ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL
K. Radhakrishnan, PhD, chair, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO); chair, Space Commission; and secretary, Department of Space, Government of India, Bangalore, India
ISRO isn't synonymous with space exploration the way the United States' NASA and Russia's Roscosmos are—yet. In November 2013, ISRO made a bold statement about its interplanetary ambitions by launching the Mars Orbiter Mission, the country's first to the Red Planet. If the spacecraft enters Mars' orbit—scheduled for September 2014—India will become the fourth space program ever to do so.
Behind the planning and orchestration of this historic mission is Dr. K. Radhakrishnan. “When the mission started, risks were high and clarity was less. As the mission progresses, there is more clarity and less risk,” he says.
What was the biggest challenge of this project?
Any space project is multi-disciplinary and challenging because of its sheer complexity. But if you look at the Mars missions executed globally so far, we see a success rate of 21 out of 51. That's because of the complexity in reaching the orbit of Mars from the orbit of Earth.
How did you approach project management for this new kind of mission?
There are many aspects to consider before getting into a project of this magnitude. In a Mars exploration mission, time is of the essence. We knew we had to leave the Earth's orbit on 30 November 2013 for our transfer orbit that would take us to Mars. The opportunity would only come again in 26 months.
“Internally, we look at where we need to excel more. We are in competition with ourselves to exceed. There is no space for complacency.”
Did you use any lessons learned from other space projects?
Our feasibility study for a Mars mission started in August 2010 and concluded in June 2011. From that study, we knew that with certain modifications to our Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)—built originally to launch satellites—we could execute the mission.
The big question was: What are the additional challenges that we could face on this mission that are different from our normal space missions? These included moving from Earth's orbit to Mars' orbit, a newly designed PSLV with twice as much life span, a communications delay that can be six to 20 minutes one-way, and integrating an additional ground station in the South Pacific to support the mission.
Institutionally, we designed the project to work within the ISRO system, which organizes activities into different centers—ones that deal with the launch vehicle, spacecraft and payloads—and tracking stations. That's one aspect. The second aspect is that we have a large group of industries that work with us on specific needs of a spacecraft to help realize the mission. When it comes to computation and orbital dynamics, we have specific help from academics who work with us in several reviews. India's scientific community working on space and science also has to be brought into the system. They want to study Mars, but many of them are outside the ISRO. And then there are certainly policymakers and decision-makers within the country that want to be a part of this mission. This project is a major turning point for the space program.
How does the project change as the mission moves through its phases?
If you look at the project structure of the transit stage, there are two distinct phases. One lasts until the spacecraft is released and the PSLV successfully injects the spacecraft into orbit around the Earth. The second is the spacecraft moving from Earth's orbit to Mars' orbit.
We have two mission directors responsible for each phase. The first phase is carried out by the PSLV project director and a set of mission executives. So the system or launch operation board managed the first part of the mission. The second part, which is going on at the moment, is the raising of the orbit, testing the spacecraft and taking it toward Mars, which will take one year under another director. Here the specialty is orbital dynamics, mission operations and precise calculation of the movement of the spacecraft.
After these phases, there's one more transition to those who will operate the spacecraft for the rest of its life, which could be 10 or 12 years. There are risks in all stages, but it's the interplanetary transit stage where the risks are greatest.
How do you foster innovation at ISRO?
The self-reliance India has achieved in the field of space technology is due to our innovations in project and process management practices. We have a system in place that will help all of us learn continuously from successes and failures. Once a year, we have a review process with senior management to discuss how to update our technology, how to improve and where we stand with respect to our original vision and promises made to the country.
We also created an environment that encourages innovation. A big part of this is our communications system. There is a high level of openness in the system. People are free to ask questions. It is encouraged because our projects have to work flawlessly. Several minds have to put their effort together for each of our different causes. Ask questions, find answers, implement them and verify them. PM
What's your dream travel destination?
India. I have traveled many places in the country as part of space projects. It represents a good cross section of the whole world, in terms of terrain, culture and people.
Favorite thing to do in your spare time?
I have a serious hobby—music. I sing.
PM NETWORK JUNE 2014 WWW.PMI.ORG
JUNE 2014 PM NETWORK
Organizations must invest in building a culture - and project teams - that can turn cutting-edge ideas into reality, according to new PMI research.