and inclusive growth approach is taken, the academia and industry might remain islands far behind in capabilities. One can draw inspiration from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) model in developing a holistic approach to capacity building in space systems development.

Downstream Application Metrics

An entire section of the book talks about the downstream applications that have been developed based on remote sensing, communications and navigation capabilities. India has been a leader in developing such applications and it has been a hallmark that puts ISRO as a premier space agency in dedicating itself completely to societal development. Metrics in absolute terms have been presented to provide a sense of scale of such applications in only a few of the articles.

One of the takeaways from this section would be to develop frameworks for metrics for each of the programmes. For example, the mapping of the utilisation of the remote sensing capabilities can be done in creating social, economic, environmental, metrics that will provide insights on the extent of returns made on investing in such systems. ISRO publishes a yearly outcome of budget and an annual report. An additional report on such metrics will provide a strong sense of participation on all quarters of governance (within ISRO, in the political infrastructure and at the grassroots level of a common man), which can over time be a strong proponent for taking up grand scale projects (both in complexity and funding).

Development of Industry

Prof K R Sridhara Murthi & M.N. Sathyanarayan provide an excellent account on the development of the industry ecosystem right from the time of Prof Satish Dhawan as the Chairman, ISRO.

…It is pertinent to note that policymaking needs to be dynamic, and it is highly essential to fill the gaps that exist in policy, as well as shape regulatory environment in pace with changing environment, lest it undermine all the progress….A number of policy issues need to be resolved and these include but are not limited to technology safeguards, protection of intellectual property right (IPR), support policy from ISRO, technical audit, risk management, international obligations and collaboration, national security, use of specialized facilities like launch pads to provide launch services, and financing options. Initiatives are also needed from the private sector even as the government creates the necessary enabling environment including its assuming an anchor–tenant role as practised in advanced economies to maximise value addition and job potentials within the country. Further, the increased role of space systems for defence and national security is yet to be fully tapped. This also requires further policy initiatives. In summary, there is immense possibility for space industry growth and its evolution, but there are equally formidable challenges. Only time can tell whether ISRO as a national space agency has shown requisite courage and vision to face this challenge squarely.

There seems to be a need for a foundation that can act as an umbilical cord between ISRO-Industry which needs to created ensure that all the issues listed above are pragmatically addressed. Without a complete and inclusive consultative mechanism, India may lose the opportunity to participate meaningfully in a globalised world of opportunities and collaborate across industries.

Human Spaceflight & Government Support

Dr. Unnikrishnan Nair shares his experiences on development of ISRO’s human spaceflight programme. Given the investments needed for a full-fledged human spaceflight programme, an organisation that is as big as the current ISRO itself must first grow within to support such an endeavour. These decisions are taken via review committees formed by the government. Much of the work for the human spaceflight programme has been under review by the Planning Commission (which has remained in place for decades as the go to body for such decision making). With the current government scrapping of the planning commission, we will have to wait and watch as to if/how the Niti Aayog (the current government’s replacement to the planning commission) shall take up this task.

Summary

In conclusion, ‘From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet’ is an excellent compendium of articles, interviews and reproductions which speaks the inner voice of the scientists/engineers of ISRO. The book provides a wonderful reference to the youth of the country to be inspired by the blood and sweat poured into developing the space programme. With an effective outreach programme, such a piece of work may inspire a generation of Indians to take up STEM education, join the space programme as scientists/engineers and consider entrepreneurship in the space industry as India leaps toward the development of its society.