Working at ISRO - Experience of a Young Scientist/Engineer | ft. Aniruddha Ranade

Aniruddha Ranade, Scientist/Engineer at Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, shares his experiences of working at ISRO for the past year.

Does the prospect of working at ISRO excite you? But you don't know what all it entails to be a scientist/engineer at India's Space Agency. Today in Space Talks, my fellow satellite teammate, Aniruddha Ranade shares his experience of working at ISRO as a Scientist/Engineer at Space Applications Centre, Ahemdabad and how his life at IIT Bombay helped him pursue this career.

Tell us about SAC, ISRO.

ISRO, the national space agency of India, is driven by its vision: Harness space technology for national development while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration. The responsibility to achieve this is shared between several centres, units, autonomous bodies of the Department of Space. Space Applications Centre (SAC) is one of the major ISRO centres engaged in the research, development, and demonstration of space technology applications in telecommunications, remote sensing, meteorology, and satellite navigation. It is responsible for realizing the payload of the satellite. In layman's terms, the payload is the instrument onboard the satellite, making the satellite capable of delivering applications. For example, an Earth observation satellite shall require optical cameras. SAC is responsible for delivering the camera and developing applications for generating meaningful maps from the data received from the satellite.

SAC is divided into several areas. Some areas specialize in delivering specific categories of payload instrumentation like satellite communication, navigation, remote sensing in different bands, etc., and their associated applications, while other areas are responsible to support them in achieving this. A group is engaged in designing and delivering human-rated systems for the Gaganyaan program in coordination with similar groups from other ISRO centres.

What is it like to work at SAC?

Typical office day begins at around 9 AM and no the day doesn't end at 5.30 pm! I am part of the team working on the Gaganyaan program. Since this is India's first human spaceflight mission, several systems are being designed for the first time. Along with the excitement, this brings a lot of responsibility. I feel privileged to have got an opportunity to work on the Gaganyaan program. I am sure, like me, you must have seen one of those NatGeo Specials - wherein you get to know about a project too ambitious and how people make it happen. Well, for me, this is a journey of similar sorts, and there is a long road to walk. That's what motivates me to work every day.     

At SAC, several employees have two assignments. The first is pertaining to the satellite mission like RISAT, Cartosat, etc., and the other is an R&D activity. The main project typically has well-defined deadlines, and it takes a good chunk of resources. The R&D activity may be a precursor to upcoming projects or could be completely exploratory. Employees are encouraged to write their own proposals for the R&D activities. Based on it, they are scrutinized and funded periodically. Over the past few months, I have enjoyed this double-stranded responsibility. It allows one to find a balance between implementation and research-driven activities. You also get an opportunity to work with and mentor student interns working on their final year projects. More info about internships could be found here.  

Apart from supporting enthusiastic employees in pursuing higher education, ISRO is also a strong champion of continuing education. It sponsors its employees for attending relevant training camps and participating in conferences. Annually, Professional Update Allowance is given to encourage employees to invest in their upskilling.

What was your experience with the recruitment process?

I was recruited through the campus placement process. There was one round of technical interview. My panel had two members. I passed on my resume, and as they were glancing through it, I told them about my experience at URSC during May-Jun 2016, during integration and flight model testing of Pratham. They asked me about the flight model tests then moved to my master's thesis. Over the next 20 minutes, there were discussions on a wide variety of topics - from how a wing generates lift to what Nusselt number is!

When and how did you start planning your career in aerospace engineering?

To frankly answer the question, I did not explicitly plan "a" particular engineering career. I started my journey at IITB in 2015, in the Chemical Engineering B.Tech batch. The branch selection was straightforward - a core age-old engineering vertical at IITB - nothing more, nothing less. I spent countless hours enjoying the Big, Bigger, Biggest, and Air Crash Investigation, and yet I wasn't particularly inclined on pursuing "a" specific domain of engineering. The plan then was to explore the much-celebrated culture of IITB and see the opportunities it would bring up. IITB offers an opportunity to first-year undergrads to change their branch based on academic performance at the end of the first year. I opted to change my program to B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering. Again this decision was driven by the herd mentality.

Since the day I came on campus, I made sure to keep myself aware. IITB has a rich culture of Tech Teams. These are multidisciplinary student-run projects which are engaged in pursuing long-term engineering projects - Student Satellite Team, IITB Racing, AUV, etc. These teams have students from different disciplines working in a multi-tier structure. Some of these teams have been in IITB for over a decade now and have found a way to maintain continuity and, at the same time, have grown towards chasing more ambitious dreams.

I joined the Student Satellite Team in my first year. I wrote the test, followed by a two-week-long mini-project and a presentation for the electrical subsystem. Candidates can apply for any subsystem irrespective of their parent branches. The enthusiasm to work was the only prerequisite. When I joined the team, Pratham IITB's first student satellite, an ambitious project running since 2007, recently finished its qualification model tests at URSC, ISRO and was gearing up for the flight model tests in the summer of 2016. I got an opportunity to visit URSC and assist my seniors in the FM activities. This 5-week experience was a significant turning point in my life. I not only found a great project to work on but also came across amazing people who grew into a caring family over the years. Looking back, I realize that I enjoyed my journey in the satellite team not because of the project but rather the people in and around it.

In parallel to this, academics were not sidelined. It took me a while to adjust myself and actually enjoy learning through the coursework. IITB offers a rich variety of elective courses. Several classroom teachings made more sense when I saw them in action while working in the satellite team. At the end of my third year, I decided to convert to the B.Tech+M.Tech dual degree program. This time, it was a well-informed decision.

Towards the end of my stay at IITB, I had learned the following:

  • I enjoyed working on the systems engineering part of the problems

  • I realized that people and their interactions are the most complex component in realizing the project

Around this time, I realized that a project-based engineering profile, similar to what ISRO offers, was a good fit. So, no, I didn't explicitly plan an aerospace engineering career - I happen to be lucky that things aligned so well!

How was your experience of transitioning into the job life?

It is complicated! You usually move out to a new city, meet new people and get along with the job. At the same time, you are moving out of the campus. You are not going to see the same people you have been used to seeing every day for the past few years.

I realized that I had contemplated more about my own career, now that I actually have a job, than when I had, while in college. Maybe it's because there are days when you feel the grass is greener on the other side, and the road not taken might have been better. This is the first time in our lives when we find ourselves without concrete deadlines to look forward to. When you finish the 10th class, you are aware of what you would do in the next two years, and no matter what you do, the date for your 12th class exam is set. I no longer find myself in a similar construct of well-defined life milestones. I think this is one positive thing that has come by after I graduated from the bustling, hustling life at IITB - some time to think about myself, peacefully and without deadlines!

I thank Aniruddha to find time for this Space Talks article.