Padma Shri. MYILSWAMY ANNADURAI (M.E – Applied Electronics, 1980 – 82) is almost a household name in most parts of our state. It was quite evident from the response in the F-Block canteen after his Felicitation ceremony*, as I have never seen it more packed than that day. Humble is the word to describe him; even though it’s quite deceptive in his capability and achievements.
We document the conversation with him on his way back to Perur, in which he shares his life choices and the efforts that made his path in ISRO (and nation’s achievements), and a brief about current state and opportunities in Indian Space Program, for students and young graduates. We sincerely thank Dr.R.Rudramoorthy, Principal and Dr.M.Arasu, General Secretary, PSG Tech Alumni Association for arranging this interview.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. What would you say was the greatest moment or a turning point in your life that laid your path to success? Can you narrate such incident(s)?
Two things happened, to be correct. At the time when I joined ISRO, the satellites were being made outside and so was the launch. We were mostly operating satellites and as one could guess, had some major difficulties. Whenever something turned up, we had to ask somebody else regarding what we had to do.
Q. So, we did not have control over the entire program?
We did not have control beyond the checklist given to us. I thought ISRO should be something more in a much better way. So, I came up with an idea of a satellite simulator: Before launching a satellite into space, we can generate data on how and where to put it in orbit and therefore when some problem arises, we would be able to act (i.e) if we model it properly, it could be done. This was the idea. But, only the idea was mine and I thought a team of people were supposed to work on that.
When the idea proposal was submitted to the erstwhile Director, the position I am holding today, Prof. V. R. Rao on Friday, I was called upon by him on Monday. He asked me to take up this job and do it, if I was ready. This was just a few weeks after I joined there! I took it up enthusiastically and only then did I realize that it was a really huge task. You should learn how a satellite works in different scenarios and the interplay of various sub-systems and the planetary interactions, and you have to code it accordingly into a software and make it available on a platform useable by an operator and additionally, have that person trained on that.
During that time, I learned a lot about satellites and space science, even though I was an electronics person. Whenever you propose something, they were ready to give you the responsibility. This was one thing – to learn to take up a challenging problem,especially the responsibility. Along with that came promotions and then it led to Chandrayaan.
I gave the project report of Chandrayaan – I including the mission objectives and outline along with the many other science instruments that were to be used, in a conference; Dr. Kalam was also present. He told me that everything was good and well, but he still wanted to see an improvement. It took us about 6 months to make that improvement.
The entire Indian media was there on the day when we declared that it had landed (the probe hit on the moon surface) as a project director of the Chandrayaan mission. Kalam came out of the gallery after the announcement and when we were just getting the idea that he was going to congratulate us, he asked
Of course, he congratulated us, but he wanted to see an improvement. That was basically the start of my path in ISRO. You might think that you are on the top of the moon, but still some person thinks that you can do some more. Almost literally, whichever place you go, there is always a place above that and you just keep moving forward. Every year, he would ask that for more than half-a-dozen occasions.
Even a few weeks before his demise, he asked the same. I wanted to show him that ‘what next’ was one satellite, every month. Under that scheme, we nearly lined up 20 satellites for more than a year! So, whenever he asks, I wanted to show him one satellite. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t do that; he couldn’t make it. Every moment when I think I have done something, Kalam’s words pops up in my mind. This keeps me going:
‘Always look for what’s next’
Q. In your speech *, you mentioned that more number of opportunities are going to be opened up in ISRO. To fulfil those requirements, what skills would you suggest out of a typical engineering graduate irrespective of the major?
The skillset that one would expect basically is for you to be ready to work in an inter-disciplinary team. It’s about ‘Whatever you have learnt so far’ (vs) ‘What is expected there’. You should know that and try to equip yourself. You should definitely be a team player and your desire to learn should never subdue. When you join, you might be good at your subject, but once you join, you should be ready to work in a cross-functional team and you should be ready to learn in any area that would enable you to grow.
Q. What are some of the things ISRO keeps doing to attract young potential and subdue brain drain?
Frankly speaking, statistics gives us a very clear idea. If you take the application details before and after Chandaryaan, whenever we open for a given number of vacancies, the number of people applying for the job has enormously gone up. It is a huge difference. The government also had done a great job in increasing the number of positions, our promotional policies and incentives. In that way, individuals are getting more and more good pay.
Nowadays, the youngsters are getting a better idea of the amount of recognition, ISRO engineers and scientists get. These all put together, ISRO presents a good opportunity to work and a reasonable salary pack along with a national recognition, especially since it is growing into a world class organization. I think, the present trend is very different and welcoming.
Q. For the past few years, we have seen few highly successful space entrepreneurs rising in the world like SpaceX, and more specifically the success of Team Indus being one of the top teams in Google Lunar Challenge Xprize. Is commercial sector ready to enter Indian space programme and what are your opinions?
What I feel and preach is that, we can complement each other. Indian space programme has taken an edge on the facilities available regarding design, development and testing. But, as of today, ISRO is not equipped to a greater degree on the number of satellites it could produce.
They can work along with ISRO, make use of our infrastructure and get benefitted. We can also outsource the work to make the satellites, components or the sub-systems. There are many possible ideas to this. So, I think there is a good opportunity for people working with us in a complementary way. A number of industries are already part of this effort. But, in the pace that the ISRO departments are growing, the existing industries are not enough. In that way, if start-ups joined together, we can work along in a holistic manner. Instead of everybody re-inventing the same wheel, each one can make a part of it, such that we make good wheels in large quantities.
Q. What are the steps ISRO has been taking in making this collaboration possible?
We are drafting up policies and slowly we are going to come up with business models, in which we can provide the job listings and they can come and work with our infrastructure; because, the number of work is more and existing man power is not enough to handle them. I think it will be fruitful in the long run, considering that this is what’s happening elsewhere. It is the better option, since it is a huge investment for others, especially for start-ups.
Q. With the advent of indigenous Cryogenic launch systems, does ISRO has any plans for deep space exploration?
We are already into inter-planetary mission with Mangalyaan. The science team is currently debating on this and will be enabled when GSLV1 comes into picture. GSLV is not only for inter-planetary missions, but also for heavier payloads with communications or remote sensing. Once in a while, we are going for ARIANE launch2, even now. Once GSLV comes up, we will be more self-reliant in all respective. For most of the science missions, we are anyhow using our own launch vehicles. But, for heavier communication satellites and meaningful deep-space and interplanetary missions, GSLV is essential.
Q. Hasn’t ISRO already tested and proved its capability of GSLV launch vehicles?
Yes, we do. We have done some launch vehicles and we have to increase in numbers. Now, PSLV is supported by really good number of industries and slowly, GSLV also will be done in the same way. The number of launches will be increased and so that, our requirement of 5-6 satellites for communication every year will be fulfilled by GSLV in a healthy way.3
Q. You have taken up a large number of very important positions of national stature in your career. How do you manage all these responsibilities and do you think you strike some kind of a balance between them and your personal life?
Yes, I think I do. It is one of the best things I have learnt from Kalam. When you have a lot of pressure, you would need some sort of relief. I am a normal family person, and like to spend time with my family. I mostly try to spend my time with the youngsters instead of elsewhere. It recharges me.
Q. Spending time with us (youngsters) recharges you? That’s often very rare to hear!
(Chuckling) Yeah, that’s the way. I think it works for me. This helps me get back to my work. ‘Mind doesn’t need rest’. This is what Kalam used to tell me. ‘It only needs change’. The change will rejuvenate you. I believe that and it’s happening with me.
Q. Finally, I want to ask whether you have any message to your alma mater?
What I am thinking is that, for any launch vehicle, a minimum requirement is a proper launch pad. That way, PSG Tech is a good launch pad. Four years or two years, whatever we are talking about, I think you have to use this very efficiently, because once again it will not come back. Though we talk about re-usable launch vehicles, (laughing), when man is concerned, it’s not so. That way, the institution is to be used in a very proper way. A good number of alumni are doing extremely well across various fields in different parts of the world. Then, it is our responsibility not to spoil that name!
Padma Shri. Myilswamy Annadurai currently serves as the director of ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC), Bangalore and the programme director of Chandrayaan-II, after being director of prominent missions like Chandrayaan-I, Mangalyaan, IRS and others. He is one of the important persons responsible for putting India in the international space race and we are proud of the fact that he is an alumnus of PSG Tech.
GSLV – Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle – Click here for details about its importance and complexity
ARIANE series – This series of launch vehicles belongs to commercial Arianespace company and is under the authority of European Space Agency (ESA)
GSLV Mk-II with payload capacity of 2,500 Kg was successfully used to put INSAT-3DR with four satellite loads to orbit after much effort (rightly nicknamed ‘naughty boy’) on September 8, 2016. Once Mk-III is enabled, it will have the capacity to launch any communication satellite throughout the globe and other Indian heavier payloads, and enable meaningful deep space missions.
Click on this link for an article on the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).