Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is one of the 2014 top ten scientists chosen by the prestigious journal Nature . This is the first time in the recent past that the journal has chosen an Indian working in India. He is listed along with other people like Andrea Accomazzo, the Rosetta flight operations director, European Space Agency.
The reasons for choosing Dr. Radhakrishnan are pretty simple and straightforward.
When India’s Mangalyaan successfully settled into Mars orbit on September 24, 2014, the country became the first and only nation to have done so on its maiden attempt. India also became the first Asian country to reach Mars.
The space organisation crossed two other major milestones this year. In January, the space organisation achieved spectacular success with the spaceflight of an Indian cryogenic engine and stage. India has been striving hard for some years to indigenously develop a cryogenic engine to improve the reliability of GSLV rockets and to take the rocket to greater heights.
The recent launch of the heaviest and tallest GSLV Mark III and the successful re-entry of the unmanned crew module were the other landmark achievements.
“It’s recognition for executing a major technological mission by bringing in synergy of a large team,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan about Nature choosing him as one of the top ten scientists in the world. The team is as large as 16,000 members, with the younger generation alone accounting for 4,500.
“ISRO is a wonderful and unique organisation. There is wonderful team spirit and openness,” is how he describes an organisation that he joined in 1971. He had worked in various major capacities before becoming Chairman.
He was with the then Department of Ocean Development for five years from 2000-2005 and was a Founder Director of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad.
If the number of young people wanting to join ISRO skyrocketed after the success of the Chandrayaan moon mission, the Mangalyaan magic is bound to generate much greater attraction. “These missions have been able to generate remarkable interest in the younger generation. If we are already able to attract the best brains in the country, these achievements provide a fillip to that,” he said.
“Just after the September 24 event [when Mangalyaan settled into Mars orbit], ISRO got many postcards from people. The Facebook of ISRO has 900,000 likes,” he said
At a time when other government research organisations are struggling to get the best, motivated people, ISRO has been like a magnet attracting and retaining. Dr. Radhakrishnan shares the secret behind this. “The challenge provided by the job itself attracts people. To retain people, the job should be challenging,” he said. “There is also good working culture and ambience. There is also pride associated with the job, and in a society how people look at you also matters.”
“I don’t subscribe to that,” he said about women not being on par with men when it comes to science. “Women make for good scientists and engineers,” Dr. Radhakrishnan said. “ISRO has over 20 per cent women scientists and even in senior positions like project directors.”
He does acknowledge that the visual impact of a rocket launch excites people and goes a long way in helping people connect with ISRO. “A rocket taking off certainly excites people but so is the impact [of the satellites] made on people and their lives,” he stressed. To drive home the point, he cites the advance cyclone warning provided to people in the two recent instances.
The next major events on ISRO’s calendar is the developmental flight of GSLV Mark III vehicle with a fully operational cryogenic engine in two years’ time. The other is the launch of Chandrayaan-2 mission configured with an Orbiter, Lander and Rover for in-situ investigation of the lunar surface in 2016-2017. ISRO has already developed and tested a lunar Rover.
But it remains to be seen if Dr. Radhakrishnan will be in the saddle till then. He is due to retire on December 31, 2014.