Home Interviews Spacepreneur Contributing Editor Dr (Hon) M R K Menon In conversation with P Radhakrishnan – Deputy Director (Systems Reliability & Quality Assurance) Ex ISRO.

Spacepreneur Contributing Editor Dr (Hon) M R K Menon In conversation with P Radhakrishnan – Deputy Director (Systems Reliability & Quality Assurance) Ex ISRO.

by Editorial Staff
Mr. P Radhakrishnan

What is high point of your career with ISRO?

Over 50 years ago, early in my career, I had the opportunity for working for the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, launched in 1975. I was responsible for its Power System.

Afterwards I worked in various fields such as Electronics, Reliability & Quality, and Project Management. I’ve been with ISRO for 37 years.

Briefly in my early forties, I flirted with the hope of a space flight in the US Space Shuttle. Selected and trained, while waiting for the D-day in September 1986, my dreams blew up along with the Challenger spacecraft in January 1986. More tragically, the disaster cost 7 heroic lives!

This was at once the high and low point in my career!

Who is one person who has influenced you in life and how?

I can’t possibly point to one single person and say, “He/she shaped my life”

There are a handful of people who influenced my life and attitude. In the beginning my parents, then some of my teachers at various levels and certain relations, old enough to be grandparents who shone the way to new areas of interest outside my curriculum that stayed with me all through my life. All these were during my student days.

When I entered ISRO, I was fortunate enough to be closely associated with or able observe from close quarters certain eminent persons. First and foremost, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (the founding father of space in India) himself who was briefly present during my first interview. Then there is my first boss, Shri Pramode Kale, based in Pune, still intellectually active. I was struck by the breadth and depth of his erudition, though only 3 years older than me! Soon there came into my radar other distinguished personages such as Prof. Satish Dhawan, Chairman/ISRO, Dr. Brahm Prakash, the first Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC), and, of course, the legendary Dr. APJA Kalam who was the Project Director of SLV-3, our very first (though a midget!) Satellite Launch Vehicle. These individuals were not only great experts in their chosen field but were the best among human beings! Observing them taught me that the best way to assess the character and quality of individuals is to observe how they treat people who can do nothing for them!

Their magnanimity is beyond compare! One incident is adequate as a typical example. Way back in 1979, when the first experimental launch of SLV-3 failed, a a pall of gloom descended over Sriharikota.  Within a short while there was a Press Conference. Prof. Dhawan, then Chairman of ISRO, stood in front of the Project Director, Dr. Kalam, and faced the barrage from the Press. A year later, when the second launch of SLV-3 was a spectacular success, the same Prof, Dhawan took the back seat and let Dr. Kalam take all the laurels from the Press! Could we expect such nobility from lesser human beings? We have heard from Dr. Kalam himself that he could pull through the agonizing period that followed the first failure only by deriving strength from the reassuring support from both Prof. Dhawan and Dr. Brahm Prakash. These three formed a superb troika!

Association with these individuals and incidents involving them afforded me the best schooling outside the formal school!

Pardon me this lengthy answer, I can’t economize on my words while thinking of such memorable individuals.

How did you get the role of propagating Space Technology in India in the 1960’s on a NASA outreach project?

Soon after I joined TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station) in 1966 (there was no ISRO then) there arose the need for a lecturer for NASA-INCOSPAR (the forerunner of ISRO) Spacemobile campaign to popularize the nascent space activities that started with the launch, in 1957, of the  first ever artificial satellite, Sputnik,  by the then Soviet Union. Those were the days before man set foot on the Moon! It was my good fortune that I was selected as a lecturer along with another, RC Khattar from Bhabha Atomic Research Center. NASA had supplied a small truck full of plaster of paris scale models of rockets and spacecraft, posters and audiovisual aids. Two lecturers, one person for administrative chores, and the driver formed the crew. We travelled by road all over India for 10 months according to a prearranged schedule and gave lecture-cum-demonstration followed by films at a large number of universities, colleges and schools as well as certain public institutions. On an average there were three lectures a day. I’d faced at times audience numbering a thousand in open air. Not only did Spacemobile gave me, a novice of 22, a broad exposure to space science & technology, but afforded me an instructive Bharat Darshan!

Do you foresee a bright future for private space agencies in India?

Certainly yes! We have successful models existing elsewhere.

I’m convinced that what Government Agencies can do, the Private Sector can do just as well. In matters of Space or Atomic Energy, however, the Government should have strict regulatory authority, or else, the nation’s security is compromised. There could be a balanced mix of  private enterprise contained within the compass of regulation by the Government.

Are you surprised to see a magazine devoted to Space Technology and Exploration in India?

Agreeably surprised, to be sure!

I’m reminded of a monthly science magazine, “Science Today” in my youth. The contents of the magazine were contributed by knowledgeable authors. Somewhere along the way, the magazine just disappeared leaving no successor!

What are the three elements that characterize the soul or culture of ISRO?

If you ask for one attribute, I’d say in a lighter vein, “ISRO is ISRO” (Plagiarizing “Honda is Honda”)

Now more seriously, the basic strength of ISRO lies in its open culture. Its seeds were sowed by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who managed at once Atomic Energy and Space in addition to his own considerable private business. He knew the inner workings of both Government and Private enterprise. From an Open Culture everything else follows. For best results, Science & Technology can’t tolerate dictatorship!

A natural offshoot of open culture is a fierce review system – Review is all pervasive through various levels of a Project starting from the Concept, progressing through the distinct stages of Design, and then finally rigorous evaluation of results of exacting tests. These tests are conducted at subsystem and system levels. This kind of reviews and tests apply equally to software packages ending with simulations.

All reviews are conducted in an uninhibited atmosphere without undue regard to hierarchy but, of course, keeping within limits of decency and decorum. ISRO allows everyone participating in a review to say, “I disagree with you, Sir”, not without the responsibility to reason out the disagreement. This engenders a sense of involvement and purpose among the participating employees.

I’ve often thought that 37 years of my life with ISRO has spoilt me in the sense that I can’t thrive in any other organization!

Have you interacted with Dr Vikram Sarabhai or with Abdul Kalam Sir? Some find recollections?

I’m proud that that Dr. Sarabhai knew me by name. Once in Ahmedabad, he attended my Spacemobile presentation. At the end, he called me aside and said, “You, no doubt, speak well and clearly. But be more Indian”. Instantly I knew that I’ve got to temper my language style to suit the common audience in various parts of India. It was a valuable advice that served me all through my life. He made me realize that I must speak not to please myself but to make myself intelligible to everyone in the audience.

I’ve certainly interacted closely with Dr. Kalam. Even after he left ISRO to join Defence R&D, he used to invite me at times to his Establishment in Hyderabad for some meetings and discussions. Needless to say, he was a famous chronic bachelor. He always lived in a small room, no matter what his position was, which was invariably cluttered with all sorts of things ranging from books to musical instruments. He was an avid reader of all kinds of books – not only technical but art, history, philosophy including Hindu philosophy…

What struck me mostly as to everyone who met him was his disarming humility and unpretentiousness. After his tenure as the President of India, he spent his time exclusively on speaking to students. What can be more fortunate and appropriate than that his end should come when he collapsed while engaged in his favorite pastime – speaking to students!

Would you recommend a career in Space Technology to the youth of India? What is your message for them?

Without a doubt, I’d say that ISRO is still the best-run Government Department. I use the word “still” because an organization is pretty much like a living organism having different stages like birth, infancy, youth, middle age, and finally old age! ISRO is roughly 60 years old. I’ve no doubt, however, that the current team at the helm of affairs has the vision to delay the onset of old age.

I’m indeed proud that I belonged to ISRO once.

What is one incident during your training at NASA that you remember the most?

I don’t have to think a bit to answer that question. Date: January 28, 1986. Time about 9 am.  We were at Ford Aerospace Corporation in San Francisco. We were watching on the TV the launch of the Space Shuttle, Challenger with bated breath. A little over a minute after lift-off, the TV screen was filled with a ball of fire and smoke. Just as swiftly as my hope for something to tell my grandchildren had soared, all my dreams fell around me ashes. At that moment I realized with a shock that I’ve become a still-born astronaut!

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