A Rendezvous with the Space Maven: Dr. A.S. Kiran Kumar
From hoisting the Indian flag on the moon to conquering Mars, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has aced it all, and one man has been the protagonist of every such success story ISRO has written in recent years. He is Aluru Seelin Kiran Kumar, currently serving as the Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation. Recently on a visit to NIT Rourkela for the 14th Annual Convocation, Team MM interacted with Dr. A.S. Kiran Kumar to learn more about his experiences and views on a motley of aspects. Here are a few extracts from the interview.
MM: Tell us about your pre-graduation days.
KK: I did my early schooling at Hassan, which is also known as poor man’s Ooty. In my pre-university years, I had chosen physics, chemistry and biology as I wanted to become a doctor. I scored the highest marks in PCB section but could not secure admission in the medical college as I fell short of 22 days to fulfil the minimum age criteria of 16 years. It had always been my dream to study in the National College, Bangalore which is a very well-known academic institution. I took up Physics honours, which had been restarted that very year, after a long time gap of almost two decades. Medicine was still not a lost chapter for me and I was looking forward to pursuing a course in it after a year. It was Prof. H. Narshimhya, whose influence compelled me to stay with physics. We were at our hostel where we heard the radio broadcast of the first human landing on the moon in 1969, so incidents like this aroused and attracted my interest towards physics. I did my M.Tech in physical engineering, a discipline which is a bridge between scientists and engineers and provides the much-needed exposure in the field of technology. One of my projects at National College was based on Picture Processing for X-Ray Film Enhancement, which marked my entry in the field of picture processing and sensor development. I went for an interview at Space Application Centre and I had an appointment letter prior to completion of my B.Sc. Honours.
MM: Tell us about your life at Space Applications Centre (SAC) of ISRO, Ahmedabad.
KK: I joined SAC in 1975 after the launch of the first Indian satellite Aryabhata. We were working on a satellite for earth observation under the Indo-Russian collaboration where I was taking care of Electro-optical payload. We started with an imaging system, which provided a resolution of 1km and improved it to 0.6m over time. We were improving on several domains like earth observation and communications simultaneously. For communication, we had a three-axis stabilised satellite which was a trifunctional satellite carrying out tasks like broadcasting, telecommunication as well as meteorology. In our initial days, we were not capacitated enough to build a trifunctional satellite on our own and hence it was realised through an American company but the second generation onwards it was built indigenously. Apart from these, we have witnessed tremendous developments in remote sensing and applications.
MM: You have represented ISRO on several occasions on the international forum. Where do you think India stands in terms of Space Research on a global level?
KK: We hold different positions in different fields on a global stage. Polar satellites launch vehicles of our country have garnered an international recognition as one of the most reliable launch vehicle, which has led to more offers for launching satellites from foreign countries. We have launched 79 satellites for different nations by now. Our launch vehicles are abled with multifarious capabilities which enable us to put a large number of satellites in different orbits in one go. We certainly hold a significant position in that sector. We have a capacity of two tonnes in terms of geo-stationary satellites launching and we have been working on doubling the capacity, which would be achieved around the month of April. Indigenous cryogenic technology is a new addition to our list. With a group of 7 satellites, we could navigate India and surrounding areas effectively unlike others who use an army of 24 satellites for the same task. Some of the nations have already done completed a manned mission, so we are lagging behind as our prime focus has been critical technology development like recovery experiments. We are placed at the 5th position in terms of launch vehicles.
We are listed among the leading countries who make use of space technology for societal benefits and that will remain our prime focus. The fact that is worth appreciating is that we have achieved all of these in the most economical way. Our total expenditure on all these programs right from its inception is less than the annual budget of NASA.
MM: Over all these years, working at ISRO what has been the primary objective of your life?
KK: Our primary objective of the space program has been to make use of available technologies for societal benefits and not to exhibit our proficiency in this field. Today we are able to predict cyclones and save lives, farmers and anglers are benefitted from the climatic data that we obtain. So, we emphasise on making the most out of the available technology and try to develop the unavailable ones indigenously. We have been consistently trying to increase our capacity for the common good of our people.
MM: What do you think are the sub domains of space research where our potential lays untapped?
KK: Right now, we are collaborating with the postal department for reaching out the villages. Ultimately, we need to make sure that technology reaches out to the last segments of the society. We have a program called ‘Space Based Information System for Decentralised Planning’, wherein the assets of the village will be generated and cached into databases. These databases will aid the village Sarpanch for planning the future prospects of the village. The idea is to generate the information and make it available to the planners even at the grass root level.
Space is an effective means of generating information, as it has no boundaries. To make the generated information accessible and usable is a priority. That is one field of operation where we have tremendous potential.
MM: What is your opinion on students participating in space exploration programs, with many students in engineering colleges in the country coming up with mini-satellite concepts?
KK: Space is a frontier, an evolving field of study. With the development of new concepts like space travel, space tourism and space adventure, space has revealed many prospects for the future generation to work with. Space is a strategic location for hosting many activities like navigation, communication and earth observation. However, the search for a habitable planet other than earth, harnessing solar energy from space, improving rocket propulsion systems, dark matter etc., are some of the abeyant sectors of space exploration, which offer enormous opportunities for the future generation to work with.
Suppose there is a distribution of research on space exploration. In any distribution, there are out layers, and these are the ones, which set a mark for the distribution. If we want more people from the system to make a mark, you have to shift the mean to a higher and higher level. That is where institutions come into the picture. The way they transmit knowledge, the way they nurture their students are all factors for the development of the mean level.
MM: Can you tell us about some of your best career moments which you will cherish for a lifetime?
KK: More than experiences, the satisfaction you get when your work actually benefits people is important. When you see people safely being evacuated from the rage of a cyclone because you predicted it correctly, the feeling of contentment that you get is not comparable to any individual recognition or honour. Personal recognition also carries additional responsibility with it as well. However, I would say that the satisfaction is something I crave for.
MM: Do you have any message for the students?
"Students should utilise every opportunity that comes their way, because life will not give you the opportunity again. We should also realise that there are people in the country who are not privileged enough to get the same chances that you do. So, we should also think about the ways by which we can contribute to the society and not just use the opportunities for expanding our personal horizons."