Key Takeaways as ISRO hits the first century in space in style







India isn’t the so-called “land of snake charmers” anymore J

When India launched the Mars mission in 2013, The New York Times had a mockery of the country’s efforts to rub shoulders with the elite space club. The comic by Heng was an attempt to belittle India’s budget mission to Mars



On the morning of February 15, 2017, India scripted a new chapter in the history of space exploration with the successful launch of a record 104 satellites by ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in a single mission from Sriharikota space centre. It puts a wide margin between it and the next record holder, the Russian Space Agency that launched 37 satellites in 2014, while NASA launched 29, while ISRO itself successfully launched 20 satellites in one go in June 2015.

What’s also striking is that ISRO will recover nearly half of the cost of Indian satellites by launching foreign satellites!

From BBC to New York Times, the global media hailed India with the CNN writing, “Forget the US versus Russia. The real space race is taking place in Asia”.

It was a strong message to the people who considered Indians as mere snake charmers and cow breeders. They were standing right outside the elite doors, doing things that the elite thought only they could do and probably better than them. A strong message to wake up and start moving beyond the complacence.

Building Up On Humble Beginnings

Monday’s achievement has been a vindication of the ability and commitment of ISRO scientists’ who built the organization from its humble birth in a Kerala church to a global technological power.

Thumba, about 25 km from Thiruvananthapuram, till 1963, was just a typical Kerala fishing hamlet with boats stacked on the seafront and about 500 thatched houses set amidst coconut groves. In the midst of this cluster, there was a small St. Mary Magdalene Church and the bishop’s house adjacent to it.

Who could have envisaged this setting to be the foundation of India’s soaring vision of harnessing space technology (But for the country’s space scientists, the location was exceptional as it was very close to the earth’s magnetic equator)

The 1.5 sq km of Thumba was acquired in 100 days flat. Vikram Sarabhai met with the bishop, Reverend Peter Bernard Pereira, who readily agreed to give the church over for space research.

The room in the small bishop’s house, which became Kalam’s office, had nondescript, basic office furniture: a table and a chair – it was here that Kalam plotted the trajectory of India’s space science.

The church became the workshop where enthusiastic young scientists assembled their first rocket.

6 months later, on November 21, 1963, India had launched the first rocket and announced its arrival on the world space. The core group of scientists — trained at the NASA were astonished as to how so much was achieved with so little. The only equipment for transporting the rocket, they remember, was an old jeep and a manually operated crane that developed a leak during lift-off!

 ‘Success on a shoestring’ 

Set up with little funding and few facilities, ISRO has made India’s space programme the envy of the world, a feat that is hailed by experts as ‘success on a shoestring’


US space budget in 2013 was $39.3 billion, China $6.1 billion, Russia $5.3 billion, Japan $3.6 billion and India $1.2 billion.


It is a case in point for a fundamental aspect of the Indian way of thinking, superbly captured by the colloquial Indian phrase: jugaad- philosophy that is at the heart of Indian entrepreneurial energy and optimism.


It is a habit of the mind, that owes its genesis of the usual Indian environment beset with resource-scarcity and uncertainty, where ad hoc improvisation and flexibility is the only way you can get things done. It means different things in different contexts, but at its core, it is fundamentally the art of “making things work” even when conventional wisdom says it isn’t possible.

ISRO’s ‘space venture on a shoestring’ was made possible not only by less expensive engineering talent willing to work around the clock but also by using ingenious improvisation to cope successfully with resource constraints and exceptionally tight timelines.

Innovations need not be big advances in technology, but many small ones such as those that help reduce costs are important for corporates

To cite a few examples of how ISRO manages to spearhead the world’s most cost-effective programme

ISRO built the final model of the orbiter from the start instead of building a series of iterative models, as NASA does. They carried out fewer but more efficient ground tests and used components, modules and building blocks from earlier missions.

ISRO also intelligently circumvented the lack of a rocket powerful enough to launch the satellite directly out of the Earth’s gravitational pull by having the satellite orbit the Earth for a month. This longer but cheaper route built up enough speed for the satellite to break free from the Earth’s gravitational pull.

It was truly triumph of Indian ingenuity against incredible odds

On a lighter note, 104 satellites in a single rocket is ‘business as usual’ for a country where 14 passengers travel in an auto meant for 6, 25 in a jeep for 10 and 100 in a bus for 52 J

Strategy at play

ISRO has proven that focusing on cheap cost, quality can still be maintained. Indigenous manufacturing means superior quality. That’s what we need now at a time when the nation is building a manufacturing base competing with China

ISRO had planned its production units across the country meticulously so that there is always a Plan B

While falling back on the tried and tested is usually the norm for most, ISRO does things differently. The agency isn’t averse to making changes or using different methodology while risking everything. For this mission, for the first time ever, a 3D printed mirror supporting structure was used in a satellite.


The launch was high-risk because the satellites, released in rapid-fire fashion every few seconds from a single rocket as it traveled at 17,000 miles an hour, could collide with one another in space if ejected into the wrong path.

For a mission so complex, ISRO had to find solutions that were unique to the complex mission. A special separation sequence had to be decided for the satellites, which also involved complex manoeuvring of the upper stage. Space had to be found within the payload fairing and new adapters developed for so many satellites.

But ISRO was able to plan it perfectly to the T

Just meeting deadline not enough, beating them is my expectation

Speaking after the launch, Dr M Annadurai, Director ISAC (ISRO Satellite Centre) revealed the tight deadlines the different agencies with ISRO had to meet. Referring to the main payload Cartosat-2D, he mentioned that a repeat launch usually takes 1 year. The last Cartosat was launched on June 23. But the ISAC was asked to deliver the new satellite within three months. “On November 14, the chairman called and asked me to deliver the satellite before Jan 26. I told him we will try to give it by Jan 12. Only team ISRO could do this” he declared.

ISRO Standard Time

Another centre director, Tapan Misra, Director SAC (Space Applications Centre) stated that he too had got a call from Chairman ISRO in November. Misra said “I remember Chairman Sir called in November and told us to give the satellite systems in December – three moths cut. I thought of arguing with him initially, but thought it’s no use and agreed with him. Chairman Sir believed in us and we proved him right.”

For people at ISRO, IST is not Indian Standard Time, but ISRO Standard Time. Just remove 3 to 4 months to match it with pride.

Talent Management

So what if the best engineering in the country, say from the IITians and NITians are busy trading in futures & option terminals at Wall Street terminals.  ISRO managed with whatever best talent was available. Only 2% employees of Indian Space Research Institute (ISRO) are graduates from IITs or NITs.[1] ISRO’s centralized recruitment system doesn’t differentiate between an IIT graduate and one from another engineering college. They look for strength in fundamentals, wherever the person is from and believe It is essential to have people from different institutions.


Bengaluru: ISRO scientists and other officials celebrate the success of Mars Orbiter Mission at MARS Orbiter Command Network complex in Bengaluru on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Shailendra Bhojak (PTI9_24_2014_000055B)

(Management guru) Peter Drucker has said culture eats strategy for breakfast. Strategies formulated can only be executed when the work culture is conducive

ISRO put all the team into one with a single objective. When a company stands together as one to achieve an objective, nothing can stop them. The mission became successful due to the collective effort and intelligence of stakeholders, not their individual genius

As the news of the successful launch crept in, it was a cheer mixed with calm confidence, in the mission control at Sriharikota. The scientists of ISRO soaked in the success without any exuberance, like a psychic who already knew the outcome.

Having a higher purpose for being in business is yet another key element, differentiating companies. Organizational goals should have a “higher purpose”—something which is unique and relevant, with which every stakeholder can relate to and have an emotional connect

A common thread that binds everyone at ISRO and one which is very evident, is the faith they have in each other’s work. Every centre director that took the mic couldn’t thank his colleagues enough for the success. The directive from the A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman ISRO is – do better than what you did the last time. And they’re feeding off this mantra.

No resting on laurels

And if you think they’ll be sitting on their laurels after today’s success, you couldn’t be more wrong. Within this week, ISRO will be testing the C25 cryogenic engine for the GSLV Mk3 for its full duration of 640 seconds. This engine will help make India self-sufficient in launching heavy communication satellites.

Three communication satellites – GSAT-9, GSAT-17 and GSAT-19 – are in different stages of completion and two of these will be launched from Sriharikota itself. By the end of the year, ISRO expects to complete building the Chandrayaan-2 mission, so that it can be launched early next year.

In the first half of this year, the GSLV Mk2 and Mk3 flights are also scheduled to take place 🙂