THE WEEK Man Of The Year: How ISRO chairman Somanath is empowering India's space dreams

Somanath's life is full of stories of determination and perseverance

44-S-Somanath S Somanath | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

In the early 1980s, a sixth semester mechanical engineering student at the Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Engineering in Kerala’s Kollam district, made an unusual request to his head of department, F.V. Albin. He wanted the department to introduce an elective in propulsion engineering. Such a course was then rare, if not nonexistent, in the state and nobody in Albin’s department had the expertise to teach it.

Somanath was fascinated by the night sky. “THEFORMATION OF CONSTELLATIONS AND HOW THEY CHANGEDOVER TIME, THE PERIODICITY OF THEIR APPEARANCES.... Allthis information was new and exciting for me,” he said.
During his college days, cinemawas Somanath’s greatest solace. “I USED TO CYCLE TO KOLLAM [TOWN] TO WATCH MOVIES EVEN IF I HAD TO SACRIFICE A MEAL,” he said.
Somanath’s visit to a Bhadrakali temple after the Chandrayaan-3 success had raised eyebrows. BUT, HE CONSIDERS EXPLORING THE “INNER SPACE” AS IMPORTANT AS exploring the outer space.

Nonetheless, Albin was moved by the student’s enthusiasm. It may have helped that the extraordinary request came from an extraordinary student; S. Somanath, who was from a humble background, had shown exceptional academic prowess and nurtured a dream to join the Indian Space Research Organisation. Somanath had told Albin that the elective would facilitate his entry into a field about which he was passionate and, importantly, pave the way for a job―an existential need for him.

The HoD approached a 29-year-old lecturer―K. Madhusoodanan Pillai―and asked if he could teach the course. “I was apprehensive as there was no readily available reference material at the college or in libraries,” said Pillai, who is now the vice-principal of a private engineering college in Kollam. “But, I assured the HoD that I would teach it.” He collected academic material from NASA and other space agencies. “It was an era without internet and obtaining academic material was quite challenging,” he said. “I compiled notes based on available sources.”

While Pillai prepared, Somanath played his part. He set out to convince at least 10 students to enrol for the course to fulfil the university’s criterion for electives. He succeeded. As it turned out, it would not be the last successful mission he was a part of, for―in 1985, Somanath was recruited by ISRO.

The life of the ISRO chairman is full of such stories of determination, perseverance and a relentless drive to overcome obstacles and create opportunities for himself and others, and, thereby, for the country.

Born on February 16, 1963, as the eldest among the three children of Thankamma and V. Sreedhara Panicker, Somanath spent his early years at his maternal home in Aroor, a quaint village at the northern tip of Alappuzha district. It is believed that Aroor, bordered on three sides by lakes, is the shortened form of arayarude ooru, meaning village of fisherfolk. Another traditional occupation of the villagers is coir making. The land hosts a famous Durga temple and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Augustine.

46-Somanath-with-wife-Valsala-and-daughter-Malika Support system: Somanath with wife, Valsala, and daughter Malika | Sanjoy Ghosh

Somanath’s maternal uncle, C.K. Thankappan Nair, 90, and his family still stay in Aroor. When THE WEEK visited their well-maintained house, Nair proudly pointed to a 76-year-old tamarind tree in the yard and said that Somanath used to sit under it and study. “Somanath means lord of soma (the moon); he was destined to take us to the moon,” said Nair, a renowned astrologer.

Somanath’s father was from Thuravoor, a village around 10km from Aroor known for its ancient temples. In 1981, tragedy struck the family while they were returning from a visit to Thuravoor. Somanath’s youngest sister, Indu Kala, who was eight years old, was killed when a speeding vehicle hit her; the family was waiting to cross the road. Manju S. Panicker, Somanath’s other sister, is three years younger to him and is now a special associate at the State Bank of India. After Somanath joined ISRO, the family built a house in Thuravoor, but no one has been living there since the death of his parents almost a decade ago.

Sreedhara Panicker, a Hindi teacher, worked at Thalikulam in Thrissur district. Somanath briefly went to school in Thalikulam before returning to Aroor after class two. Somanath told THE WEEK that his father was a disciplinarian and that he had an interest in various subjects, including science. “He was also passionate about electronics and had a kit for building radios,” he said. “Though not always friendly, he would occasionally engage in discussions about scientific topics, such as the universe, stars, and planets. These conversations sparked an interest in both me and [Manju] to study science.”

48-Thankappan-Nair Sweet memories: Somanath’s maternal uncle C.K. Thankappan Nair showing an old notebook in which he has written about his nephew.

Manju said they used to check their father’s bag when he came home on weekends. “We knew that the bag would have two things: ration rice and books,” she said. The books Panicker brought home included Tagore, other Nobel laureates, and Russian and American classics, apart from travelogues and science books in Malayalam. One of them was a star atlas. “It allowed you to identify stars, both by their English and Indian names,” said Somanath. “I learned to recognise a few star groups.” Manju said that as space inside the house was scarce for the joint family, on several nights they slept next to their father under the open sky. Before falling asleep, they would try to identify stars and constellations.

Somanath got fascinated by the night sky. “The formation of constellations and how they changed over time, the periodicity of their appearances.... All this information was new and exciting for me,” he said.

Thankamma could not pursue education beyond class 10, but she was an avid reader. Somanath remembers his mother as a proactive woman who created an environment conducive to her children’s studies. Electricity did not reach their home in Aroor until Somanath reached pre-degree (equivalent to higher secondary), so both he and Manju studied sitting near a kerosene lamp. “My mother would wake up early and make black tea to encourage us to get up at 5am and study in front of that lamp,” he said.

Sweet memories: Somanath’s maternal uncle C.K. Thankappan Nair showing an old notebook in which he has written about his nephew. Sweet memories: Somanath’s maternal uncle C.K. Thankappan Nair showing an old notebook in which he has written about his nephew.

Her motherly instincts extended beyond her own children. She packed extra food for them to share with classmates from less fortunate circumstances. Sivadasan Pillai, Somanath’s classmate at St. Augustine’s High School, Aroor, said he did not go hungry at lunchtime on many days because of Somanath and another friend, Sulaiman. “My parents could not afford to provide me lunch daily,” he said. “I would often wander around on an empty stomach and return after the lunch break. However, Somanath and Sulaiman recognised my situation. On many days, I ended up eating more than they did.”

From a young age, Somanath started picking up a range of skills from his father. This included carpentry and the use of various tools, including those for cutting, drilling and soldering irons. “I often played with these tools and used them to construct my own creations,” said Somanath. The skills helped him earn some pocket money during his school days―he attached nails to spinning tops. He also assembled a radio using his father’s kit. He sometimes used a transmitter he had made to cause electronic interference in a neighbour’s radio―a source of innocent fun for him and other children in the neighbourhood.

His path was shaped by teachers he had at St. Augustine’s. “My mathematics teacher, Paul, had a classic statement: ‘Do not simply believe what the mathematics teacher says is correct; you have to find out for yourself’,” said Somanath. “He encouraged us to experiment―delving into geometry with a saw―and observe various phenomena. Paul was an incredibly innovative teacher. Rajan Babu, who taught us physics, had a distinctive style, rarely adhering to the textbook. He would come in, share stories and engage in discussions with students, only briefly covering the syllabus. All of us excelled in physics.”

Somanath’s parents, V. Sreedhara Panicker and Thankamma. Somanath’s parents, V. Sreedhara Panicker and Thankamma.

M.J. Gracy, 82, who was Somanath’s chemistry teacher in class eight, has a framed photo of herself with Somanath and his classmate, K.D. Ajayaghosh. When THE WEEK visited her house in Fort Kochi, she said that Somanath and Ajayaghosh (retired chief engineer, Kerala local self government department) were prized possessions she earned from her decades-long teaching career.

Somanath remembers well the love and care he got from his teachers. “In class 10, I was state topper in science subjects,” he said. “Bhagirathiamma, my [biology] teacher was very proud. She gifted me an IIT entrance guide. I met her often after leaving school and I sat next to her when she was on her deathbed, too.”

After the class 10 results, Somanath and his father inquired about the admission process to IITs and learned about the heavy financial burden involved. Panicker was close to retirement. Feeling that going to an IIT would not be feasible given his family’s financial situation, Somanath abandoned the idea. He enroled for pre-degree at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

Coming from a Malayalam-medium school, he initially struggled to keep up with the classes in English. However, he adapted quickly and found his footing, excelling in physics. There was a minor setback in the first year, though, when he failed Hindi. To this day, Somanath wonders how he failed as he was comfortable in Hindi even then.

He said he may have opted for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics or physics. But, the son of a family friend convinced him and his father that engineering was a viable path and helped him with his application. He got a national merit scholarship for his class 10 marks and secured admission to TKM College.

When he first moved to Kollam, he started living in Premier Lodge, which was at a “40 paisa distance” from Kollam city. Though the scholarship alleviated the financial burden, his life as an engineering student was constrained by the shortage of money. “[My father’s] pension was just Rs185 a month,” said Somanath. “This was our only income and he was also supporting his widowed sister. He could not always send me money to cover the costs of books, food and travel. I kept a meticulous record, tracking my daily expenses down to the paisa.” Somanath had tried for other scholarships, too, but the red-tape tripped him up.

Somanath with wife, Valsala, daughter Malika and son Madhav. Somanath with wife, Valsala, daughter Malika and son Madhav.

After the first year, he moved to a cheaper lodge. Near a timber mill, and the sound of machinery was constant. There was also an old theatre close to the lodge. The songs from the films playing there could be heard at the lodge and became a source of entertainment. Somanath relied on a second-hand bicycle to go to college, which was 5km away. He relied on second-hand books or library resources and even wrote many exams without referring to any textbooks. Even acquiring a calculator and drawing instruments proved challenging. He was also forced to opt out of college trips and industrial visits and subsisted on rice, green gram and pickles brought from home.

However, on Sundays, he went with fellow lodgers to a toddy shop and indulged in fish curry. The owner of the establishment had a tradition of gifting a serving of fish head curry to those who sang their hearts out. Somanath’s passionate rendition of ‘Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum’ (from the 1957 movie Do Ankhen Barah Hath) won him the coveted prize once.

Love for music was also inculcated in Somanath and Manju by their father. He used to make them listen to Chembai concerts on the radio and take them to Kathakali and musical performances in temples.

Somanath’s wife, Valsala, an officer in the Central GST department, said appreciation for music, particularly classical, had become a cherished family tradition. “Whenever we are together, we love to sing,” she said. “Our daughter has learned classical music and my husband enjoys listening to her renditions.” Somanath briefly pursued lessons in Carnatic music in the early 2010s. He also recites Malayalam poetry proficiently.

During his college days, cinema was Somanath’s greatest solace. “I used to cycle to Kollam [town] to watch movies even if I had to sacrifice a meal,” he said. He made it a point to watch films either on the eve of an exam or after exams to relax. In his final year, he saw 85 movies. During this period, he also began watching world classics in a small theatre associated with the public library in Kollam.

He was also interested in cartooning. “I received prizes for it during my engineering college days,” he said. “There were many such passions, but eventually, you cannot pursue everything.” He finished his engineering course with a first rank in his college and second in the university.

48-Somanath-and-Valsala-after-their-wedding Somanath and Valsala after their wedding.

After joining ISRO at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, he became a member of many of the film societies in the city. “I wanted to be a film critic at that time and started writing,” he said. “But, I realised that I should not diverge from my domain.”

On the day he joined the VSSC, he made a lasting impression on V.P. Joy, who was one of the new recruits. Joy would later leave ISRO to become an IAS officer and, eventually, chief secretary of Kerala. “On our first day, the recruits were asked about their interests and aspirations,” he told THE WEEK. “Somanath said he wanted to be in a happening place.” That took him to former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair, who was then associate project director of the PSLV programme. “I was impressed by his keenness to learn, inquisitiveness and initiative to apply knowledge to find practical solutions,” said Nair. “We assigned him to the mechanical integration project―a multidisciplinary activity requiring knowledge of mechanical engineering, propulsion, electronics and many other things. So, perhaps that is what has given him a strong foundation in rocketry.”

In that phase of his career, Somanath travelled extensively to study new designs and hardware interfaces, among other things. On many instances, he had to travel at short notice. “My boss would say to go to Sriharikota,” he said. “Train tickets would not be available. So, I would take a bus from Thiruvananthapuram to Trichy and from there I would board the Pandian Express to Chennai. On many occasions, I slept on the floor of the train on newspapers. Then, somehow, I would reach Sullurupeta (23km from Sriharikota). But from there on, there was no bus. So I would [hitchhike in] the back of a truck. But this was not me alone. Most of us were making our official trips like that. Today, our people travel better.”

50-G-Madhavan-Nair On a mission: (From left) G. Madhavan Nair, PSLV-D1 vehicle director R.V. Perumal, launch vehicle programme office director D. Narayanamoorthy and Somanath.

Nair said that as a young man Somanath worked 16 to 18 hours. “People like him enabled us to have the workhorse launcher, PSLV,” he said. But, the time invested in work meant that Somanath remained a bachelor for almost nine years after he joined ISRO. It was only after the launch of PSLV in 1993 that he got married. Valsala was an inspector in Central excise and customs then, at Cherthala, close to both Aroor and Thuravoor. “She had a similar background and upbringing; her parents were school teachers,” said Somanath. “So, that attracted me.”

Shortly after marriage, Somanath joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, for an MTech, sponsored by ISRO. Balancing married life with student life was not easy. He travelled to Kerala every two weeks to be with Valsala. The couple welcomed their first child, Malika, during Somanath’s MTech. Three years later, they had a boy, Madhav.

After completing MTech, with a gold medal, and returning to ISRO, Somanath’s career really took off. But, this also meant that there was extra burden on his wife to take care of the children and other family matters on top of her own responsibilities at work. Valsala said it was challenging for her, especially at the start. “I felt lonely and was afraid,” she said. “An elderly lady from the neighbourhood used to stay with us at night when my husband was away. But, I learned to manage it, and as the children grew older that feeling gradually dissipated.”

A young Somanath used to climb up the Agastyaarkoodam peak in the Western Ghats. A young Somanath used to climb up the Agastyaarkoodam peak in the Western Ghats.

Malika, 28, is now pursuing a PhD at the IISc. “I never felt like I was bereft of anything,” she said. “My father was always there when I wanted to talk to him. But, yes, there were no vacations. My parents were working and did not have time because their careers were just picking up. Now, when I think about it, I feel there was an opportunity to have those things. We did regularly travel together to our native place.”

In the early 2000s, Somanath was assigned the job of creating a project report for a geosynchronous launch vehicle. He eventually became project director of GSLV Mark-III (now called LVM3). Madhavan Nair said the launch vehicle―India’s most powerful rocket―was Somanath’s baby. But Somanath, in turn, attributes it to a collective effort. “I had my signature on it, but it is a [result] of the contribution of so many people,” he said. His memory turned out to be crucial in the rocket’s development. “I went to see the launch of Ariane 5 [in French Guiana],” he said. “Almost two days I looked at the rocket, memorising it, as I was not allowed to sketch.” The mental images, he said, were used in engineering LVM3.

Its success was one of the high points of Somanath’s career. “I went through sleepless nights before its launch, many more than Chandrayaan-3,” he said. “Because of that rocket, we could have Chandrayaan-3 and high capability today. And, engineering that rocket was 10 to 12 years of my work.” Somanath also has great satisfaction with the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle. “My hand is in almost every element of that rocket; its design, engineering and planning,” he said.

However, his career has not been all highs. “You can be easily dumped,” he told THE WEEK. “There can be situations where you will not be chosen. I may not become the project director. I may not become director, I may not become chairman. Everybody aspires to a higher level and if you find a potential that somebody is trying to push you away.... In an organisation that can happen... at times you can be disappointed.”

Despite the pressures of his job, Somanath is not fond of the usage “work stress”. “I do not have to manage stress,” he said. “If you plan properly, there is no reason for stress. Of course, there is uncertainty. But that is not stress. In a rocket launch, there can be a failure; that is not stress. If it is going to fail, it is going to fail. What I can do by [being] worried about it?”

Somanath’s visit to a Bhadrakali temple after the Chandrayaan-3 success had raised eyebrows. But, he considers exploring the “inner space” as important as exploring the outer space. “You go through many trials and tribulations,” he said. “[The strength to deal with problems] will come out of being aware of who you are. It requires spiritual elevation.” However, he said that spirituality should not be confused with religion or belief systems. “I am talking about exploring the inner side,” he said. “It gives you balance of mind. Spirituality is not linked with any space or location. Even if I visit a temple, I am looking at myself. So, though I am worshipping God, I am worshipping only what is inside.”

Madhav, who is pursuing an MBA from a private b-school in Mumbai, said that all his father talked about at home were the “little things” of life. “Like, I want to plant this tree and see how it grows in 10 years,” he said. “He loves farming. We grow spinach, carrots [and other vegetables] at home.” The family extends its care to more than 20 cats in their home in Bengaluru. “Our daughter is a cat lover and started bringing the cats home,” said Valsala.

Both Malika and Madhav remarked on the balance that Somanath maintains in his life. “He works through the week; Sundays are not off for him,” said Madhav. “But at the end of the day, he comes home, waters the plants, makes sure every little thing is done, all the little tasks, fixes the electrical things, takes me with him and just makes sure I learn the right stuff.”

VSSC director S. Unnikrishnan Nair joined ISRO in the same year as Somanath and has had a ringside view of his career. He said that the ISRO chairman had exceptional skill to study things deeply, even if they were not from his primary domain. “He asks a lot of questions,” he said. “After failures, there will be technical discussions. He is known for his critical observations. In many missions, he has made such observations that have led to corrections.”

Unnikrishnan said Somanath had deep knowledge in a wide range of areas and that it was difficult to identify his stream because he could speak on many other domains. Somanath said that though he started primarily as a mechanical engineer, he has, over the years, learned aerospace engineering, controls, electronics, programming, algorithms and chemical engineering. “When you speak to a chemical engineer, you need to speak his language,” he said. “As a project director, I have to understand him. So, for that, I need to prepare. I can get the best out of him [only by speaking his language].”

Madhavan Nair told THE WEEK about instances in which Somanath fixed not-so-little things by taking potentially fatal risks. “There was a leak during a GSLV launch,” he said. “The vehicle is almost like a 500-tonne explosive. But, Somanath and his team inspected it, found the issue and corrected it on the spot to ensure that the launch took place on time.” There was a similar incident during PSLV’s first launch. “He is one of those brave ones, ready for such daring actions,” said Nair.

Former ISRO chairman K. Sivan, Somanath’s predecessor, called him an excellent technocrat. “He has a unique capability both in the scientific way as well as the managerial,” he said. “I had a long association with him. And in that period I have observed that he is an excellent rocket scientist and a system analyst. He has overall knowledge about the rocket and all the space systems.”

After the success of Chandrayaan-3, ISRO is progressing with ambitious projects like Gaganyaan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced many future targets, too: A space station by 2035, manned moon mission by 2040 and missions including a Venus orbiter and a Mars lander.

Somanath exudes confidence in ISRO’s ability to achieve these goals. He possesses knowledge of hora shastra, the branch of astrology which focuses on predicting the future. But, he believes astrological predictions are not needed. “What is the use in predicting your future?” he said. “The future is created by you.”