K Sivan knew the launch vehicle deeply, and was known among his colleagues as a workaholic who never rested till he finished a project

by Hari Pulakkat

BANGALORE: K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), remembers the end of 2010 as among the most critical period during his tenure at the helm.

Two successive development launches of the Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV) had failed that year, and the rocket was not qualified for flight even after two decades of development. The Mars Orbiter mission had not started yet, and ISRO needed to prove to the country that it was worth its salt. 

Radhakrishnan turned to K Sivan, who was then heading the reusable vehicle program, and made him project director of GSLV. That perhaps was the most prominent milestone in Sivan's rise to take over as the chairman of ISRO on Monday. GSLV till then had an unusual history. The first flight in 2001 was a partial failure, and the next two flights were successful. Then came four failures in succession. It was rare for a vehicle to succeed early and then keep failing after that.

As soon as he came on board, Sivan asked some hard questions. Did ISRO understand the cryogenic engine well enough? What were the hidden problems in GSLV? Are there serious quality issues? Sivan understood quickly that the early successes of GSLV could have masked serious flaws in the vehicle. "There was double trouble because ISRO had decided to go with the Indian cryogenic engine," Sivan told ET, recollecting those days.

"We had to put together two troubled fellows." He also needed to motivate the demoralised GSLV team members, who were by then being considered as underlings by the rest of ISRO. Sivan looked at the data of all the previous flights thoroughly, redoing most of the work done during the previous 15 years. And GSLV had a flawless flight on January 5, 2014. "We have tamed the naughty boy," Sivan remarked to his colleagues then.

When he was appointed project director of GSLV, Sivan was already on watch as one of the potential top leadership candidates of ISRO. He knew the launch vehicle deeply, and was known among his colleagues as a workaholic who never rested till he finished a project. He had been adding management skills to his already deep technical expertise.

Radhakrishnan says Sivan evolved as a leader in the last ten years. "He has high potential now to become an excellent chairman of ISRO," he said. For a long time after he joined ISRO in 1982, Sivan was known as the software guy while most his colleagues worked on hardware. Sivan's work in software was critical as he was leading a flight simulation team, formed after the first failure of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. He had excellent analytical abilities.

He had a degree in mathematics and a master's in aerospace from the Indian Institute of Science. He could spot patterns in data very easily. His work on flight simulation created a world class simulation facility for ISRO. Sivan then moved on from software to other aspects of the launch vehicle, and then to head the reusable launch vehicle programme. He started working part time on a PhD from IIT-Bombay, on the management of reusable launch vehicle missions. After his success with the GSLV, he became the chief controller of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvanathapuram.

He looked at administration in this large centre closely for four months before moving on to the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) nearby. His stay at LPSC was during a critical period in the Mars mission, where he had to manage the engine start after the spacecraft spent 300 days in space. In June 2015, he became director of VSSC, ISRO's workhorse centre with the responsibility of developing launch vehicles. Sivan rose in stature quickly, becoming more and more confident and articulate in English, which was never his first choice of language.

Three and a half decades earlier, when he joined as student at Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) in Chennai, he had found it difficult to interact with his classmates. "I suffered in MIT because of stammering," Sivan said. "It stopped when I came to VSSC."

By then, people knew Sivan and what he expected from his colleagues. There were no niceties when it came to work. He expected people to work hard, and always gave them impossible targets. He sat with people for long hours, often with no consideration for end time, going on till the task was over. "He has the urge to do things," said BN Suresh, former director of VSSC. "Once he starts a task he takes it to its logical end."

Engineers would grumble while the project was still on, but not when the results were evident later. S Somanath, director of LPSC and a long-time colleague of Sivan, said the latter goes into data as deep as possible. "He leaves nothing to guess work."

So what is his priority at ISRO now? Over the next few years, Sivan hopes to improve the technical competence of ISRO and reduce the dependence on foreign sources. At the moment, ISRO imports some electronics and advanced materials for its rockets and satellites. Sivan said he wants to improve the capabilities of ISRO's satellites, increasing their data rate while miniaturising many components. He plans to use additive manufacturing and other techniques to reduce the time to develop launch vehicles. He has thoughts on industry as well. "I will concentrate on spin-offs," he said.