The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) needs no introduction today. Started only five decades ago, it has established itself among the pioneer space research organisations in the world and has earned accolades for its outstanding achievements. The trajectory of ISRO’s growth has been phenomenal, and if one is to analyse the chronology of the organisation’s success, one individual’s name emerges at the top.
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In scientific analogy, if ISRO’s growth is considered a reaction, Prof Satish Dhawan was undoubtedly the catalyst. It is Dhawan’s acumen and foresight that has catapulted ISRO from a barely known aerospace research lab in Bengaluru to the country’s most revered scientific association.
His 99th birth anniversary comes just two days after ISRO announced their most ambitious project till date— Gaganyaan, India’s first manned mission to space, slated for 2021. Prof Satish Dhawan also happens to be the longest-serving (and youngest) director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). In fact, he simultaneously served as the director of both ISRO and IISc. The Indian scientific community’s respect and admiration for him still resonate in the very veins of the elite institution. In association with IISc, The Better India decided to bring out some archived anecdotes about the unparalleled genius, as a fitting tribute on his 99th birthday.
Prof Dhawan’s childhood was spent in Lahore and Kashmir. He held multiple degrees in astonishingly diverse subjects that ranged from Aerospace Engineering to English Literature. He was the student of illustrious American engineer Hans W Liepmann, who considered Dhawan “an outstanding student and a lifelong friend.” In his memoir ‘Vignettes’, Liepmann mentioned how Dhawan’s leadership of the Indian scientific community birthed some of the brilliant geniuses from a developing nation.
Satish Dhawan married Nalini Dhawan, an accomplished cytogeneticist, whom he had accidentally run into near the Aeronautics Department at IISc. In a conversation with IISc Connect, his daughter, Jyotsna Dhawan, a biologist, revealed that her father was adept in painting and drawing as well. She fondly recalled how her father would make sure to organise creative weekend activities for the family, despite handling the dual directorship of two of India’s scientific shrines at the time.
Dhawan once famously referred to the IISc as his first and greatest love. Under his efficient stewardship, the institution attained exemplary heights in the domain of fluid dynamics research. He, along with his first and most noteworthy student Prof Roddam Narasimha, set up India’s first supersonic wind tunnel inside the IISc premises. Dhawan’s dedication to the institution reflected in ways beyond his research achievements. “I would say that he transformed the Institute,” Prof Narasimha had asserted once. From introducing a brilliant grading system for students to bringing the most exceptional Indian scientists on board under the same roof—Dhawan can be solely credited for the avant-garde status of IISc today.
Dhawan’s non-formal rapport with his students and subordinates helped flourish a beautiful work culture at IISc, sans any undue professional stress. “While most of the faculty members wore a coat and tie, Dhawan wore colourful Californian shirts. He was the only faculty member who would come to the lecture hall smiling,” recalled Prof Narasimha. Dhawan was a true-blue patriot. He asserted his deep love for the country with his actions, rather than flaunting the same in words or speech. “For him, patriotism was never a badge he wore, but was evident by the way he was committed to doing things here,” shared Prof Narasimha. The Padma Vibhushan scientist considers himself privileged to have worked in such close quarters with Prof Dhawan.
Former Indian president, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam once shared a snippet of Satish Dhawan’s exemplary leadership abilities. In 1979, a minor miscalculation led to the failure of the Satellite Launch Vehicle mission. While Kalam and his team sat dejected and heartbroken, Dhawan took the failure upon himself and declared to the press that his team would definitely succeed the next time. When the mission succeeded the following year, Dhawan sent Kalam to conduct the press meet without his presence, so that the entire credit was attributed to Kalam’s team. Needless to say, Kalam nurtured a deep sense of reverence for Prof Dhawan throughout his lifetime.
“After ISRO founder Vikram Sarabhai’s sudden demise, the morale of his new team was at its nadir,” shares Gita Aravumudan, an award-winning author and Bengaluru-based journalist who had interacted with the scientist on several occasions. At such a juncture, when an aeronautics professor (Dhawan) from IISc was recruited in his position, a subtle sense of apprehension was evident among the crew. But, that lasted only until they met Dhawan in person and were quite awed by his charm and brilliance. “At first glance, Prof Dhawan would appear as some dashing Hollywood star,” she adds. Her husband, R Aravamudan belonged to the select crew of geniuses who directly worked with Dhawan during the formative years of ISRO.
“Professor Dhawan, it turned out, was a builder and a no-nonsense man. His vision was tougher, more streamlined and rooted in reality,” writes Gita. Despite spearheading the growth of satellite technology in India, in his personal life, Dhawan was averse to watching television. “Professor Dhawan shunned the TV simply because he couldn’t bear to see how this complex technology was being misused.”
“We joined when we were just boys. He made us human beings,” said a batch of engineers at ISRO who were among the last to work under Dhawan’s directorship. Such is the blazing legacy of Prof Satish Dhawan—a true legend in every sense of the term.
Featured Image courtesy Prof Roddam Narasimha
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)