We always improve our systems from whatever we learn, says ISRO Chairman

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Post-February this year, the Indian Space Research Organisation was jolted out of its reputation for integrity and transparency and went into trauma. The space agency that provides satellites as the backbone for the country's Internet, broadcasting, telephony and weather services had come under a cloud, that of the controversial ‘S-band spectrum deal' between its commercial arm Antrix Corporation and wannabe partner Devas Multimedia P Ltd.

The Government (in February) annulled the irregular contract for two satellites, notionally compared in value to the 2G spectrum, while ISRO slowly lifts itself out of a crisis of credibility.

Dr K. Radhakrishnan took charge in October 2009 of the triple posts of the ISRO Chairman, Secretary of the Department of Space and Chairman of the Space Commission.

He has just shed the fourth hat, that of the Chairman of Antrix Corporation, even as he presides over reforms in the Antrix role and structure.

He is also on the latest third high-level committee that is probing the botched deal.

In this interview since the crisis broke out he tries to clear the air on a few unanswered questions on Antrix, the impact of the controversy, the space business and India's next space frontiers.


What changes has the fall-out of the Antrix-Devas S-band spectrum controversy brought about for ISRO? Is ISRO's traditional autonomy reduced and is there demand for greater accountability from it than ever before?

There is no change at all, I don't think so. Basically, it is the robustness (within it) that the system brings out if improvements are required.

Until the controversy hit ISRO in February this year, it enjoyed a good press, wore something of a halo. How has the organisation coped with the controversy, a dented image, psychological issues and visibility for the wrong reasons? As Chairman, it was a legacy problem for you, too.

(As for legacy) Well, ISRO is ISRO. When we take over, we take over entirely and we are responsible for what we are today.

It is an integrated product of the contributions of the staff. (Not) just for the positive things, I'm accountable for everything in the organisation.

You asked about the morale of the organisation. It can be judged from what it provides the country. In the last couple of months, ISRO has produced the PSLV C-16, a world-class Resourcesat-2; GSat-8 and now, the PSLV-C17 and the communications satellite GSat-12. To have three major missions involving four satellites and two launch vehicles in four months from April shows how the organisation has functioned. You have to look at the people, their faces and the organisation.

What you call aberrations - or distractions - of course, take away part of our energy. They are an unwanted thing. Certainly, we can do much more if the distractions are not there.

One change you made was to have a separate Chairman and Managing Director for Antrix. Is that enough to plug vulnerable points?

That was one very clear action that we have taken. We were ourselves thinking about it very seriously. When Antrix was set up in 1992, it was thought fit to have the ISRO Chairman as its Chairman. Now, the time has come to change this. Antrix has grown from an organisation which had a turnover of about Rs 55 lakh to a company with a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore. Initially, it was providing other countries access to our IRS (Earth observation) data.

The level of its operations has expanded the world over, with several users for its commercial operations, (be it) launch services or satellite capacity or technology transfer. It's a huge order of development that needs attention and that has driven us to have a separate CMD.

The other part I want to say is, we always improve our systems from whatever we learn. Whenever you see an aberration, you look at the cost of it and try to improve yourself. That process is always there and that is the learning in an organisation.

Even now, Devas Multimedia is pressing in the International Court of Arbitration for getting the agreement restored.

As per the contract, there is a legal process (that is on.) You have to talk to the Antrix CMD. I don't know what is the integrity of that news.

Isn't India the jurisdiction for settling any dispute between the two sides?

See, you have the answer to that! As per the terms of the contract, it will be handled between Antrix and Devas.

What happens to the special satellites GSat-6 and 6A that were promised for Devas' services in the annulled pact? What is the status of GSat-6?

GSat-6 and 6A are for strategic and societal needs. As for GSat-6, some more work has to be done on it. It should be up sometime in fiscal 2012-13 on the second indigenous GSLV planned from now. (It will come up) about six months after the next GSLV-D5 vehicle that will carry GSat-14 satellite around the second quarter of 2012.

Did the controversy drive away those who wanted to do genuine business with Antrix/ISRO?

As I have said earlier also, there are about 11 (foreign) satellites in the pipeline with firm requirements given to Antrix for launch [on the PSLV rocket.) People understand what this is about.

Will you be on the Antrix board?

No, I will not be on the board but they will report to me as DoS Secretary.

An Indo-US aerospace mission led by the US Secretary of State is visiting shortly. How has the lifting of sanctions by the US changed matters for ISRO? Is there any specific engagement with or access to US companies Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others?

Engagement was always there. Chandrayaan-1 was a major partnership. Their invitation to ISRO to join the MoonRise mission (NASA's 2016 robotic lunar venture) is a major step. We also have arrangements with US universities for exchange programmes.

Now, to the commercial part of it. The four (ISRO) entities were formally removed from the list in early 2011. One has to see the impact of it in terms of supplies coming from there. One can talk about it may be after a year. Several agencies keep discussing with us. These are all exploratory.

Before we take a decision, there is a techno-commercial aspect to be looked at - such as what is advantageous for ISRO and India in the short or long term.

It is said the domestic industry has disappointed by not rising to the occasion for space programmes.

I will put it the other way. Right from the '70s, starting with our SLV-3 and satellite development programmes, industry has been with us. It has only increased in terms of number of firms participating as well as the extent of their contribution. Today, 500 firms work with ISRO, from small to large companies; private and public sector. Some have a very specific aerospace division meant for ISRO. Some have risen from fabrication to integration.

We are looking at an enhanced role for them, as risk-sharing partners, themselves investing as consortia in some facilities and also gearing up to take up larger levels of integration. The PSLV is a proven vehicle; and certain communications satellites are standard ones. I have talked about the arrangements that we plan at Bangalore, near Sriharikota and Ahmedabad. We should know this clearly in a year. We should also know from them how they would like to work with ISRO.

So many foreign satellites hover over the sub-continent and offer capacity to Indian operators (by leasing through ISRO). When will we see ISRO go out into other markets with its capacity?

We have a substantial national demand and meeting that is our first job. We have to study the Antrix plan.

ISRO talks of undertaking a human flight, a second Moon trip and even a Mars mission in the coming years. Should ISRO follow the other space agencies on planetary exploration? Or should it set a different trend for the rest?

We are clear from the beginning about national priorities and what we need to be there. Our thrust is our unique space applications in communications, remote sensing and (soon) navigation. The determining factor is to have an indigenous space flight (system) that is cost-effective and reliable; and that our satellites should have a longer life than the present 10-15 years.

Now, planetary exploration is always a priority. The science is exciting, challenging, drives technology development in terms of instruments and capability to reach there. That is a must. That will keep us going.

The international community has a renewed interest in Moon and now we are there. Some ingenuity came out of the Chandrayaan-1, it made us do new instruments, propulsion systems and the Deep Space Network.

The human flight is something for the future. We will embark on it once we study it. Sending a satellite to Mars, too, is a target of our study.

Are the planners sceptical about funding the human or Mars missions?

This fundamental question will always be asked. In early 1960s, people asked, ‘why a space programme, why the expenditure'. They continue to ask this. Professional groups (the Madras Institute of Development Studies, for one) have documented the tangible and indirect benefits. Now, you are convinced that if you put so much money into the space programme every year, you get this much benefit - apart from the prestige.

The human space flight will also lead to such a situation in 10 or 20 years. There are projections for 2030-35 of human habitations getting to Mars. This is next logical step in space exploration.
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