The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has achieved several remarkable feats over the last few decades, and one of the most significant accomplishments in recent years is the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission. In a candid interview with Organiser Special Correspondent Nishant Kumar Azad in Bengaluru, ISRO Chairman Dr S Somanath attributed the success of Chandrayaan-3 to the hard work of thousands of scientists in ISRO and a meticulously crafted plan. Dr Somanath also discussed the
status of the Vikram lander on the moon, Bharat’s focus on promoting self-sufficiency and technological excellence, upcoming projects, and much more. Excerpts:
The journey of the ISRO has been nothing short of remarkable. It has evolved from its early days of transporting rocket components on bicycles and bullock carts to achieving the historic feat of landing a spacecraft on the Moon’s South Pole. Can you share your perspective on this incredible transformation?
The journey of ISRO has indeed been a testament to Bharat’s commitment to technological progress and solving the nation’s problems through innovation. In its early days, ISRO operated under modest circumstances but was driven by a profound vision to address the needs of the people. ISRO diligently acquired technology, developed capabilities, and showcased the benefits of its innovations, particularly in sectors like agriculture. Over six decades, ISRO has reached a significant level of accomplishment, marked by dedication, ingenuity, and a commitment to improving the lives of the people of Bharat.
There was significant pressure to ensure the success of Chandrayaan-3, especially after the failure of Chandrayaan-2 and considering Russia’s Mission Luna-25’s failure. Can you describe the atmosphere at the ISRO office during this crucial mission?
Chandrayaan-2 had some issues in the last phase preventing soft landing. We couldn’t land softly and successfully but it has achieved most of the part of the mission. We studied the reasons which led to the failure of Chandryaan-2.
After the setback of Chandrayaan-2, there was indeed substantial pressure to ensure the success of Chandrayaan-3. The atmosphere at the ISRO office was focused on the task at hand, with a collective determination to ensure a successful launch. When deeply engrossed in rigorous analysis, problem-solving, and preparation, there’s little room for dwelling on external events or circumstances. Our primary concern was to apply our expertise and experience to overcome the challenges and deliver a successful mission, irrespective of what was happening in the broader context. We were calm, cool and vigilant.
How confident were you about the success of Chandrayaan-3?
You may not believe but I had a very high level of confidence in the success of Chandrayaan-3. I have been interacting with everyone who has been contributing to the project. Everything was proceeding according to our meticulously crafted plan. We had addressed known issues and explored additional measure to enhance the mission’s chances of success. We set the launch date based on the completion of all planned tasks and the resolution of any outstanding issues. I had a strong sense of assurance in the mission’s success. There were no worries.
What lessons did you learn from the failure of Chandrayaan-2 ?
See, going to moon and landing is not an easy thing. Even with a considerable amount of experience, Russia didn’t succeed this time. The Chandrayaan-2 failure was a significant learning experience. It emphasised the importance of extensive testing, particularly to simulate lunar conditions. Rigorous data analysis was also crucial for making informed decisions and adjustments. The failure of Chandrayaan-2 played a pivotal role in refining our approach and enhancing our preparedness for Chandrayaan-3.
What is the current status of Vikram, and can we expect it to provide data in the future?
Vikram is currently in sleep mode, which was intentionally initiated to preserve its power. There is a possibility that if all systems are healthy, Vikram may automatically reactivate. However, we must remain cautiously optimistic as various factors can affect reactivation. Our work with Vikram and Pragyan is fully done.
“ISRO is at the forefront of several cutting-edge technologies, including quantum communication, atomic clocks, Travelling wave tube amplifiers, Lox Methane engines, deployable mirrors and reusable rockets”
Can you provide an update on the status of the Gaganyaan mission following the recent high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi?
The Gaganyaan mission, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018 with the goal of sending an Indian astronaut into space, is making good progress. Although there have been some delays due to factors like COVID-19 pandemic and mission complexity, we have taken a proactive approach to address these challenges. Our focus is on ensuring safety of the crew during their journey into space. We have designed a crew escape system and conducted successful tests. All the tests will be repeated different times in various conditions including high-altitude tests and helicopter-based experiments. After that we will do the full-rocket unmanned test. So, there are series of tests, the outcome of each are very critical. Our target for the Gaganyaan mission is 2025.
What is the current status of astronaut training for the Gaganyaan mission, and is there a plan to send Indian astronauts to NASA for further training?
We are actively considering sending Indian astronauts to NASA facilities for further training, and NASA has shown openness to this idea. This collaboration is essential to gain insights into how other space agencies operate and train astronauts, especially given the limited experience in human spaceflight technology. Learning from NASA will enhance our own astronaut training programme. Additionally, our astronauts plan to visit the international space station to understand its operations, and conduct short scientific mission will further enrich their readiness for the Gaganyaan mission.
Bharat’s space sector budget soared from Rs 5,615 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 12,543 crore in ten years. How has the allocation of budgetary resources for space technology evolved under this Government, and how has it improved and impacted the pace of technological advancements?
So far, there has been no restriction for budget for ISRO. The allocation of budgetary resources for India’s space sector has received consistent support and growth under the current Government. Over the past ten years, ISRO’s budget has not faced constraints, allowing the organisation to receive the financial backing it requires. The funds spend on research and development activities is being increased steadily. The truth right now we are finding it difficult to spend the money Government is giving to us.
PM Modi has been actively involved in Bharat’s space initiatives. How has his engagement and support impacted the country’s space endeavours?
PM Modi’s active involvement has been highly favourable for Bharat’s space programmes. His enthusiasm for harnessing space technology for national development began during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat and has only grown since becoming Prime Minister. When, he was the Chief Minister, he used to make regular visits to the Space Centre located in Ahmedabad, where he explored the potential applications of space technology for the betterment and advancement of the State.
“ISRO’s ability to conduct cost-effective missions is a result of our organisational culture, which prioritises cost optimisation. Additionally, India benefits from lower engineering and manufacturing costs compared to other countries”
After becoming the Prime Minister, in 2015, he conducted a comprehensive workshop involving all Ministries and Departments, with a particular emphasis on how they could harness the benefits of space technology. He also ensured around 100 space-based projects across various Government Departments.
PM Modi’s visionary leadership led to significant reforms in the space sector, enabling private players to participate and collaborate with ISRO. These reforms aim to foster economic growth and position Bharat as a leader in space and technology. PM Modi’s passionate involvement has expanded the scope of the space sector and made ISRO an inspirational institution for space exploration and technological advancements.
In a recent interview, you said, “Our best talents are supposed to be engineers from IITs. But, they are not joining ISRO. If we go and try to recruit from IIT, no one joins.” You also said that the space agency was not getting best of talent and that IITians comprise less than one per cent of those working at ISRO. In your opinion, what is the reason behind IITians not joining ISRO?
The statement about IITians not joining ISRO is based on specific instances. During one recruitment drive at an IIT, we observed that some students expressed disinterest in joining ISRO upon learning about the salary structure. Each individual’s career choices can vary, and motivations differ but I want so say that they are really missing something. A career at ISRO offers a unique, great and inspirational journey, a chance to contribute to the nation’s advancement and engage in groundbreaking work. I encourage those who are ready to embrace this journey to consider joining us in our mission. I want to say that Paise se badh ke aur v bahut kuch hai.
ISRO has achieved remarkable success in its missions while spending significantly less compared to other countries. Can you explain how ISRO manages to accomplish so much with relatively limited budgets?
The reason is very simple. ISRO’s ability to conduct cost-effective missions is a result of our organisational culture, which prioritises cost optimisation. We scrutinise every aspect of a project, from hardware reuse to cost-effective sourcing. We engage in negotiations with companies for competitive pricing and employ internal manufacturing where possible. These critical reviews helps us in achieving mission objectives at the lowest cost. Additionally, Bharat benefits from lower engineering and manufacturing costs compared to other countries. Most importantly, the collaborative and supportive nature of Indian industries further contributes to ISRO’s cost-effective missions. Most of the companies work with ISRO for passion of space sector and also benefit from the process and quality culture to ISRO making them technologically superior.
Can you provide insight into your journey towards becoming a scientist ?
My initial career choices were influenced by practical considerations, as I come from a rural background. I had a strong interest in Biology and performed well in the subject including other science subjects. During my school years, being a Doctor was an interesting job for me. I think the biggest job my parents would have imagined for me to become a school or college teacher.
After 12th, a chance encounter with a son of my father’s friend, whose son was an engineer, led me to consider engineering. He was from NIT. He prompted me to apply for engineering colleges, and I eventually pursued Mechanical Engineering. Even he purchased my form. However, my family’s financial situation didn’t support attending the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). My journey toward becoming a scientist was shaped by a combination of circumstances, opportunities, and evolving interests.
Can you provide insight into two important projects — one Indian Space Station and another to send a human to the Moon.
Bharat’s upcoming projects are interconnected and represent significant steps in our space exploration journey. Chandrayaan-3 is a critical part of this chain. While we have completed Chandrayaan-3, our lunar exploration continues, and we aim to return to the Moon for further research and testing. Gaganyaan, our human spaceflight programme, is another integral part of our mission. We aspire not only to send astronauts to space but also to establish a consistent presence in space. To achieve this, we plan to set up a research station in space for a wide range of scientific studies in different field like fibre making, medicine, electronics and many more. By 2035, we aim to establish the Indian Space Station, continue lunar exploration, and develop new-generation launch vehicles. This long-term vision involves a series of interconnected steps to expand our presence and capabilities in space exploration.
Can you tell us the motive behind ISRO’s Aditya-L1 mission?
We have a very good Sun researchers in India. The Aditya-L1 mission focuses on studying the Sun, particularly solar coronal emission. Various nations have been doing research to understand this cyclical behaviour of the Sun and its impact on the Earth. Understanding how solar emissions is crucial for space science and technology. We are trying to do it differently. This is what Aditya L-1 is. It has seven complementary instruments on board which observe the Solar Coronal Emmission and correlate to X-ray semissions, particles and magnetic field. Nowhere such a design is made, that is why the design development took so much time. This will give us a complete understanding effect of solar coronal emission.
What is ISRO doing to promote commercial launches, and what kind of collaboration can we expect with space startups and private players?
ISRO is performing well on commercial launches. We have launched over 400 foreign satellites and many more are still in process. Recognising the growing demand, we aim to support space startups and private players by facilitating launching pads, testing, sharing materials, technologies, and expertise. To manage and coordinate these collaborations effectively, established IN-SPACe at Ahmedabad. We are also exploring options for PLI, providing laboratory access, and offering various forms of assistance to promote the growth of space startups and private players.
ISRO seeks to support space startups through technology access, sharing of facilities in ISRO centres and through expertise available.
What projects is ISRO collaborating on with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited?
HAL has been a valuable partner for ISRO in various areas, while BEL has engaged in electronic component and system projects. These collaborations aim to enhance India’s self-reliance in manufacturing and critical technologies, reducing dependence on imports. The collaboration goes beyond building rockets, this encompasses building industrial capacity to handle space capability in various technology domains.
How important is international collaboration in the context of space exploration and technology development?
International collaboration is of utmost importance in space exploration and technology development. ISRO actively collaborates with leading and emerging space agencies like NASA, European agencies, France, Japan, Russia, Canada, Germany, and others. These collaborations accelerate technological advancement, and promote shared learning.
Could you discuss some cutting-edge technologies in space domain that ISRO is developing or planning to develop in the near future?
ISRO is at the forefront of several cutting-edge technologies development, including quantum communication and quantum cryptography, optical communication, atomic clocks, travelling wave tube amplifiers, LOX Methane engines, deployable mirrors and reusable rockets.
Looking back on your career, what would you consider to be your proudest moment or accomplishment?
Three moments stand out as my proudest accomplishments. First, the successful launch of the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), which I contributed to over a decade in the early part of my career. Second, my role as project director for the LVM3 ( Launch Vehicle Mark-3) project in accomplishing its first successful mission. And the third one is the successful soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the southern side of Moon while being in this position.