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Satish Dhawan — the gentle colossus

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HISTORIC: Satish Dhawan (extreme right) with the former Prime Minister, I.K.Gujral. Also in the picture are U.R. Rao (second from right) and K. Kasturirangan (extreme left), both of whom later headed the space programme.
HISTORIC: Satish Dhawan (extreme right) with the former Prime Minister, I.K.Gujral. Also in the picture are U.R. Rao (second from right) and K. Kasturirangan (extreme left), both of whom later headed the space programme.

P.V. Manoranjan Rao

Today is the 89th birth anniversary of Satish Dhawan who lent substance to Vikram Sarabhai’s vision and built the Indian Space Research Organisation into a vibrant body.

The recent launch of Chandrayaan-1 has inspired many young people and given the nation a sense of justifiable pride in the achievements of the Indian space programme. Amidst the euphoria surrounding such glamorous events, let us recall the gentle colossus who made it all possible — Professor Satish Dhawan. Though Vikram Sarabhai was the visionary, it was Dhawan who lent substance to this vision and built the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) into the vibrant body that it is today.

One of the first and possibly the most important things that Dhawan did was to bring Brahm Prakash from the Department of Atomic Energy to head the newly-formed Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) at Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). At that time, activities at VSSC were fragmented, with different groups working independently on a variety of problems and projects — some of them even competing with each other. Brahm Prakash restructured and welded these amorphous entities into a dynamic structure capable of producing results time and time again. Working in tandem, Dhawan and Brahm Prakash created one of the great technology centres of modern India. VSSC became the birthplace of many subsequent ISRO centres and activities. It was the same Dhawan-Brahm Prakash duo that picked A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to lead the project that developed SLV-3, India’s first launch vehicle, and U.R. Rao to head the team that made the country’s first satellite, Aryabhata. When the SLV-3 put a small 40-kg Rohini satellite into orbit in 1980, India truly entered the space age.

Soon after he took over, Dhawan realised that for ISRO to grow and to deliver on its potential, it was necessary to restructure its links with the government. Against great opposition, he brought ISRO under the Government and created the Department of Space. He also realised that a different structure for the functioning of this new department was necessary. The creation of the Space Commission, a separate book of financial powers and a direct link to the Prime Minister were the specific mechanisms through which Dhawan sought to address the challenges that ISRO faced. The practice of combining the offices of Chairman of ISRO, Chairman of the Space Commission and Secretary for the Department of Space in one person also ensured seamless integration between conceptualisation and funding of programmes with delivery of technologies, launchers, satellites and applications. The setting up of ISRO Headquarters, staffed by young, bright and dedicated professionals hand-picked by Dhawan himself, completed the process of linking ISRO programmes and projects with decision-makers and sources of funds. This particular architecture that Dhawan designed was original and innovative. ISRO’s continuing success is visible proof of the robustness of this design.

Under the leadership of Dhawan and Brahm Prakash, ISRO pioneered a new way of managing complex projects. In this system, the project director presided over a small team of experts whose job it was to coordinate and channelise efforts of independent R&D groups towards realising a common goal, be it a launch vehicle or a satellite. Dhawan also ensured total transparency in project management by involving leading professionals from outside ISRO in the technical reviews of its projects.

From the beginning, Dhawan insisted on a significant role for indigenous industry in the projects of ISRO. Today, hundreds of industrial units, both in the public and private sectors, manufacture a wide range of space-quality hardware for ISRO.

The early days saw many failures. Through all those difficult times, Dhawan never lost faith in ISRO’s capabilities. He took personal responsibility for failure but when success came, he always attributed it to ISRO and his colleagues. Thus, when the first flight of SLV-3 in 1979 failed, Dhawan faced the press. When the second flight succeeded, Dhawan kept himself in the background while Kalam spoke to the press. With this kind of leadership, engineers and scientists in ISRO were never afraid to face honest failures.

As ISRO’s capabilities matured and grew, Dhawan felt the need for a stronger link between the programmes and the development needs of the country. The operational Indian National Satellite (INSAT) and Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) systems were therefore designed jointly with the users. If the user agency was not clear about what it wanted, a programme of joint experiments and studies ensured that the agency’s requirements were defined as clearly as possible so that the technology and its use were closely coupled. Most of what ISRO does so well today – the IRS and INSAT satellites with their associated Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) systems — are outcomes of these carefully thought out processes.

Handsome and elegant in appearance but simple in nature, Dhawan never seemed to realise the impact his personality had on others. He respected and worked closely with workers and technicians in the pursuit of his research interests. Many of them reciprocated his feelings by adoring him and by doing whatever he wanted them to do.

He had a great interest in issues of war and peace, and the role that science and technology could play in resolving conflicts between nations. At ISRO, he set up one of the earliest think tanks in the country to deal with such issues.

Dhawan took an occasional break from the high-tech business of space to study the flight of birds. The Pulicat Lake, Nelapetu and other bird sanctuaries near ISRO’s Sriharikota Range were his natural laboratories. The result was a classic monograph called ’Bird Flight’. In the preface, Dhawan wrote : “I lay little claim to originality and acknowledge my debt to the many distinguished researchers on animal flight who have made the subject a new branch of science. I am no less indebted to the birds…” Many of the drawings of birds that appear in this monograph were sketched by Dhawan himself.

Dhawan loved teaching and research. He often said that he spent his most productive years at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. He always modestly described himself as a teacher and said that the IISc was his first and greatest love. In an interview he gave a few months before he passed away, he was asked about the origins of all the organisational and managerial knowledge that he had used so effectively in ISRO. His reply was that he had learned everything at the IISc. In his eighteen year tenure as director, Dhawan transformed the institution, slowly replacing a feudal academic structure with a modern, democratic departmental system. His idealism and commitment influenced his colleagues in substantial measure. He also brought in fresh blood and set about creating new areas of multidisciplinary research.

What sort of a person was Dhawan? “If I have to choose one word that would define his personality, it would be integrity,” wrote Yash Pal, former chairman of the University Grants Commission. This is how Abdul Kalam and Roddam Narasimha, former director of the National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore, sum him up: “Professor Dhawan in his professional career has been engineer, teacher, research scientist, technologist, manager, leader and adviser — often all at the same time! His great human qualities, combining intense personal charm with a deep commitment to social values and an extraordinary objectivity in management, have led several generations of students, colleagues and administrators to efforts that they would otherwise not have taken.”

Today, the 25th of September, is Dhawan’s 89th birth anniversary. It is nearly seven years since he passed away. It is only proper that we remember him and the values he stood for.

There is perhaps no better description of him than what Shakespeare wrote:

“His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world “this was a man!”

(P.V. Manoranjan Rao was a scientist at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre for many years.)


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