A pioneer scientist

Print edition : February 02, 2002
On Satish Dhawan.

INDIANS are very proud of the 'constellation' of more than a dozen of the country's satellites in orbit, a feat performed on, what the well-known United States-based magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology called a few years ago, a 'shoe-string' budget. (Only recently did it cross an annual $400 million.) In fact, one more successful launch no longer causes national euphoria. Although the Indian space programme owes its birth to the vision of Vikram Sarabhai, the superb technology development organisation that is behind the launches was the creation of Satish Dhawan, former Chairman of the Space Commission and Director of the Indian Institute of Science, who passed away on January 3. With his death the country lost one of its most distinguished sons, and the scientific community a truly unimpeachable representative. He had at various times in his career been teacher, research scientist, engineer, technologist, manager, leader and adviser - sometimes several of these at the same time. Moreover, to everything he did he brought the same level of dedication, breadth of vision, meticulousness and humanity, which, combined with his extraordinary scientific and technological abilities, transformed every organisation he worked for or led and made it achieve what it had often not thought itself capable of.

Satish Dhawan with former ISRO Chairman U.R. Rao (left) and present Chairman K. Kasturirangan (right).-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Satish Dhawan was born on September 25, 1920, in Srinagar. He graduated from the University of Punjab with an unusual combination of degrees - a B.A. in Mathematics and Physics, an M.A. in English Literature and a B.E. in Mechanical Engineering. In 1947 he obtained an M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. Later, he moved to the California Institute of Technology, where he was awarded the Aeronautical Engineer's Degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Mathematics in 1951, which he pursued with eminent aerospace scientist Professor Hans W. Liepmann as adviser. Such an educational breadth, covering science, engineering and the humanities, and his distinguished family background, appears to have given him an ability to view the world from many different angles, and may have been responsible for his unique qualities as a leader.

It was in 1972 that Prof. Dhawan was appointed Chairman of the Space Commission and of the Indian Space Research Organisation, and Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Space. In the following decade, he directed the Indian space programme through a period of extraordinary growth and spectacular achievement. Major programmes were carefully defined and systematically executed, including in particular the launch of Indian satellites on Indian rocket vehicles. Pioneering experiments were carried out in rural education, remote sensing and satellite communications that led to the development of operational systems like INSAT. These projects were all distinguished by their keen sensitivity to the true needs of a developing nation, a confident appreciation of the ability of its scientists and engineers, and the carefully planned involvement of Indian industry, both public and private. It is no surprise that the Indian space programme came to be seen in the 1980s as a model of technology development and application carried out within the country.

Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, recalls a late evening in Cauvery Bhavan in Bangalore (where the headquarters of ISRO is situated) with Prof. Dhawan, discussing space missions for the next two decades. ISRO engineers opened out computer printouts, data charts on launch vehicles, plans for spacecraft launch complexes and development of connected real time software. Many mission options were debated linking launch vehicle configuration, aerodynamic design, propellant technology and control, guidance and spacecraft systems. However, the long and careful considerations that Prof. Dhawan had devoted to the issues were summarised by him the next morning with graphs he himself had prepared, bringing out a space mission profile for the next 15 years (1980-1995). These charts became the blueprints for the national space programme as it grew into a stable of various launch vehicles (including in particular those for polar and geostationary satellites, the PSLV and the GSLV), the Indian Remote Sensing satellites, the INSAT series and their current technological descendants.

After his retirement from formal positions in government, Prof. Dhawan continued as a member of the Space Commission, taking time every now and then to analyse matters of public policy in science and technology and egging on his colleagues in the scientific community to give more attention to the social demands on science.

The principles that Prof. Dhawan formulated and applied - but, characteristically, never stated - in running the country's space programme can be easily inferred from the way he operated. First of all, he devised a programme that was societally conscious, with objectives that could be widely understood (weather, natural resource-mapping, communications and so on). He had supreme confidence in the ability of Indian engineers and scientists, even when they did not have degrees from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or foreign universities. He kept the technology development work open and transparent to the national scientific community through an elaborate system of reviews (some of them held in the big auditorium in the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thiruvananthapuram, filled to capacity. It was at such review meetings that the tradition that the junior-most engineer could ask awkward questions to senior project leaders was quickly established). Prof. Dhawan managed his projects through a small group of able directors and another small group of bright young whiz-kids in his office (protecting them from the natural dislike of their colleagues). As Dr. Kalam has pointed out, he took the responsibility when there were failures, but let others take credit when they succeeded. He maintained accountability through peer pressure, but shielded his engineers from blame for honest failures. He developed a promotion and assessment system that had some unique features, that enabled the more productive engineers to move ahead of their colleagues, but not too rapidly and thus retained the confidence of the bulk of the staff in the fairness of the system.

There were some other unusual things about Prof. Dhawan's management style. He shunned publicity and rarely held forth in public - so much so that people were often surprised how forceful he could be in private, or within the four walls of the Council or the Commission. I think of him as a critical optimist in everything he did.

Prof. Dhawan as the creator of the superb technology delivery system that ISRO has become is so well-known that his academic side is almost forgotten by the country. This is in spite of the fact that, even when he was running the country's space programme, he took only one rupee for the job, preferring to be paid by the Indian Institute of Science for being its Director. (When he was asked by Indira Gandhi to take charge at ISRO as successor to Vikram Sarabhai, he made it clear that he would do so only if he could remain at the Institute that he so loved. Later, when Morarji Desai took over from Indira Gandhi after she lost the elections in 1977, Prof. Dhawan was ready with his resignation from ISRO. However, Morarji Desai refused to accept it.)

When Prof. Dhawan came to the Institute in 1951 - a fresh Ph.D. from Caltech, renowned for its scientific and technological leadership in the aerospace field under the legendary von Karman - he was immediately a star. Tall, handsome, cheerful, informal, optimistic, realistic, modern, patriotic, socialistic, brilliant with hands and mind, he worked late hours setting up and running the country's first supersonic tunnels. He could not be missed on a campus that was still rather stiff and formal at the time. His laboratories were little treasure-houses, filled with lovingly crafted 'gizmos' (as he called them), built by uneducated but skilful mechanics who were devoted to him. As a student at Caltech, he left a glow of fond memories behind him - for here was an Indian who was not only ingenious at hooking up new intriguing experiments but could also play with hypergeometric functions; quote Shakespeare for every occasion; and regale others with stories about the camel answering to the name of Greta Garbo in the Khyber Pass. (As a young man, Prof. Dhawan grew up in what is now Pakistan.) The combination was overwhelming, especially as it was accompanied by a very Indian sense of grace and modesty.

At the time that Prof. Dhawan began his career in aerodynamic research, supersonic flows and shock waves were exotic phenomena. His earliest papers dealt with these subjects, and one of them, which had beautiful pictures of how a shock wave bounces off a wing surface, for example, became widely known for its revealing and defining observations. He also invented an ingenious method to measure directly the friction drag on a surface by letting a small strip of it - about a millimeter wide - float and measure its movement against the resistance of a spring by electronic methods. Prof. Dhawan's results appeared in the historic treatise on Boundary Layer Theory published in the 1950s by German scientist Hermann Schlichting. Since then, it has been faithfully reproduced in the many editions the book has gone through in its English translation over the last 50 years.

At the Indian Institute of Science, which he joined as a Senior Scientific Officer in 1951 (he became Professor and Head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1955 and Director in 1962), he built the first supersonic tunnels in the country and led a pilot project that resulted in the huge facilities that later came up at the National Aeronautical Laboratory (now the National Aerospace Laboratories) in Bangalore. Simultaneously, he continued his research in fluid dynamics. He and his students made pioneering investigations in the intriguing phenomena of flows that go from a smooth, laminar state to the more common eddying, irregular, turbulent state and also, surprisingly, the other way back to laminar. He was the father of experimental fluid dynamics research in India, and indeed was in many ways the first engineering scientist of the country.

Prof. Dhawan's philosophy in research had two outstanding features. First, it was carried out at low cost, with ingenious development or adaptation of whatever materials, skills and instrumentation were available at the time. Second, the basic research areas investigated in his laboratories were all inspired in some way by the problems faced by the newly-born aircraft industry of the country (in which he had spent a year on the workshop floors before he went to the U.S. for higher education). In later years he sought to promote the development of the aircraft industry at the higher levels of policy and management and persuaded Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to start a division for space projects.

While being involved with all the high technology and big science at ISRO, he never forgot how crucially important 'little' science was, and ceaselessly promoted it, especially among young people. Indeed, he indulged in it himself whenever he could. Among the few books he wrote was a little gem on Bird Flight, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. The book actually grew out of a lecture he gave first at the Academy and then at many other places across the country. This writer still remembers how Prof. Dhawan took a busy break from running his space empire to work on the Academy lecture, drawing his own diagrams and doing his own sums.

During the 19 years that he was Director of the Institute, he retained his interest in fluid dynamics and aeronautics. For instance, he carried out an elaborate evaluation of the airworthiness of an aircraft flying for Indian Airlines, pioneering a kind of civil aviation research unmatched since then. He devoted much time to the establishment of many new scientific programmes in the Intitute in areas such as automation and control theory, materials science, molecular biology and biophysics, technology for rural areas, theoretical physics, applied mathematics, solid state chemistry and atmospheric sciences. He persuaded such distinguished scientists as G.N. Ramachandran, C.N.R. Rao and George Sudarshan to join the Institute. He also persuaded a rather reluctant faculty to reform their educational programme. Indeed, his long tenure at the Institute transformed it from a rather laid-back campus, with strong traditions in only a few areas like physics, to one humming with new ideas in a wide variety of subjects, with a fresh young faculty and lots of new students. At the same time through bodies such as the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Union Cabinet, he played a key role in formulating the science and technology policy of the country.

However, what distinguished Prof. Dhawan from many other eminent scientists and engineers was his extraordinary qualities as a leader and a human being, his great personal charm and his keen social conscience. When the Sriharikota Range (SHAR) was being built, he rejected a proposal to fence the range to keep cattle away, noting that the range had belonged to the cattle and the tribal people living there. In fact, he made alternative arrangements for the grazing of cattle. He set up a museum housing the artifacts that were found at the site. The mechanics making gizmos for him in the Institute laboratories felt they were his friends, even as the students and his own class-fellows in India and abroad did. He could be, and was, a tough man on many occasions, but never on personal considerations.

If sometimes Prof. Dhawan seemed indecisive, that was because he accommodated so many diverse points of view within himself. After knowing him for some time this writer felt that he could recognise the churning that went on in Prof. Dhawan's mind on the critical occasions as he balanced, in his own very rational way, all those competing ideas and forces. Moreover, he often shared these thoughts with his close colleagues before he made his decisions.

Prof. Dhawan was honoured for his contributions to science and technology by various bodies in India and abroad. He was elected President of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore in 1977 and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1981. He was one of the few Indians to be elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. He was, above all, the undeclared but widely accepted moral and social conscience of the scientific community.

Dr. Roddam Narasimha, Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, was one the earliest students of Prof. Dhawan and was closely associated with him in matters of space and aeronautics.