Rocket scientist Satish Dhawan is often regarded as the architect of India’s space programme owing to the visionary leadership he exhibited.
Born on 25 September, 1920, in Srinagar, Dhawan was the longest (and youngest) serving director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
His journey in the field began in 1947 when he left for the United States to pursue his MS in aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
He moved to Caltech, where he followed this up with a degree in aeronautical engineering and a PhD in aeronautics and mathematics in 1951.
Soon after, he returned to join Bengaluru’s IISc as a senior scientific officer and was later promoted to the post of the head of the department of aeronautical engineering.
Under his exemplary stewardship, the department quickly became the epicentre of the experimental fluid dynamic research happening in India.
Such was his dynamism and dedication towards his work that, in 1962, he was appointed the director of IISC, a post in which he would serve for nine years.
An interesting anecdote often retold is of a call Dhawan received from the Indian Embassy in 1971, when he was on a sabbatical at Caltech, his alma mater in the USA.
The embassy conveyed the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi’s request that he return to India and take charge of the Indian space programme following the sudden death of Vikram Sarabhai on 30 December, 1971.
But Dhawan agreed to do this on two conditions.
One was that the headquarters of the space programme was in Bengaluru and the second being that he be allowed to continue as IISc’s director.
Indira Gandhi agreed to both and the eminent scientist returned to India after finishing his commitments at Caltech.
In May 1972, Dhawan took over as the secretary of India’s Department of Space.
He also took charge as the chairman of ISRO where he introduced a dynamic management structure that encouraged innovation.
Dhawan handpicked APJ Abdul Kalam to lead the project that developed SLV-3 — India’s first launch vehicle — whose first experimental launch on 10 August, 1979 was a failure.
In the press conference that followed, Dhawan handled the situation well, saying, “Friends, today we had our first satellite launch vehicle to put a satellite in orbit. We could not succeed.”
“In many technologies, we have succeeded, and in a few more, we have yet to succeed. Above all, I realise my team members have to be given all technological support. I am going to do that and the next mission will succeed.”
He kept his word, and the next time SLV-3 was launched (on 18 July, 1980), it was a sensational success.
The SLV-3 put a small 40-kg Rohini satellite into orbit in 1980, putting India truly into the space age.
Under Dhawan’s aegis, ISRO also worked towards fulfilling Vikram Sarabhai’s dream of using space science to address the development needs of India.
The development of operational communication systems (like INSAT) and remote sensing systems (like IRS) are outcomes of these crucial efforts.
With his death on 3 January, 2002, India did not just lose one of its most distinguished scientists, but rather it lost a legend who transformed every organisation he worked for.