Who is S Somanath? Here’s all you need to know about newly appointed ISRO Chairman 

Written By: Sidharth MP WION
Chennai Published: Jan 12, 2022, 08:41 PM(IST)

New ISRO chief S Somnath  Photograph:( Agencies )

Story highlights

Somanath joined ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre as the lead facility for developing rockets in 1985 and was a team leader for the integration of the PSLV rocket during its early phases.

In 1994, a young engineer at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) joined two of his seniors to fix a problem with a live Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket that stood ready for launch.

Towards the final leg of the countdown, an issue was detected in the rocket and the highly anticipated launch was put on hold. Setting it right was the most dangerous task that anyone could undertake, as the rocket was loaded with nearly 200 tonnes of hazardous fuels and chemical cocktails.

Following the typical procedures would have meant de-arming the rocket and draining off its fuel, thus delaying the launch. However, within minutes, the problem was resolved and the rocket performed exceedingly well—it was a textbook launch and the first-ever successful flight of the PSLV, which is regarded as India’s workhorse rocket).

That young scientist who undertook that unenviable task is the newly-appointed Chairman of the ISRO and the secretary of the Department of Space —Dr S Somanath.  

Hailing from Alappuzha (Alleppey) in India’s southern Kerala state, Somanath had been a science enthusiast right from the time he pursued his schooling, in Malayalam medium.

Despite being a Hindi teacher, Somanath’s father encouraged his son’s passion and aptitude for science by feeding him with science books in both English and Malayalam medium languages.

Even though engineering is considered a tough subject, Somanath pursued B Tech in Mechanical Engineering, during which he developed a deep interest in space.

As a college student, Somanath had specially requested his professor to teach him a course on propulsion —a specific subject in rocketry that is not taught as part of engineering. Interestingly, the faculty, too, readily agreed to teach him.

The TKM College of Engineering in Kollam, Kerala—which had hitherto never taught the course— readily took up the challenge and started teaching propulsion to 10 students who had shown interest at that time. 

It was during his final years in college that Somanath applied for a job at the ISRO, when it was recruiting young engineers to join the fledgling PSLV programme.

Thanks to his high scores in the previous semesters, Somanath was recruited. Thus began a journey of realising his childhood dream of aiming to study the planets. 

He joined ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre as the lead facility for developing rockets in 1985 and was a team leader for the integration of the PSLV rocket during its early phases.

Rising up the ranks, he joined GSLV MkIII Project in 2003 and was the deputy project director responsible for the overall design and integration of India’s heaviest and most powerful rocket.

He was the project director of GSLV Mk-III from June 2010 to 2014. An expert in the area of system engineering of launch vehicles, he made immense contribution in the development of PSLV and GSLV MkIII programmes in their overall architecture, propulsion stages design, structural and structural dynamics designs, separation systems, vehicle integration etc.

Later, he also led the team of LPSC (ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre) to complete the development and qualification of the CE20 cryogenic engine and the C25 stage, which was successfully flown in GSLV MkIII-D1 flight.

He also played a key role in three successful missions of GSLV with indigenous cryogenic stages and eleven successful missions of PSLV with the liquid stages realised by LPSC.

Under his watch, 15 successful satellite missions were accomplished with the propulsion systems supplied from LPSC.

He is also credited with driving the developmental activities of the high-thrust semi-cryogenic engine, throttleable engines for Chandrayaan-2 moon lander, the successful flight of electric propulsion system in GSAT-9, among others.

Dr Somanath secured Gold Medal in Master’s in Aerospace Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

He will serve as Chairman ISRO and Secretary, Department of Space for a tenure of three years. 

Rocket science is among the most challenging and unforgiving fields of work. But what keeps this man going? This is what he tells his juniors, “We work on rockets, not just because they put satellites up there… Rockets are the only means by which humans can travel from the shores of earth to another planet… There is just no other way!”

An ardent fan of cinema, Somanath was once a member of the Film Society and similar groups in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital. However, owing to his rigorous schedule, cinema was something that had to be put on the backburner. A dynamic public speaker, he’s been an active Keynote speaker at various national and International events and has also delivered TEDx talks.

Dr Somanath is married to Valsala, who works with the Goods and Services Tax department. The couple has two children, both of whom have completed their ​Master's in Engineering. 

Note: The anecdote of Dr S Somanath having joined his seniors in setting right a live PSLV rocket is excerpted from ‘Ready to Fire’ the Autobiography of ISRO Veteran Padma Bhushan S Nambi Narayanan. As the then Cryogenic Project Director and Project Director for 2nd and 4th stages of PSLV, Nambi Narayanan had selected and led engineers S Somanath and S Ramakrishnan to join him to perform the daredevilry of working to set right a live rocket, on October 15th 1994. Eventually, Ramakrishnan rose up to the post of Director, LPSC, while Dr Somanath rose up to Director, VSSC and now Chairman, ISRO. 

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