When K Sivan, now the chairman-designate of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), got a call on Wednesday that he has been chosen for the most high profile space job in the country, he was reviewing the mission readiness of India’s workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
The PSLV C-40 is expected to carry 31 satellites, including a remote sensing Cartosat-2 and a nano satellite that will be the 100th one built by Isro. It is a coincidence that the rocket scientist began his carrier in 1982 in the space agency on the PSLV rocket.
Sivan is the second rocket scientist after G Madhavan Nair to head Isro. He has a tough task ahead in the three years he would be at the helm. The priority would be to allow a public-private consortium to build the PSLV rocket, which current chairman A S Kiran Kumar has said would be launched by 2021.
Sivan also has to hasten the effort to bring in private players into satellite and rocket building, to replicate India's software success in aerospace. He has experience in dealing with the private sector as he looks to build a shorter rocket. He has helped transfer the lithium-ion battery technology built for the space programme to the Indian automobile industry.
Born in Nagercoil, the border town of Tamil Nadu with Kerala, and closer to Mahendragiri, where Isro’s propulsion complex is located, he graduated from Madras Institute of Technology in aeronautical engineering, then took a masters degree from Indian Institute of Science. During his Isro tenure, he got a doctorate in aerospace engineering from IIT-Bombay in 2006.
Currently, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), he is the first Tamil-born scientist who has risen to the top of the space agency. He was project director of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with the indigenous cryogenic engine, a technology India finally built after decades of sanctions and technology denial. He also worked on the heavier GSLV-III rocket and the technology demonstrator of the reusable launch vehicle (RLV-TD), the spaceship-like unmanned plane that is designed to hurl satellites into space and return to land on a runway.
The RLV is also Isro’s attempt to bring down the cost of space access and remain competitive against nimble competitors such as SpaceX of Elon Musk and Blue Origin of Jeff Bezos, who have built rockets that can return to earth after hurling satellites into space.
Sivan also has to take note of the changes that predecessor Kiran Kumar has brought in. Such as space resources that could be used for urban planning, rail networking and agriculture. As chief architect of the 6D trajectory simulation software, SITARA, the backbone of the trajectory simulations of all Isro launch vehicles, he understands the need to take quick decisions. Isro needs it at a time when India has a small window to grab a chunk of the space business by using its home grown talent and resources.
That is all after he takes over as chairman, after Pongal on January 15, the harvest festival. In Tamil Nadu, there is a saying — Thai pirandhal, vazhi porakkum (When the new Tamil month of Thai starts, it will pave way for opportunities). Sivan will wait for the auspicious day for the new start.