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6 lessons that ISRO can teach

By Govindraj Ethiraj
July 11, 2006 16:08 IST
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I once asked former ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation)chief K Kasturirangan (now a Rajya Sabha MP) whether he had pursued astrophysics (his specialisation) abroad. He said, "No." "At no point?" I asked again. "No," he said again, in a matter-of-fact manner.

Actually, his bio-data was self-evident. And yet, foolishly, I thought otherwise. Kasturirangan, as I concluded, was a completely home-grown product.

But this is not about how India's space programme is being driven by locally educated talent. Nor is it about how amazing it is. It's about how an organisation like ISRO and its people could be held up as examples worthy of emulation. ISRO is symptomatic of most government-owned and -driven projects -- progress in fits and starts, starved budgets, talent shortages and even spectacular flameouts. Not to mention international sanctions.

Yet, its ability to pull through all of this is noteworthy. As I write, the much-awaited Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) launch on Monday evening at Sriharikota has been a failure. This is a setback and a costly one at that. And yet, chances are, ISRO can be trusted to pull back. For the following reasons:

Learning from failure: ISRO has plodded on, only occasionally in the public eye, though, since it was set up in 1969. It turns out that every story of failure is a story of success. Scientists driving the projects, as one former ISRO employee recalled, were never hounded with departmental enquiries if projects failed. Nor are they today. Indeed, a failure has always been an opportunity to learn.

One of President A P J Abdul Kalam's oft-narrated tales is the one about when then chairman Satish Dhawan had put him in charge of the first satellite launch vehicle project (SLV) 3 in 1973. The SLV-3, with the Rohini satellite, was launched in 1979, but crashed into the Bay of Bengal five minutes later.

At the press conference that followed, Kalam discovered, to his shock, that Dhawan took all the blame for the disaster, despite the SLV 3 being Kalam's baby. A year later, the SLV-3 was launched successfully. And it was time to face the nation once again. Kalam was stunned again -- because this time Dhawan gave him all the credit. Kalam today says this is one piece of education 'which won't come from any university.'

'Kalam always took himself very seriously'

Motivation and peer review: ISRO has a system of peer review and engagement that many private sector companies would find difficult to emulate. Credit for this is attributed mostly to Dhawan. Indeed, while Vikram Sarabhai is the founder of ISRO and the man who injected idealism and fervour into the organisation, Dhawan is remembered, among other things, for bringing in professionalism and processes, and an environment of openness, unheard of at that time.

I remember asking Kasturirangan about this and he took pains to stress this aspect. As did Kiran Karnik, now Nasscom chairman. Karnik actually likes to draw comparisons with the growth of ISRO and the development of the IT industry, graduating from heady idealism to firm processes. Karnik surprised his peers when he joined ISRO after passing out of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in the early 1970s.

Karnik recalls how a youngster who joined ISRO the previous week could critique someone much senior to him. And there was a strictly non-hierarchical approach to most projects.

With both, the organisation seemed to have left an indelible impact on their lives, as it has done with President Kalam. Every other speech contains lengthy references to his time at ISRO, and the education he received from Sarabhai and Dhawan.

Self-confidence: Whether it was Kasturirangan or now the current Chairman G Madhavan Nair, ask them where they want to be and the answer is 'on top of the world', and not 'we are trying to catch up, we will work hard.' The body language is of infectious confidence, not the usual bureaucratic arrogance one usually associates with government officials in power.

Take the China threat: While the manufacturing industry is apprehensive, ISRO maintains that India is far ahead in the space race. Despite China launching an astronaut into space, the view in Sriharikota is that India could match it if it desired. 'Our launch capabilities are as good as theirs,' Nair is on record saying.

The same self-confidence makes ISRO hold its ground against the criticism of its 2008 Moon (unmanned) Mission. The ISRO view is that there are aspects of the moon still not studied.

Budgets and resources: This is a perennial problem with most Indian government organisations. ISRO has turned adversity into an advantage. Years of scavenging have made it the lowest-cost satellite launcher in the world, 35 per cent lower, on average. The Moon Mission (Chandrayaan I) is pegged in the region of Rs 350 crore (Rs 3.50 billion), the average two-year, cost over-run for most government infrastructure projects.

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Sanctions have not fazed ISRO, either, only forcing more indigenous (private and public sector) development. ISRO's marketing arm, Antrix Corporation, today earns around Rs 400 crore (Rs 4 billion) from a range of activities -- from launching rockets to selling infrared images from its remote-sensing satellites.

Mission focus: Perhaps, it's the nature of the business. All energies, teams and minds are focused on a single deadline. Everything works on that day or does not. The smallest deviation can cause the whole thing to sink. But a mission focus is mostly missing in most, for instance, infrastructure initiatives.

Karnik says it's this discrepancy that bothers him most. Why can't we complete an expressway in time, or an airport, when we are executing with such efficiency and focus elsewhere? If ISRO can deliver, why can't the rest, he asks.

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Govindraj Ethiraj
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