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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Satish Dhawan: Pioneer of India’s space journey

This exemplary mathematician and aerospace engineer is regarded as the father of fluid dynamics research in India. He is most well known for leading India’s space programme to soaring success. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in the year 1981.

inspiring-lives Updated: Nov 07, 2019 19:56 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Satish Dhawan in 1972, succeeded Vikram Sarabhai as the chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Satish Dhawan in 1972, succeeded Vikram Sarabhai as the chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).(ILLUSTRATION: Unnikrishnan)

Born to a civil servant of undivided India in Srinagar on September 25, 1920, Prof Satish Dhawan had varied academic qualifications. Dhawan received Bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Mathematics, and Mechanical Engineering from the University of the Punjab in Lahore. He also had a Master’s degree in English literature also from University of the Punjab.

Thereafter he went to the USA for further studies. He did a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Minnesota and Aeronautical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology. He later also earned a double PhD in Mathematics and Aerospace Engineering.

A pioneer

In 1951, Dhawan joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru as a faculty member and was appointed its director in 1962. Lauding his work at the IISc, historian Ramachandra Guha said, “It was during Dhawan’s long tenure that the IISc truly consolidated its reputation and made secure its standing as the finest centre of scientific research in all of Asia.”

Life at ISRO

In 1972, he succeeded Vikram Sarabhai as the chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He was also the secretary to the government of India in the department of space. It was under his leadership that India launched its first satellite, Aryabhatta. Dhawan wanted satellite technology to gather information useful for agriculture and other sectors of the economy, and to promote distance learning in remote areas.

Dhawan conducted experiments in remote sensing and satellite communications which were useful for rural education. His work helped in the development of telecommunications satellite INSAT, the Indian Remote Sensing satellite and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. He wrote a book titled Boundary Layer Theory. He was also instrumental in setting up India’s first supersonic wind tunnel at the IISc. Dhawan remained the chairman of ISRO till 1984.

A true leader

Dhawan never took sole credit for his successful efforts and heaped praises on his team. Recalling one incident in 1979, space scientist and former President APJ Abdul Kalam said that when he (Kalam) was the director of a Satellite Launch Vehicle, the satellite launch mission had failed and Dhawan as the ISRO chairman took the blame for the failure. The team later succeeded and Dhawan credited the success to the team.

Dhawan also gave opportunities to new talent. Guha said, “It was Dhawan who recruited the young and at the time relatively unknown Madhav Gadgil. Gadgil founded a first-rate school of field-based ecological research. It was also Dhawan who supported the electrochemist, AKN Reddy, in the creation of a centre for the development of technologies appropriate for rural areas. This centre, named ASTRA, has since done pioneering work in the promotion of low-cost housing and renewable energy.”


Dhawan breathed his last in Bengaluru on January 3, 2002. The satellite launch centre at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, is named after this genius scientist. IIT Ropar named its department of mechanical engineering building as the Satish Dhawan Block.


1. Dhawan was interested in both kinds of science: science that advanced the frontiers of human knowledge and science that increased human welfare. He was also quite interested in literature.

2. During an interview on 50 years of India’s Independence, Dhawan said that whenever he hears NRIs criticise India, he asks them to come back and improve the functioning of Indian institutions.

3. At 42, Dhawan became the youngest director to be appointed at the IISc. He also remained its longest-serving and most distinguished director. He was appointed in 1962.

4. Dhawan was concerned about poor and downtrodden. In 1988, he signed a petition asking for a fair and independent review of the widely debated and controversial Narmada Valley dam project.

5. Both institutions he studied at, The Indian Institute of Science and the California Institute of Technology conferred distinguished alumnus awards on the science wizard, Satish Dhawan.

Sources: Wikipedia,