A visionary scientist

Print edition : January 19, 2002
Satish Dhawan, 1920-2002.

TODAY when Indian space technology has achieved world-class status, and the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) periodic successes in the launch of satellites and rockets are greeted with cheer in Parliament and on the front pages of newspapers, and applications of space technology have permeated our daily lives, we hardly pause to think about the visionary of a man who made it all possible. It is indeed ironical and sad that the bulk of the mainstream media - particularly the electronic media - hardly took note of his death. He passed away as quietly as he led his life after retirement as the Chairman of ISRO, which he served for nine critical years. And it was during this phase that the ISRO found its feet and the Indian space programme took shape and acquired a long-term profile to mature into a supplier and generator of space technology on a par with the space programmes of developed countries.

Satish Dhawan was born on September 25, 1920, in Srinagar. He graduated from the University of Punjab with an unusual combination of subjects - a B.A. in mathematics, an M.A. in English Literature and a B.E. in Mechanical Engineering. In the year of India's independence, he went to the United States for higher studies, where he obtained an M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. He then moved to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where he obtained the Aeronautical Engineer's Degree in 1949 and, with Hans W. Liepmann as his adviser, a Ph. D in Aeronautics and Mathematics in 1951.

Liepmann, now Theodore van Karman Professor Emeritus at Caltech, wrote this of Dhawan in 1988 in a preface to a tributory contribution when the Indian Academy of Sciences brought out a volume dedicated to Dhawan: "Professor Dhawan and I have been colleagues and friends for a very long time... By now he has caught up with me in everything but age... This little study... is offered as a tribute to Dr. Dhawan as a small token for a great scientist, engineer, administrator and, most of all, human being."

Dhawan began his research career at Caltech in the field of fluid dynamics. His path-breaking studies in "shock reflection" and "shock boundary layer interaction" influenced subsequent investigations in the field in a definitive manner. He made the first precise measurements of skin friction - a kind of friction that occurs when a solid body moves through a fluid volume with a certain velocity, like in aerodynamics - on a flat plate for which he designed a special balance. This technique has subsequently been used widely in many laboratories of the world.

Satish Dhawan joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, as Senior Scientific Officer in 1951. He became its youngest director in 1962 at the age of 42, and was to remain its longest-serving, and undoubtedly its most distinguished, Director. He was responsible, to a very great extent, for making it a multifaceted institution of excellence in higher science education and research that it is today. In 1955, he became Professor and Head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering. The department, under his leadership, became an outstanding centre for aerodynamic investigations. It can be said that he laid the foundation for experimental fluid dynamic research in India.

India has world-class wind tunnel facilities for the aerodynamic testing of aircraft, missiles and space vehicles at the National Aerospace (formerly Aeronautical) Laboratories (NAL) of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Bangalore. These grew out of Dhawan's early interest in wind tunnels. He set up high-speed aerodynamics and boundary layer laboratories at the IISc. A pilot project study carried out at the IISc under his stewardship resulted in the fine facility at NAL.

Roddam Narasimha - one of Dhawan's first and foremost students, and himself a noted scientist - and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam wrote in the foreword to the Indian Academy of Science's Dhawan volume that they edited: "Two outstanding features of all these efforts reveal Satish Dhawan's philosophy in research: first, they were 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 at his laboratories were all inspired in some way by problems faced by the newly born aircraft industry of the country." In fact, Dhawan had spent a year in the budding Indian aircraft industry before he went abroad for higher education. He was keenly involved in the development of this industry in later years. For instance, during 1973-75, as the one-man committee appointed by the government, he carried out an evaluation of the airworthiness of the Avro/HS 748 aircraft flown by Indian Airlines.

In December 1962, he succeeded S. Bhagavantam as the director of IISc when the latter went on to become Scientific Adviser to the Minister of Defence, V.K. Krishna Menon. Dhawan was the unanimous choice of a selection committee that comprised R. Choksi (the then Chairman of the Council of the Institute), S. Hussain Zaheer (Director-General, CSIR), V.R. Khanolkar (Vice-Chancellor, Bombay University) and two nominees of the Council, H.J. Bhabha and Bhagavantam. (According to B.V. Subbarayappa, who has written a history of the IISc, there was apparently some resentment among some Professors of the institute who went to court, but the case was later withdrawn on the court's advice.)

The institute went through a phase of remarkable growth, with many developments both in the academic and administrative fields during his directorship. Many scientific programmes were begun under his initiative in such areas as automation and control theory, materials science, molecular biology and biophysics, technology for rural development, theoretical physics, applied mathematics and solid state theory, and atmospheric sciences. During this time he was also a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC), which was involved in the formulation of the science and technology policy of the country.

After serving as IISc Director for nearly nine years, Dhawan went on a year's sabbatical to his alma mater, Caltech, during 1971-72. But one day his lecture was interrupted by a telephone call from the Indian embassy, which said that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted him to return to India and take charge of the Indian space programme following the death of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of the Indian space programme, on December 30, 1971. In fact, Dhawan's association with the space programme had already begun a little earlier when Sarabhai wrote to him asking him to assist A.E. Muthunayagam in securing some technical advice in the latter's effort to set up a solid rocket motor facility in India. Dhawan had arranged for both of them to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's test facilities in the U.S.

The following incident speaks of Dhawan's commitment to work and his integrity. Dhawan told the caller to tell the Prime Minister that he was on a sabbatical and, moreover, teaching a course and that he would be able to return only after finishing that. As regards assuming charge of the space programme, he said that he was answerable to the IISc Council and, therefore, cannot give any reply without its assent. Dhawan was seen as the right replacement for the space programme and so the Prime Minister, in her known wisdom with regard to matters concerning science administration, decided to wait for his return.

On his return, Choksi and J.R.D. Tata, president of the institute's court, made it known to Dhawan that he was free to do what he felt like. But Dhawan himself did not wish to take leave of absence from the institute, let alone resign. Dhawan met the Prime Minister and agreed to head the space programme but on two conditions - that he be allowed to continue as the Director of the IISc and that the headquarters of the space programme be in Bangalore. Indira Gandhi agreed to both. Since then, the Indian space headquarters has been in Bangalore instead of its earlier location at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad. It was in May 1972, when Dhawan took over, that the Department of Space (DOS) and ISRO were formally born. Until then the space programme was under the Department of Atomic Energy, which had its secretariat in Mumbai, and space activities were coordinated by the Indian Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), which had its secretariat in Ahmedabad. The Space Commission, along the lines of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was also established then.

In September 1972, Dhawan became the Chairman of the Space Commission, the Secretary of the DOS and the Chairman of ISRO. The three posts, since then, have been concurrently held. Dhawan remained the IISc's Director until 1981, the longest stint (of 17 years) by any director. He continued to head the space programme until 1984. He remained a member of the Space Commission until the end.

During his tenure at the DOS, he guided the Indian space programme through a phase of extraordinary growth and achievement. He introduced an innovative management structure for the space programme, which has been the key to ISRO's achievements till date.

Under him each project had a project director assisted by a core team of specialists from different groups and centres. This, according to Y.S. Rajan, one of the Scientific Secretaries who have served under Dhawan, ensured that there was involvement of the entire ISRO community in every project and that each ISRO centre did not work in isolation. The project team reported to a project management board (PMB) consisting of the Directors of the ISRO centres involved. The PMB performed both review and coordination functions. Dhawan ensured that it was the project director who had the ultimate say in every aspect of the project. "Let the project director decide," was his way of resolving problems or inter-unit conflicts or differences of opinion, technical and administrative. Even in matters of finance, it was the project director and the PMB who had the power to sanction expenditure. In doing so, he provided a model for the country on how to define, formulate and organise high-technology projects and deliver sophisticated products within stipulated timeframes. This structure has since been adopted for the management of high-technology projects by other R&D centres as well, notably the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

In this framework of technology management, Dhawan encouraged youngsters and had the magnanimity to give them the credit in the event of any success - he would shoulder the responsibility in case of any failure. In this regard, Abdul Kalam has recounted his experiences when he was the project director for the launch of India's first launch vehicle SLV-3. The first experimental launch of SLV-3 took place on August 10, 1979, but it was a failure. Kalam was called by Dhawan to attend a press conference. "Before the press conference, Professor Dhawan told me that he was going to handle the situation and I should be present with many of the senior scientists and technologists," Kalam has said.

At the press conference Dhawan announced "Friends, today we had our first satellite launch vehicle to put a satellite in the orbit, we could not succeed. It is our first mission of proving multiple technologies in satellite and satellite launch vehicles. In many technologies we have succeeded and a few more we have to succeed. Above all, I realise my team members have to be given all the technological support. I am going to do that and the next mission will succeed."

In the 1979-80 annual report of the DOS, the launch was described using an unusual phrase - "partially unsuccessful". It is a phrase that ISRO has never used since, and its use was a reflection of Dhawan's integrity in the matter of admitting failures. Dhawan's leadership and later his continued advice were always marked by this scrupulous objectivity.

The next developmental flight, of SLV-3,on July 18, 1980, was a remarkable success. "An important thing happened then," recounts Kalam. "Professor Dhawan asked me to handle the press conference with our team members. Dhawan's management philosophy was that when success comes in after hard work, the leader should give the credit of the success to the team members. When failure comes, the leader should absorb the failures and protect the team members." Under Dhawan, major programmes were carefully defined and systematically executed. Pioneering experiments were carried out in remote sensing and satellite communications. These laid the foundations of operational space communication and remote-sensing systems that are part of Indian life today. "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 carefully planned involvement of the Indian industry, both public and private," wrote Narasimha and Kalam.

INDEED, Dhawan devoted considerable thought and attention to the development of the space industry in India. While recognising the need for state investment in major space projects, he saw the prospects for the involvement of Indian industry in developing components and subsystems. It is his confidence that has resulted in ISRO's success in partnering industry over the decades as well as transferring technologies to it, something the DAE has not been able to achieve in nuclear technology.

After retirement, besides doing research in his favourite subjects, he occasionally devoted his attention to matters of public policy in science and technology, notably space technology. His investigations into bird flight mechanics resulted in the now-famous monograph brought out by NAL. His interest in bird flight originated during his days at the IISc, which incidentally has two-thirds of the bird species found in the southern States. In the days when Indian rockets were yet to be developed but high-speed cameras were already available, Dhawan spent considerable time at the Pulicat lake and the Nagapetu sanctuary near the SHAR launch complex in Sriharikota, taking photographs of birds in flight.

Significantly, unlike many other Indian scientists, he kept himself away from the active scientific bureaucracy and the government. Perhaps this is the reason for the popular media not reacting adequately to the loss of this architect of the Indian space programme. Dhawan was concerned about the militarisation of space and commented extensively on the Star Wars. With the increasing impact of space technology - both remote-sensing and rocketry - in military applications and with India's growing potential in the field, he urged the government to enact a space policy to distinguish civilian and military space technology programmes. Today, the Indian ballistic missile programme is well developed; it has had a fair amount of inputs from ISRO scientists. The resolution of the Indian remote-sensing satellite imagery is today the finest and has the potential for military use. This, as Dhawan had repeatedly noted, calls for a clear policy on dissemination of data. Also, the country's first "spy satellite", TES, was flown recently. But, unfortunately, a space policy, which had been Dhawan's desire, is yet to be formulated.

Many awards were bestowed on Dhawan by various bodies within India and abroad, for his contribution to science and technology. Notable among them are the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan. But the citation presented to him when he was awarded the 1999 Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration brings out his true essence as a humanist: "... the award goes fittingly to one of our foremost scientists, teachers, and national builders, Professor Satish Dhawan, who has made multi-dimensional contributions to scientific education, research, policy formulation and implementation and is deeply concerned with the solution of national problems through the use of science..." With his sad demise, India has lost one of the great builders of modern India.

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