15 Year-Long Remarkable Journey of an Aerospace Nerd
Embark on the journey of an aerospace nerd from being fascinated at the age of eight to be a in the satellite team to launch Pratham and now going for a PhD.
Space exploration is the investigation beyond Earth's atmosphere to increase knowledge of the cosmos and benefit humanity. A boy started his journey to embark on the path of Space Exploration when he was only eight years old. A chapter on Kalpana Chawla made him dream for Space. Fifteen years later, he has come a long way. While trying to explore the Space to understand more about the universe, he has known and understood more about himself. Let's revisit the Space Journey of an Aerospace Nerd.
Sowing Seeds for the Dream of a Space Journey
Origins of a Fascination
Everybody is fascinated by Space. The night sky with twinkling stars, shining moon and the occasional meteor is enough for that. It is only for very few that this fascination turns into an emotion. The catalyst, in my case, was Kalpana Chawla. It happened while reading a chapter in Hindi literature in the third standard. The story of an Indian girl going on to become an astronaut and becoming one with the stars was inspiring.
You remember as a kid, the appeal, of reading encyclopaedias? Everyone had a section that they jumped to first. Space was my favourite one. In 2008, Chandyraan-1 was launched and put into orbit. And I bought my first space book, "Mission Moon: The Story Of Chandrayaan". It was only through the Scholastic flyers which were distributed in school that I got to know about Chandrayaan and the book. Reading about an India mission to the moon made me dream of becoming an Astronaut. Why Astronaut? That was the only career associated with Space known to me :P
Converting the Fascination to Ardour
It may have been imperative that I was lucky to have a school which provided a good education and ample opportunities. In eighth standard another such opportunity presented itself. My first introduction to space trajectory design was at the University of Toronto Space Design Contest (UTSDC). I studied the Hohmann transfer trajectory to Mars and designed a mission to transport cargo and 100 individuals for a Martian settlement. It was at the University of Toronto while exploring the Aerospace department and discussing with CSA scientists that I realised my passion for Aerospace. And I indeed became an Aerospace Nerd. Not only that, but I also made some lifelong friends.
Now, the passion for Aerospace meant to sacrifice two years to study for JEE – the exam to get into the IITs. While I started my preparations, the Indian Space Research Organisation suddenly became outward with its PR policy. The Mars Orbiter Mission was publicised on all social platforms in addition to print media. On 24th September 2013, the Mangalyaan went into orbit around Mars. I remember asking a friend with the biggest smartphone and 2G internet to watch the DD live on YouTube. It became my goal to work for India because now, even the engineers and scientists sitting in the control room were known by the whole world.
Understanding Myself while trying to explore the Space
I achieved a good rank and joined IIT Bombay with only one expectation, 'Become a good aerospace engineer to work in the space industry'. Little did I know I'll get to build a satellite, go to ISRO, work on RLV project and understand myself.
Fate was there with me since the beginning. Was it getting my passport on the day, I got selected for the UTSDC team. Or getting 845 JEE rank, which meant missing on Mechanical and getting to Aerospace. After coming across various technical teams at IIT Bombay, I wanted to join the Mars Rover Team. But the Student Satellite Program had the recruitment first. And as fate had it, I joined the team. I visited ISRO to conduct some tests in the first three months. In the first seven months, Pratham – our first satellite launched into orbit. I presented the team's work at a conference in China at 11 months. Within a year the project gave enough accolades.
While all of these honours were significant, one year within the team, also made me realise the importance of people. I not only learnt how to make a satellite. But how to build and maintain a family. A favourite quote of mine given by a senior, "People leave people, not projects.". Having learnt so much in so less time, I decided to contribute more to the program and became the Project Manager and Systems Engineer of the Team.
The first year: I had learnt the basics of a space mission with Pratham's (first satellite) failure analysis. The second, I learnt the systems engineering with Advitiy's (second satellite) payload study. The third, I understood the importance of human interaction by being a good manager but a lousy leader. And the fourth year, I tried to incorporate all these learnings while making the difficult decision of closing Advitiy and change gears.
The PSLV Stage 4 opportunity came at a critical point in the journey of IITBSSP. We decided to document 2 years of work and stop working on Advitiy. We distributed the team into subgroups working on multiple space systems so we could respond to the changing landscape of opportunities made available to us by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Every person in the team touched my life in some way. The IITBSSP moulded me, taking off the rough ends, highlighting the right spots and giving new confidence. As Ratnesh, a former project manager said, "While we were building Pratham, Pratham built us.".
Building a Niche in Astrodynamics
After a course in Spaceflight Mechanics in my second year, I decided to build expertise in Astrodynamics. I worked with Professor R V Ramanan at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) on evaluating finite-time burn manoeuvre techniques for orbit raising/lowering. Under his guidance, I gained valuable insights on mission planning which later helped me in breaking down of system-level tasks as the systems engineer of the satellite team.
Based on my learnings from the internship, I decided to work on Lambert's problem of orbit determination for my bachelor thesis with Professor Ashok Joshi. It being a self-motivated project, tested my skills of time management and independent study. While both the projects were straightforward, they cemented my decision to pursue a PhD in Astrodynamics. But first came the step to pursue a research project for my master thesis.
Eight years since working on space trajectories for a Mars Mission, I did research as part of my master thesis to develop trajectories for Reusable Launch Vehicle of ISRO. I worked with Prof. Ravi Banavar and Prof. Hemendra Arya to design a strategy for optimal reentry of the launch vehicle. I even presented my work to the ISRO scientists on numerous occasions. After one such meeting, around halfway, we realised the problem was misunderstood. This meant all the work had to be performed again. It was at this time; I realised the importance of patience in research.
Next steps in Journey of an Aerospace Nerd
Now, I will continue my journey at the University of Maryland. Prof. Christine Hartzell has offered me a PhD position at her Planetary Surfaces and Spacecraft Lab. I will be working on modelling interactions between metallic asteroids such as Psyche. I thank all my professors and friends for my journey so far. Especially, my family who has always supported me in this endeavour.
Looking back, I realise that I have been extremely privileged to have been able to be associate with many distinguished faculty and work on actual space missions. I, therefore, plan to come back after completing my PhD from the University of Maryland and contribute to India's Space Industry. My senior and former project manager used to say, "Being part of IIT and IITBSSP is a privilege very few get, now make sure you give back to the society." This blog is also a step towards giving back to India for providing all the opportunities.
After reading this blog I am motivated to work hard and will use the privilege of studying in IIT to gain more knowledge about space and to contribute back to this society. I hope to become an aerospace nerd like you 🤓