The Indian American Engineer Who Has Launched 55 Successful Space Shuttles For NASA

Meet Dr. Suresh B. Kulkarni, the Indian American engineer who has helped launch 55 successful flights for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program without a single failure. 

He is known as the “Rocket Man” amongst family and friends, because his favorite topics are rockets, missiles and space launches. He’s been a member of President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Commission on space launch failures.

But the icing on the cake is that he has helped launch 55 successful flights of NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, USA) Space Shuttle program, without a single failure – “an awesome responsibility and accomplishment,” he modestly says.

NASA calls it a record par excellence in the history of their space shuttle program; they honored his achievements with a laser-engraved plaque of recognition.

Astronaut Musgrave and Dr. Suresh Kulkarni

Astronaut Musgrave and Dr. Suresh Kulkarni (right)

That is Indian American scientist Dr. Suresh B. Kulkarni for you. Now that he’s not designing critical components for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, he’s cooking up a storm at home by making ‘Andhra’ pickles. Ever tried them? They are hot like ‘rocket fuel’, prepared by the “rocket man” himself!

Suresh, who was born in Hyderabad on 13 June 1944, did his early schooling and pre-university from there. He completed his B.E program from an engineering college affiliated to the Osmania University.

He describes the euphoric moment in his own words, “When I graduated ‘first class with distinction,’ ranking sixth among the top ten students in the entire state of Andhra Pradesh, the newspaper printed my name along with the other nine. To see my name was a ‘mind-blower!’ That was March 1965. He later graduated with a Master’s degree in Engineering (ME) from IIT, Kharagpur in 1967.

Here is an interesting anecdote he narrates, “I applied abroad after completing my ME from IIT, Kharagpur and was offered a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Denver (Colorado, USA). Not having enough money to travel abroad, I wrote to the then Nizam of Hyderabad asking for a loan. Instead, I received the full amount from him as a gift.”

The Kulkarni Family Dr Suresh B Kulkarni Standing Dark Suit

The Kulkarni Family – Dr Suresh B Kulkarni standing in dark suit

Before he left India for the USA, his father told him, “Whatever you do, don’t marry an American girl.” Five years later in 1972, however, he married Diane McLaren a native of Denver, and they’ve been happily married for 43 years now. They have two daughters, Sharmila and Anjali. Coincidentally, in 2004, when he took his younger daughter Anjali to visit India, she told her dad before the start of the journey, “Don’t even think about looking for an Indian husband for me” – history repeating itself, one might say.

Suresh, graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Denver in 1971. He joined an American company, Thiokol Corporation in 1972 as an entry-level junior engineer and retired from there in 2003, as Vice-President of Engineering for an organization of about 550 engineers.

His lists of achievements don’t just end there; here are some more. Read on.

He wrote the design manual which is used by the United States Air Force to design elastomeric (rubber) lubrication-free bearings for their helicopters.

55 Successful Lanches Recognition by Thiokol

55 Successful Lanches Recognition by Thiokol

He designed and developed the first large composite (Kevlar/epoxy) case for the first stage of the American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) system, Missile X, later dubbed “The Peacekeeper” by President Ronald Reagan.

As chief engineer representing Thiokol, he designed and developed the first solid propellant rocket motor for a mobile Small ICBM, called Midgetman.

Among the many astronauts he has worked with during his professional career were John W. Young and Robert Crippen, the Mission Commander and Pilot respectively of STS-1 (Orbiter Columbia), the first orbital flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. Suresh adds “John Young was also one of the astronauts to have walked on the moon.”

Some notable Shuttle missions that Suresh was involved in include: Magellan Spacecraft to Venus (May 1989); Galileo Spacecraft to Jupiter (October 1989); Hubble Space Telescope (April 1990); and the Shuttle-Mir (the Russian Space Station) docking (July 1995).

NASA Recognition

NASA Recognition

Suresh has an interesting anecdote to share, “Back in 1971, I had tried to get a job at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), Trivandrum, only to be told that they were looking for a foreigner for that program. I later learnt that they could not find a foreigner, so they shut the program down.”

Among his many assignments, the one he cherishes was being nominated in 1999 by Thiokol to be on President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Commission known as the Space Launch Broad Area Review (BAR) to investigate commercial flight failures and recommend corrective actions.

When asked how he unwinds and relaxes, Suresh had this to say, “I love to listen to Indian music (classical and old Hindi film songs) on internet radio, while I am cooking. And I enjoy taking care of our yard and vegetable garden.” He also loves to fly kites bought in Hyderabad, with his family.

From flying kites to flying (launching) Space Shuttles, Dr. Suresh B. Kulkarni has had an amazing career.

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About the author: Sharath Ahuja works at the Indian Institute of Science, plays badminton, billiards and snooker and is also an amateur photographer.

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