Space Technology is not “Rocket Science”

Tapan Misra

You are surprised with the title, isn’t it? But contrary to popular belief, simplicity is the hallmark of space technology, including “Rocket Science”.

Space Technology may be based on complex scientific knowledge and principles. But reliability is the essence of space technology. If your scooter tyre gets punctured on road, you can bring a mechanic to repair it and get going. But if something wrong happens to the spacecraft and rocket – You just have to forget it.

Technology must be simple

Near 100 percent reliability is the crying need of space science and technology. Our life experience tells – simpler the person, more reliable he is. Similarly, simpler the technology, more reliable it is. Technology should be simple to understand, simple to explain, matetial should be easy to source, easy to manufacture, operate and maintain, and preferably cheap. When you put these attributes together, you get space technology. I personally believe simplicity of the product is the mark of genius. Sharper you are, easier for you to explain even the complex subjects in a layman’s language. Complex way of doing things, complex way of explaining or describing things are, more often than not, signs of lesser mortals.

Once you send machines to space, you cannot access it in person to carry out corrective measures. You must be able to imagine all possible behaviours of spacecraft in space, in harsh and unforgiving environment. So we have to test it in all possible imaginable conditions. We should test it in the sequence in which we fly to space. It has to survive harsh vibration tests, similar to the one you experience when the rocket takes of. We should test the space hardware prior to launch, in high vacuum and extreme temperatures it is going to experience. Imagination is the key. If you cannot imagine a situation of failure, you cannot make a provision to recover from anomalies in future. So the development need not be hurried through. Please remember, for reproducing a rat, it takes a gestation period of 23 days. Gestation period of human being is 9 months. And you see the importance of gestation period. It should be well thought of, well debated, tested and simulated for worst and best possible cases of imagination. So when space hardware fails, more often than not, it would fail in a failure condition which we could not imagine. Usually hardware never fails, but it is the engineers behind it who fail. We should not be disheartened with failure, but take it as a learning experience. Just like a child falls and gets up and learns walking upright.

People are important component of space industry

Reliability of a product is a function of knowledge and skills of people behind it. So most important component of space industry are its people. And it is the solemn duty of managers to treat employees as valuable assets. Bossy behaviour is absolute No No. Rather managers should behave as custodians of valuable assets. It is not enough to keep the ornaments in safety. Occasionally they have to be polished to keep their lustre. So training and upgradation of knowledge have to be given great emphasis, along with work environment. Success or failures of space agencies are as good as their employees and leaders.

Culture and ethics are integral part of any successful organisation or institution. These two attributes, carried forward from one generation to another, are beautifully defined by the Sanskrit word “Sanskar”, roughly meaning value system. It is your “sanskar” that prevents you from doing wrong things, prevents you from betraying your mother land, helps you exhibit the rare spine to tell your boss what is right, what is wrong. Highest reliability and success of space technology is enhanced by practising the right kind of “sanskar”. When you start compromising with “sanskar”, downhill slide of the institution begins. Initially it may be imperceptible, encouraging you to compromise further on this priceless asset. But with time, the slide picks up momentum, reaching a point of no return.

Leaders inspire, they do not manage

Leadership determines the backbone of an institution. All successful institutions have one thing in common: they choose a leader who built something new, chose an untrodden path, and built a new one. You become a complete leader when you pass through the stages of being ignored and ridiculed for your new ideas, grudgingly accepted when you prove your point by adding value to your institution and society at large and finally admired for what you built and what you are.

Leaders inspire, they do not manage. When you see a sudden spurt in emphasis on adhering to rules, sudden increase in paper work, frequent meetings, unwinding discussions, you surely know that leadership is becoming rare material in your institution. Institutions do not evolve with time when they stop innovating. Ultimately, they become living fossil and a footnote in history.

No point crying when things go wrong

When faced with the spectre of failure, I take inspiration from medical professionals. You will see they are not much interested in the post mortem report of the deceased, but exhibit more interest in understanding and deciphering the maze of medical reports and history. It is important to know what ails you, but more important is to understand how you contracted the disease in the first place. You learn the most valuable lesson: prevention is better than cure. No point in crying when things go wrong.


Tapan Misra is a Distinguished Scientist with Indian Space research Organisation (ISRO) and heads the Office of Innovations Management at ISRO headquarters in Bangalore. Earlier, he was Director Space Applications Centre. For a brief period he had additional charge of Director, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.

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