Aluru Seelin Kiran Kumar, is the low-profile chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation. The physicist-engineer talks about his phenomonal journey and his plans to use space technology in various government departments for the benefit of the common man.
It’s nothing to do with astrology or dogma, but his date of birth serendipitously set his career in just the right orbit to help him reach for the Moon, Mars and the stars!
The physician to physicist-engineer switch occurred because of his date of birth. As a teenager, Aluru Seelin Kiran Kumar was the topper in pre-university exams of Mysore University and was set to join a local medical college. One hitch, however, stopped him from turning into a medico. He could not join the college as he was not 16 on October 1, 1968, as set by the rules of the day; he was born on October 22, 1952. Undeterred, he vowed to return to the medical college a year later, but a transitory shift to physics (Honors) at the famed National College, Bengaluru, the awe-inspiring guidance of a Gandhian-nuclear physicist-prophet of rational thought rolled into one, the late Dr H. Narasimhaiah, or Dr H.N., and the historic Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” feat of stepping on the Moon, proved such a thrilling temptation that he drifted from medicine to physics, electronics and engineering. “We were huddled around an old radio in our college to listen to the news of
Armstrong landing on the Moon (July 20, 1969),” reminisces Kiran Kumar.
The second time he veered close to the field of medicine was while working on a unique image processing instrument which helped doctors to avoid repeated exposure of patients to X-rays. This project was part of his of M.Tech course in physical engineering at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and the experience he gained from it helped him stand out among all Indian space scientists. For, he has designed and put together critical instruments and sensors onboard every Indian satellite—from Bhaskara, which was launched a couple of months after he joined ISRO’s Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, in 1975, to Chandrayaan-I (Moon mission in 2008) and Mars Orbiter Mission in 2013.
And, certainly not the kind who rests on his laurels, Kiran Kumar has set his sights on bigger missions — second visits to the Moon and Mars, and gradual fruition of an Indian voyaging into space onboard a made-in-India rocket. And the string of successes notched after he took over as Chairman, ISRO, is modestly attributed to team work: “I have played every sport except football, and sports teaches you to work as part of a team and an opportunity to deal with success and failures. All our successes are because of team work and organisational strength,” is how this self-effacing summed up technological triumphs notched since he took over the reins in January 2015.
And to ensure that space technology is no rocket science, Kiran Kumar has been interacting with secretaries of as many as 80 departments and ministries in New Delhi, as part of an initiative which would help revolutionise the functioning of all of them — from railways and posts and telegraphs to urban development and planning modern townships. His rapport with prime minister Narendra Modi, who incidentally made the best of space technology to transform Gujarat with the help of inputs and expertise provided by the Bhaskaracharya Institute of Space Applications and Geo-Informatics has made it easier to get heads of these departments and ministries onboard. And the fact that he spent 40 years in Ahmedabad and knows Gujarat like the back of his hand helps this space scientist strike a conversation with Mr Modi in Gujarati occasionally. “When Mr Modi was the CM, he took a lot of information provided by satellites, and then briefed ministers and legislators on how to use such information on agriculture, climate-related issues, and for planning and development,” is how he describes the leader’s liking for space technology and its applications.
“Kiran” to his colleagues and “Kirana” to his kin, this diminutive scientist-engineer has a phenomenal memory, making it easy to look back at problems faced during the nascent years of the space programme while planning future missions. What’s more, he even delivers dialogues of artistes of a play he watched as a school boy in Hassan, the home district of former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, or recalls the radio commentary on a spectacular innings (192 runs) by the late Indian wicket keeper-batsman Budhi Kunderan against the English attack at a Test in Madras in 1963-64. On social occasions, his father and late advocate Mallappa, would summon him to charm the guests with his mono-act shows. “We had the battle uniform of our grandfather at home in Hassan, and slipping into it as though we were setting out to a battle was very exciting for us as children,” he reminisces.
Kiran cannot recall any icon among his relatives, but the thread of science, engineering and medicine seems prominent—not just himself but his siblings too. While two of his five sisters took to medicine, three brothers are mechanical engineers (a family of five sisters and four brothers, Kiran Kumar being the eighth child).
And their tiled-roof house in Hassan was the first lab for each of them: one brother used sunlight streaming through a hole in the roof to pull off an effect similar to that of an overhead projector on the wall, another had a collection of test-tubes and chemicals stacked in his room; Kiran built communication devices with the help of electrical components bought from scrap dealers to talk to siblings and cousins in different rooms!
And the clear sky in Hassan gave him and his siblings to spot constellations and to identify them. And maybe that’s why he remains our prized star on earth!...