frugal innovations / ISRO

Twenty satellites in one launch: how does India make breakthroughs in space

I am just returning from Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota from where India injected twenty satellites in a single launch at an extremely low cost. While interacting with scientists, visitors from IITs and other top institutions,   and young engineers, I tried to understand their motivation for persistent excellence. I also wanted understand the roots of excellence. What are the cultural differences in our and western approach which explain our ability to achieve the success that we have achieved. The foundation laid by  Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan,  Abdul Kalam, and other leaders of space program has created a DNA where young scientists feel emboldened to share their ideas openly, take responsibility and contribute their best. The sense of achievement helps overcome some of the isolation that this facility suffers in terms of urban amenities and comforts. May be more can be done on this front.

But the frugality in projects of this order where costs are high and risk is also high, can come about through outstanding testing and simulation facilities. Instead of relying only on physical test of launch vehicles, ISRO has excelled in simulation models which give it outstanding confidence in its modifications, innovations and design changes.   The excellent log they keep of all events and lessons from every mission also helps in keeping learning curve steep. The cost at which a lot of problems are solved through in-house R and D is another factor that help the missions. But the involvement of expert professors from top institutions is no less contributor to the frugal culture.

While a lot more can be done in improving knowledge networking across disciplines, functions and sectors, existing efforts have borne good fruits.. Trust based culture and decentralization of power has empowered most roles. The fact that space program has direct access to Prime Minister’s office makes a very significant role in removing any wrinkles that might still exist in the plans and programs.

Another factor that contributes to frugality is tremendous spirit of incremental innovation. Reverse engineering made pharma sector so competitive that we became the world’s most frugal, high quality pharmacy. Our space program has acquired tremendous self-reliance through fast paced learning. There is nothing wrong with that. But for making breakthroughs in future, we need to change some gears.

Challenges must be thrown to young tech students through techpedia.sristi.org or any other platform so that long, medium and short term problems can be addressed by the young minds with high degree of redundancy. Knowledge network can be created by looking at the projects close to the intended subject and then guide of those projects can be involved for consultation in project advisory committees. Spin-off of materials and new functionalities from other strategic sectors could be harnessed more smoothly through easy lateral transfer of knowledge. Likewise, space program should also share in open source some of the solutions which don’t affect our strategic interest but can improve manufacturing efficiency of different sectors. The government should pay some of these organizations through a National Technology acquisition fund and then make these acquired technologies, open source for MSME or at least small sector. NIF has set up one such fund undernifindia.org/gtiaf. The strength program should become strength of the while learning and innovation eco-system. I talked about how do we Dissolve boundaries, Expand horizons and Innovate systems. We really need to create more vibrant learning and sharing systems to speed up the national march for becoming a developed nation. There should be an internal angel fund to invest in interesting ideas of young space engineers with five years leave with lien. They become eventually a supplier, a vendor and a partner rather than remain at the existing level. Obviously some people wish to grow  faster than what an organization can really accommodate. Intra-preneurship options will help in retaining talent,  be mutually rewarding, and also give fillip to start-up movement.

I talked to young engineers and school children too and will write about that next week. The visit so soon after injecting twenty satellites by ISRO has been an inspiring experience. I am sure we are in for an exciting time. Our frugal and innovative future is in safe hands, it is on track and the mission control centre seems to tracking this trajectory well.

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