Amit Paranjape’s Blog

We need more ISROs, and more government led strategic R&D investments

Posted in Current Affairs, Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on September 26, 2016

Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, the former Chairman of ISRO, spoke at the 5th Foundation Day of Pune International Center in Pune this Saturday. It was an excellent lecture, covering many details around ISRO’s great progress and achievements, and future plans. ISRO has made tremendous strides over the past four decades in R&D led innovation and has succeeded in developing key technologies such as the cryogenic propulsion system. One thing that stood out in my mind during the lecture was the extent of private industry participation in R&D and manufacturing, and the manufacturing ecosystem.


PSLV (image credit: ISRO)

Dr. Radhakrishnan mentioned that 80% of the value addition of ISRO’s workhorse launcher, the ‘Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’ (PSLV) comes from private industry. (Note – the PSLV is one of the most reliable space launch platforms in the world, with 34 successful launches in a row – at one of the lowest launch cost per payload weight).

These private industry contributions for building the PSLV come from over 120 large, medium and small companies. ISRO acts as the designer and system integrator, and assembles the final rocket at Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota. I had known about the industry participation, but the 80% number was indeed surprising. It was great to note the private sector’s role in India’s space program. ISRO is thus not only delivering great rockets and satellites technology, but also helping build an aerospace R&D and manufacturing ecosystem in India. This is critical. Over the past 50 years, NASA has played a key role in driving the development of a similar ecosystem in U.S. The advances made in space tech around materials, propulsion, guidance, navigation and other areas have many direct and indirect technology benefits in other sectors. ISRO should follow a similar example.

For the ‘Make in India’ initiative to succeed, we need high quality R&D investments in the public and private sector. R&D investments as a percent of GDP is an important metric and has a good correlation with the overall strength of the economy. South Korea (highest R&D/GDP in the world) is a great example. It invests 4.3% of its GDP in R&D. U.S. invests 2.7% (highest in absolute terms, given their GDP). China invests 2.1%. India invests only 0.85%.

Government led R&D is an important component of the total R&D spending in a country. Let’s look at the U.S. example. Here is a recent tweet by Bill Gates.


The tweet references a link from U.S. Department of Energy (, where Bill Gates is drawing attention to this:

“Research and development (R&D) is the unsung hero of American innovation. Government-funded R&D spurs new industries, creates jobs and helps us tackle our greatest challenges. Decades ago, that challenge was the space race; today, it is climate change.”

While we regularly talk about the R&D in private sector U.S. companies such as Google, Apple, etc., what is often ignored is the huge investments made by the U.S. government in this area. NASA and U.S. Department of Defense are excellent examples. Another one is the agency that funds important research in U.S. Universities – NSF (National Science Foundation). Many of today’s great technologies and innovations were built on this R&D Foundation laid by the U.S. government R&D investments. Perhaps the best example of such an innovation is the ‘internet’. Just like U.S., France too has made many strategic R&D investments in areas related to aerospace & defense, energy and computing technologies.

Often government led R&D is also driven by a country’s strategic interests. This is very much applicable to India as well. This is one more important driver for government led R&D investments (and a topic of a separate article).

As discussed earlier, private R&D and manufacturing can build on top of the government led R&D initiatives. Yes, there are examples of wasteful expenditures, especially in the public sector. For one successful ISRO, there are counter examples as well. However, this should not deter the policy makers from allocating more R&D investments in strategic areas. It is important to study what has worked at ISRO, and then to institutionalize these processes in other R&D organizations. (This was one process related question, I wanted to ask Dr. Radhakrishnan yesterday, but we were short on time at the lecture).

ISRO represents one of the best examples (not just in India, but in the world) of effective and efficient R&D. The Mars Orbiter Mission ‘Mangalyaan’ is a great example. ISRO was able to deliver this incredible project for a fraction of the cost (around 10%) of what NASA spent on a similar project.

India’s goal should be create more ISRO like organizations in other areas – R&D driven organizations that develop important strategic and commercial products – and also help build a private R&D and manufacturing ecosystems around them. As a product/technology matures, the role of the private sector can grow. Where possible (in terms of tech capabilities), the private sector can also play an upfront role in collaborating on new technology development.


Improving ISRO’s Outreach Programs – What can be learned from NASA

Posted in Current Affairs, Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on October 11, 2011

I recently wrote an article on The Broad Mind blog: “Improving ISRO’s Outreach Programs” . This article discusses various steps that ISRO could learn from NASA in terms of its outreach programs. To access the article, click on the above link or click here:


The Broad Mind blog covers opinions from the Takshashila community. For details about the Takshashila Foundation, click here:


STS135: Final Space Shuttle Mission – End of an Era

Posted in Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on July 8, 2011

Space Shuttle Lift-off (image credit: wikipedia)

Just watched the launch of STS135; the lift-off of shuttle Atlantis on the last space shuttle mission. Two weeks from now, Atlantis will touch down one last time and bring an end to 30 years of Space Shuttle Flights. An end of an era. 

I must have watched dozens of shuttle launches live on TV, but regret not having had the opportunity of watching one in-person, in Florida. All of them were great to watch (especially the ones I saw on NASA TV). The complexity of the machine, the mission control center interactions, the sheer magnitude of engine power, the grandeur of lift-off… fascinating!

Overall, the shuttle program has been quite successful, apart from the two tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Most of the other missions went through without any major issues – to the point that these missions were felt as really ‘routine’.

Like was the case with the Apollo Program nearly 40 years back, budget cuts have played their part in ending the shuttle program. The debate between cost-benefits of manned space flights will continue. Travelling to Mars is a possible long-term goal, but definitely not in the near future. In the medium term, some alternatives have been proposed, which aim to address some of the limitations of the space shuttle. Still, no firm plan exists today.

Leaves me wondering when the United States / NASA will return back to manned spaceflights. For now, the International Space Station will be served by Russian spacecrafts. Feels a bit odd that half a century since John Glenn’s historic flight – the United States doesn’t have a firm manned spaceflight roadmap. At least they should have planned for a few more shuttle launches, until the medium strategy was ready and set for deployment!

 –Note added July 22, 2011 — STS-135 completed its mission yesterday and the space shuttle landed for the last time. Here’s a great video tribute to the space shuttle program, compiled by Nature that showcases all the missions over the past 30 years:

ISRO’s GSLV D3 Mission – A Failure? Or A Stepping Stone?

Posted in Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on April 15, 2010


Lift-Off of GSLV-F04 (image credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a sad coincidence that today’s failure of ISRO’s GSLV D3 Mission happened virtually on the exact day, 40 years on, since Apollo 13! Post the safe splash-down return of Jim Lovell and crew in the Pacific Ocean, many dubbed Apollo 13 as NASA’s most successful failure. How will this first test flight of the ISRO’s indigenously developed cryogenic engine be viewed? Only time will tell.

Space missions are fraught with risks and failures. ISRO has had a reasonably good track record, especially if you compare it with the early days of the USA and USSR Space Programs. And ISRO has been able to achieve success on a literal shoe-string budget as compared to what the other space leaders have spent.

What is the big deal with the Cryogenic Engine? A Cryogenic Engine uses a liquid propellant (typically liquid hydrogen) that is stored at a very low temperature (below –200 C). The other engines that have been used in ISRO’s rockets (including the first two stages of today’s mission) are solid fuel propellant based. Cryogenic Engines deliver a longer duration and more powerful thrust, per unit weight of propellant. They can also be controlled more effectively as compared to solid fuel propellant engines. Hence Cryogenic Engines are critical, as the range and weight capabilities of space missions increase. GSLV rocket has been designed to put heavy payloads (communication satellites, etc.) into a ‘Geo-Synchronous’ orbit (36,000 km orbit around the from earth). It will also provide a basis for future ISRO Missions to the Moon and beyond.

A little after 4:30pm, Indian Standard Time, a huge cloud of gloom descended upon ISRO. The first two stages had performed per expectations. However the 3rd stage powered by the cryogenic engine failed and the flight deviated from its desired path. One look at the scientists faces on TV, said it all. The emotions were there to be seen. It is these emotions that highlight the passion of these scientists, in their quest for building a great space program. In the present age of every-hyped entertainment and sports heroes, it it these real heroes that we all need to be proud of.

I am confident that ISRO will bounce back successfully from today’s failure, with the 2nd test flight due later this year. The data and results will be analyzed and corrective actions taken. Let’s not forget the spectacular success of the recent Chandrayaan Mission!


GSLV Mission / ISRO – Some Useful Links

ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization)


Official Press Release from ISRO about the GSLV D3 Mission

Cryogenic  Rocket Engine

ISRO Wikipedia Entry

ISRO Chandrayaan Mission


The Greatest Technological Achievement Of The 20th Century – The Apollo 11 Mission To Moon

Posted in Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on July 19, 2009

The Apollo Program, which reached its zenith with that memorable line from Neil Armstrong, was in my humble view – the greatest technological achievement of the 20th Century. July 20th, 1969 was not only NASA’s finest hour; it was mankind’s finest hour. If technology & technology driven progress are the cornerstones of the past century, no other success represents it better!

Setting Foot On Moon

Today, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this historic event. It’s an opportunity to pause and admire. It’s an opportunity to wonder and think back in awe. It’s an opportunity to understand. It’s an opportunity to learn. As a student of science and technology, the Apollo Program fascinates me no end, even today. In this blog, I will make an attempt to recollect the incredible facts and stories about this program. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. The sheer circumstances under which these successes were achieved are mind boggling and simple factoids won’t do justice.

Readers, please note: If you are interested in getting a quick preview of some of these fascinating numbers and factoids, take a look at my post from July 16 (40th anniversary of the launch): 10 Fascinating Factoids About The Apollo Program’s Saturn V Rocket

How it all began

Its one thing to set impossible goals, and its another to actually achieve those…and achieve them, they did… With a year to spare!

It all started with that John F. Kennedy speech to the Congress in the 1961 (And followed by the famous ‘We choose to go the moon…’ speech at Rice University). Or maybe the moon race started a little before that – following the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Post World War II, America and Soviet Union entered into a massive space race, armed with some important spoils from Nazi Germany. The German rocket program was quite extensive, and it had successfully built and deployed the V1 and V2 rockets. Much bigger plans were on the anvil, but the course of the war prevented them from being materialized. Apparently, in 1945 the Germans had devised designs for a rocket (specifically, a ballistic missile) that could reach the American shores.

The Russians captured the German rocket base at Peenemünde, but the lead scientist Wernher von Braun escaped and surrendered to the Americans, along with a small team of scientists. USSR used the infrastructure, design prototypes, drawings at Peenemünde to kick start their space program and scored the first win over U.S. with Sputnik.

Coming back to Von Braun, the reason why I am mentioning him here is because he went onto to become the lead for the massive Saturn series rockets program.

But Saturn V and Apollo 11 didn’t happen overnight. There were many other stepping stones, which started with America’s first space launch in 1958 of the satellite Explorer I…., first manned launch in 1961  (John Sheppard was the first to make a sub-orbital flight, and John Glenn (who later on went to become a senator, and also the oldest man to travel in space in the space shuttle in 1998, at the age of 77) did the first full orbit around the earth.…and through a series of Gemini series missions. The Apollo program was conceived back in 1961 towards achieving Kennedy’s goal.

Before we take a look at the Apollo Program, let’s briefly understand the overall components of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft.

Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft

Saturn V Rocket Components

The Saturn V was a multi-stage (3 stage) rocket with the Apollo Spacecraft payload on the top. Some of the earlier Apollo missions were based on the Saturn 1B rocket, which essentially was a smaller version of the Saturn V. The Saturn V was designed to deliver a the spacecraft payload consisting of: Command Module (Columbia), Service Module and Lunar Module (Eagle) – into the lunar orbit.

The 1st stage stood 138 ft tall and was powered by Kerosene and Liquid Oxygen. The 1st stage reached a height of nearly 45 miles, and achieved a speed of nearly 2 km/sec. The 2nd stage stood 81.7 ft tall and was powered by Liquid Hydrogen and Liquid Oxygen. The 2nd stage reached a height of 110 miles, and achieved a speed of nearly 7 km/sec. The 3rd stage stood 58.7 ft tall and was powered by Liquid Hydrogen and Liquid Oxygen. The 3rd stage got the Apollo Spacecraft into an earth orbit. It was also fired again (to reach 11 km/sec – the escape velocity of earth) to push the Spacecraft out of the earth orbit, into a course towards the moon.

The Command Module, ‘Columbia’ orbited was the ‘mother ship’ of the Apollo Spacecraft. Armstrong and Aldrin transferred over to the Lunar Module ‘Eagle’, while Collins stayed in the lunar orbit. The Service Module was attached to the Command Module and contained support systems and propulsion systems for the return journey to the earth. The Lunar Module, ‘Eagle’ descended towards the moon, with rocket thrusters to slowdown and control the approach.

From the tragedy of Apollo 1 to great success of Apollo 10

The Apollo Program started with a disaster. Apollo 1 capsule caught fire during a test on the launch pad and the three astronauts burned to death. Amongst them was Edward White, the first American to do a Space-Walk. This was the first loss of life suffered by the American Space Program, and was a huge blow. It resulted in a lot of rethinking and introspection by NASA.

There were some major revisions in the plan, and the program went on. The earlier Apollo missions completed a series of tests of the different components and the sub-systems. These included the earlier generation Saturn 1 and Saturn 1B rockets, the Saturn V rocket, the Command Module, the Service Module and the Lunar Module (NOTE – I will not go into details of the complete design…readers who are interested can…). The initial series of launches (Apollo 2 – Apollo 6) were unmanned missions.

Apollo 7 lifted off on Oct 11, 1967 and was a confidence building mission. The 3 man crew went into a low earth orbit and tested various systems of the lunar and the command modules.  Testing of the maneuverability of the Lunar Module in the weightlessness of space was very important.

Apollo 8 was the first flight to head to the vicinity of the moon. It was also the first manned flight of the awe-inspiring Saturn V rocket.  The crew of Apollo 8 included command module pilot Jim Lowell, who was later the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13. Apollo 8 provided the first views of the other side of the moon.

Apollo 9 carried out first lunar orbit and manned testing of the lunar module Apollo 10 carried out the lunar module descent to within 50,000 feet from the surface of the moon. The stage was now set for Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 – ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

Apollo 11 blasted off in space on July 16, 1969. After 4 days, on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module started its descent onto the surface of the moon.

‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle Has Landed’. Land successfully, it did! But it was over 4 km off-course. It was running low on fuel and had only 30 sec of spare fuel left to land.

It took the Armstrong and Aldrin a few hours to check and secure all the systems, until Armstrong could set foot on the moon.

The Apollo 11 astronauts setup various instruments and the American flag on the moon. Various lunar rock samples were collected. Future Apollo missions also carried a motorized rover that could take the astronauts over a longer distance to explore the moon surface.

Eagle - Heading Back From The Moon

During liftoff, the landing stage of the Eagle (with its empty fuel tank) was left on the moon, to save weight. The ascent engine powered Eagle back into the lunar orbit and docked it back again with the command module. Armstrong and Aldrin got back into the Command Module, and then jettisoned the lunar module. The Command-Service Module (CSM) then fired its return engine to set them back on a trajectory towards earth.

On July 24th, the Command Module Capsule splashed down in the Pacific mission to mark the completion of this most historic mission.

Why was it such a great achievement?

As I write this, I look at the progress that has happened in the space program since the last Apollo nearly 40 years ago. Just this past week, NASA was struggling to launch the Space Shuttle in midst of some weather problems. Agreed that there were major budget cuts in the American Space Program post Apollo, but still the achievements of the past 4 decades leave a lot to desire, in comparison to the Gold Standards set in the 1960s. Note – I am not taking anything away from the 100 + Space Shuttle missions and International Space Station.

Can you imagine running the entire Apollo 11 flight computer on something less powerful than your cell phone’s chip? Well, ran they did! Today, the gadgets all around us are equipped with microprocessors – from a music system, to a washing machine. From a camera, to a car. But remember, Intel’s first microprocessor, the 4 bit 4004 didn’t make its debut until 1971! So just think of this – such a complex space mission was executed with electronic components that was less powerful than your microwave oven!

Think of the gargantuan Saturn V rocket that moved from concept to design to manufacture to successful prototyping and execution, in under a decade! The first American and Soviet rockets that went into space in the late 1950s were tiny (barely 50 ft, with a capacity to put a 50 kg satellite in earth orbit) and extremely unsophisticated compared to the Saturn V (standing 363 ft tall, could put payloads in excess of 100 Tons in earth orbit) that first flew in 1968.

Rockets Comparison - From V2 to Saturn V

Rockets Comparison – From V2 to Saturn V

Realize that a rocket is a very a complex system and contains hundreds of sub-systems and millions of parts. There’s propulsion, guidance, communication, telemetry, navigation – just to name a few major ones. And there are backups…backups for almost every system. And backups for backups!

Let’s take a few examples. Telemetry deals with streaming hundreds of data parameters from the spacecraft back to Mission Control in Houston, 200,000 miles away. This data had to be interpreted, analyzed (through a combination of automated and manual processes) and acted on, around the clock.

Propulsion system of the rocket engines provides the necessary thrust. The Saturn V’s 1st stage had 5 F1 Engines generating the kind of power, most probably not generated in any machine since then! I will not bore you with many numbers, but here’s a simple comparison. The main engines of Saturn V generated enough power, equivalent to about 150 Giga Watts. That is about the entire installed electric power generation capacity of India! Or about 2.5 times the power generated in Texas, USA. Or about 80 times the power generated by one of the largest hydro-electric plants in North America – The Hoover Dam. Just the fuel pumps of these engines consumed power equivalent to that needed by the City of Pune!

To get a sense of the complexity of internals of the command module and the lunar modules, I would just recommend watching that Hollywood classic – Apollo 13 (Which incidentally happens to be my most favorite movie). A typical automobile has a few thousand parts. The Apollo command, service and lunar modules had over a million.

Navigation and Guidance are extremely challenging tasks for any space mission. Extremely small errors can take the rocket on a wrong trajectory which could mean completely missing the target (The Moon) or come crashing down and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere on the return.

I will go back to the Apollo 13 mission for a minute. Sometimes failures highlight the successes of a project more than anything else. Imagine doing near real-time analysis, diagnosis, generating remote workarounds and implementing repair 200,000 miles in space! But the Apollo Program was designed to handle these scenarios. Coming back to Apollo 13, one NASA personnel put it quite nicely – ‘It (Apollo 13) was NASA’s most successful failure!’

And I haven’t discussed the manufacturing and assembly challenges at all. Building a 3000 Ton machine is no easy job. Building one that will fly at speeds of 2 km/sec is another. Note – the final stage of Saturn V, which powered the Apollo Spacecraft towards the moon, did eventually approach the earth escape velocity of 11 km /sec.

Massive fuel tanks had to be designed that could withstand extreme pressures and temperatures, and fabricated in pieces and then assembled. Just to highlight one example here, consider the scale of the fuel consumption of the Saturn V main engines. To generate the kind of power mentioned earlier, you need lot of fuel! The first stage of Saturn V consumed Kerosene (as the propellant) and Liquid Oxygen. It gobbled up around 15 Tons of Kerosene / sec! Just think of the complex high-power pumps and piping needed to feed this kind of fuel into the engines, to generate that massive power!

The Lunar Module was the most complex of the machines and was assembled in a special plant. Specialized Heat Shields that can withstand temperatures over 3000 F on reentry had to be tested and built.

Lastly, I would like to highlight the program management aspects of this effort. We routinely see major engineering projects dragging for years. Here was a project of this startling magnitude, moving from conception to execution stage in less than 10 years!

There were so many historic firsts in this project…in the areas of size, scale, complexity and ingenuity. But ultimately these facts don’t tell the whole story. I guess the ultimate greatness of Apollo 11 was how it captivated an entire generation!

Interesting Links & Resources

1. NASA homepage

2. Footage of launch of Apollo 11 with a highspeed camera

3. Footage of launch at normal speed


1. The official NASA website:

2. Wikipedia Pages for Apollo Program, Apollo 11, Saturn V Rocket

3. HBO Documentary ‘From Earth To The Moon’, presented by Tom Hanks. (IMDB Link)

4. Ron Howard’s ‘Apollo 13’ (IMDB Link)

5. Johnson Space Center, Houston – Space Center Houston

6. Marshall Space Flight Center – Alabama

7. Kennedy Space Center – Florida


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