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Excerpt: The Inside Story of Who Would Succeed U.R. Rao as ISRO Chief

Excerpt: The Inside Story of Who Would Succeed U.R. Rao as ISRO Chief

The ISRO logo. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Abraham E. Muthunayagam is a scientist formerly with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He has been called the “father of space propulsion” in India and was instrumental in the development of liquid-fuelled motors that have propelled many of India’s launch vehicles and satellites, including the PSLV and the GSLV rockets. Muthunayagam was recruited to work in the Indian space programme by Vikram Sarabhai in the 1960s, founded the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre.

An excerpt from his new book, From Space To Sea: My ISRO Journey and Beyond, published by HarperCollins India, is presented below, recalling the internal politics that lead to K. Kasturirangan succeeding U.R. Rao as ISRO chairman, instead of Muthunayagam.


Dr U.R. Rao, who took over as secretary to the DOS, the chairman of the Space Commission and of ISRO in 1984 from Dr Dhawan, was my colleague at the SSTC under Dr Sarabhai. In ISRO’s infancy, Dr U.R. Rao and I worked under Dr Sarabhai as divisional heads; he headed the Satellite System Division (SSD) and I the Propulsion Engineering Division (PSN) and Mechanical Engineering Division (MEC). Our offices were on the same floor as that of Dr Sarabhai.

Subsequently, Dr U.R. Rao moved to Bengaluru as the project director of the ISRO Satellite System Project (ISSP).

Over a period of time, the SSD at the SSTC was wound up and all satellite-related activities were shifted to Bengaluru. Dr Rao exploited the challenges and opportunities in the nascent satellite field with excellent guidance and support from Dr Dhawan, the new chairman. He went on to establish the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) on 3 November 1976 and became its founder director. Eventually, he rose through the ranks and became the chairman of ISRO.

Aryabhata was the first satellite project of ISRO, and Dr U.R. Rao was the project director. Dr Kasturirangan joined ISRO Satellite System Project (ISSP) and assisted Dr U.R. Rao in the project. In the early days, ISRO had been developing satellites for both remote sensing (polar) and communication (geosynchronous) applications. After the launch of Aryabhata on 19 April 1975, Dr U.R. Rao oversaw the launch of the second remote sensing satellite Bhaskara, with Dr Kasturirangan as the project director, and the Experimental Communication Project APPLE, with R. Manickavasagam as project director.

From Space to Sea
Abraham E. Muthunayagam
HarperCollins India 2022

When Dr U.R. Rao became the chairman of ISRO in 1984, Colonel N. Pant became the director of ISAC. This was when a series of transfers took place. First, officials who were senior to Dr Kasturirangan were shifted out of ISAC in a phased manner until he was made its director. For instance, in 1985, Manickavasagam, the project director of APPLE, successfully completed the geosynchronous experimental project and was shifted from ISAC to the VSSC.

In 1986, Dr S.P. Kosta, another engineer who was also senior to Dr K. Kasturirangan and had contributed to satellite projects in the initial stages, was shifted out. Thus, Dr Kasturirangan became the senior-most officer in ISAC. In 1986, he was made the associate director of ISAC and his former responsibility of overseeing the operational remote sensing satellite IRS was given to S. Kalyanaraman of ISAC.

Finally, in 1990, when the post of the vice chairman of ISRO was created to assist the ISRO chairman, the then director of ISAC, Colonel N. Pant, was given the role and shifted to the headquarters. Dr Kasturirangan then became the director of ISAC in his place, in 1990. It is noteworthy that in 1991, Dr U.R. Rao abolished the post of vice- chairman when Col. Pant retired from government service on superannuation.

Also read: U.R. Rao, ISRO Chairman Who Helped India’s Space Programme Settle Down

As is obvious from this unnatural and continuous movement of officials to various positions within the organization, officials who were senior to Dr Kasturirangan were shifted out of ISAC in a phased manner until he was made its director. My eligible promotions were delayed for reasons not known. However, Dr Rao promoted Dr Kasturirangan by giving accelerated merit promotion twice in the space of three-and-a-half years from grade G to H in July 1988, and another merit promotion in the following three-and-a-half years from grade H to Outstanding Scientist in January 1992.

This decision came when Dr U.R. Rao had proposed to the government to make all major centre directors on a par regarding their grade and salary. It was a veiled attempt to make Dr Kasturirangan equal to me in grade and pay. However, the Appointments Committee’s amendment – that I should be at a level six months ahead of all centre directors because of my seniority, contributions and long years of service at top positions – stymied Dr Rao’s apparent manipulations. The entire fiasco is exposed by the fact that none other than Dr Kasturirangan has received two successive merit promotions after three-and-a-half years of service in each grade in the history of ISRO!

U.R. Rao, 2013. Source: Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre

In April 1993, the Space Commission for 1993 was formed with increased membership from seven to nine, another astute strategy to elevate Dr Kasturirangan above others. Dr S. C. Gupta, Director, VSSC, the senior-most director at ISRO who was due to superannuate in January 1994, and Dr Kasturirangan, Director, ISAC, junior-most director at ISRO, were added to justify the inclusion of representation from launch vehicle and satellite divisions. Dr Gupta had merely nine more months of service to superannuate, whereas I had more than six years left at ISRO then. Further, the Space Commission for 1994 was reconstituted in January 1994 itself with the same membership as that of 1993. Dr Gupta had only one more month of service at ISRO at that juncture. As a result, I was denied the opportunity to become a member of the Space Commission.

The VSSC is the largest and oldest centre of ISRO and is also the lead facility for launch vehicles. LPSC contributes in a major way to launch vehicle developments. It is the norm that the director, LPSC, becomes the director, VSSC, when a vacancy arises – the appointment of G. Madhavan Nair, S. Ramakrishnan, M.C. Dattan, Dr K. Sivan and S. Somnath is proof of this convention. When Dr Gupta, Director, VSSC, superannuated in January 1994, P.P. Kale, Director, Space Application Centre (SAC), became the director, VSSC, thereby rejecting my written request to Dr U.R. Rao for a posting at the VSSC. It must be reiterated that I was the senior-most ISRO director, with nearly twenty-eight years of experience in launch vehicle developments, whereas P.P. Kale was junior to me and had expertise in communication, electronics and satellite applications.

Prof. Dhawan discussed my future at ISRO with me. He told me that ISRO had a major task ahead in the area of launch vehicles, particularly in the cryogenic stage development that I had initiated. He suggested that I focus on this area and take total responsibility for launch vehicle development and assist the chairman, ISRO. I was shocked; nevertheless, I respected his advice and told him that my ability to perform a task creditably should not stand in the way of my career growth. I felt that I should not be deprived of what I deserved. I would continue to work at ISRO if the successor to Dr U.R. Rao was more capable and better suited for the position of chairman than me. If I was not convinced, I would have to quit my job.

The issue of a successor to Dr U.R. Rao became a hot topic of discussion at ISRO. I was certainly deemed one of the eligible candidates. The four major ISRO centre directors in the order of seniority were: Dr Muthunayagam, Director, LPSC, P.P. Kale, Director, VSSC, R. Aravamudan, Director, SHAR and Dr Kasturirangan, Director, ISAC.

During the discussions with Dr U.R. Rao, P.P. Kale told him that he would like to continue with ISRO if Dr A.E. Muthunayagam, the senior-most candidate, was appointed as the successor to Dr Rao. If not, he was ready to leave ISRO. True to his word, P.P. Kale took voluntary retirement when Dr Kasturirangan was eventually appointed as chairman, ISRO.

As things turned out, Dr U.R. Rao refused me the coveted position that would have been the crowning glory of my career.

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