New Chairman Takes Charge as India Space Agency Struggles to Launch Satellites and Begin Human Spaceflight

New ISRO Chairman Shri. S. Somanath (left) takes over from K. Sivan. (Credit: ISRO)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A new chairman has taken over the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at a crucial time as the space agency continues to struggles with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the challenge of becoming only the fourth nation capable of launching astronauts into orbit.

Shri. S. Somanath took over from K. Sivan on Jan. 14. Since 2018, Somanath led the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), which develops propulsion systems for ISRO’s launch vehicles. He also served as the Director of Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre for two and half years.

Somanath joined VSSC in 1985 and served as a team leader for the integration of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), according to his official biography. Beginning in 2003, Somanath was involved in developing India’s largest launch vehicle, Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III, which will be used to launch astronauts into orbit in the Gaganyaan program. After joining the GSLV Mk III program, he served as:

  • deputy project director responsible for overall design of the vehicle, mission design, structural design and integration;
  • project director from June 2010 to 2014; and
  • leader of the team that completed development and qualification of CE20 cryogenic engine and the C25 stage.

Somanath takes over a space agency that has been left reeling by the global COVID-19 pandemic. ISRO has been struggled to launch satellites and has been forced to delay high-profile programs.

Before the pandemic hit in 2020, ISRO was working toward fulfilling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objective of launching Indian astronauts into orbit by Indian Independence Day on Aug. 15, 2022. India was launching around six times per year, with plans to ramp up to a monthly launch cadence. ISRO was earning foreign currency by flying small foreign satellites on dedicated rideshare missions and as secondary payloads on other flights. The space agency also planned to debut the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) to server that sector of the satellite market.

The pandemic scrambled all those plans. The first uncrewed Gaganyaan mission is currently scheduled for early in the third quarter of this year. A second flight will carry the Vyommitra robot into orbit at the end of 2022. The first crewed flight would then follow next year. Whether the schedule will hold as Omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps across the world remains unclear.

Four Indian Air Force pilots are in training for Gaganyaan flights. The space agency has not identified the pilots, who have undergone extensive training in Russia under the Roscosmos space agency.

Only three other nations — China, Russia and the United States — have the capability to launch astronauts into orbit. Russia’s human space program was inherited from the Soviet Union.

Over the past two years, the space agency launched only four times, with three successes and one failure. India’s second largest rocket, Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk. II, failed to orbit the EOS 3 Earth observation satellite due to an anomaly in the third stage on Aug. 12, 2021.

SSLV’s maiden flight has been postponed while India’s opportunities to fly small foreign payloads on its existing launch vehicles have been reduced. Meanwhile, small satellite launch companies such as Astra Space, ExPace, Galactic Energy, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have demonstrated the capability to place satellites into orbit. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have now flown 336 small satellites on three dedicated Transporter rideshare missions over the past year.

Somanath must get ISRO’s programs back on track while aiding the development of India’s commercial space sector. The space agency is moving to transition production of its launch vehicles to the private sector. ISRO has opened up its facilities to a growing group of start-up launch vehicle and satellite manufacturers. And India’s Parliament has also passed laws to encourage private sector space activities.

Somanath’s official biography follows.

Shri.S. Somanath
Official Biography

Shri.S. Somanath took charge as Director, VSSC on 22nd January, 2018 after a two and a half year’s stint as the Director of Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), Valiamala, Thiruvananathapuram. Previously, he served as the Associate Director (Projects) of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and also as Project Director of GSLV Mk-III Launch vehicle. Under his leadership, the first Experimental flight of LVM3-X/CARE mission was successfully accomplished on 18th December, 2014.

Shri.Somanath took his B. Tech in Mechanical Engineering from TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, and Masters in Aerospace Engineering from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore with specialization in Structures, Dynamics and Control with a Gold Medal. Shri.S. Somanath joined VSSC in 1985 and was a team leader for Integration of PSLV during the early phases. As Project Manager, PSLV, he handled areas of mechanisms, pyro systems, integration and satellite launch service management.

He joined GSLV MkIII Project during 2003 and was the Deputy Project Director responsible for overall design of the vehicle, mission design, structural design and integration. He was the Project Director of GSLV Mk-III from June 2010 to 2014. Shri. Somanath is an expert in the area of system engineering of Launch vehicles. His contributions in PSLV and GSLV MkIII were in their overall architecture, propulsion stages design, structural and structural dynamics designs, separation systems, vehicle integration and integration procedures development.

He has been the Deputy Director of the ‘Structures’ Entity in VSSC and also the Deputy Director of ‘Propulsion and Space Ordnance Entity’ in VSSC till November, 2014. Since July 2015, he led the team of LPSC to complete the development and qualification of CE20 cryogenic engine and the C25 stage and 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 realized by LPSC. Fifteen successful satellite missions were also accomplished with the propulsion systems supplied form LPSC.

He energized the development activities of high thrust Semi-cryogenic engine and conceived a fast track hardware realization and test program. The development of throttleable engines for lander craft of Chanradrayaan-2 and first time successful flight of electric propulsion system in GSAT-9 were some of the achievements. He is the recipient of the ‘Space Gold Medal’ from Astronautical Society of India. He received the ‘Merit Award” and ‘Performance Excellence award’ from ISRO and a ‘Team excellence award’ for GSLV Mk-III development.

He is a Fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE), Fellow of Aeronautical Society of India (AeSI), Astronautical Society of India (ASI)and a Corresponding member of International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). Shri. Somanath has widely travelled as delegate and representative of India in UN-COPOUS at Vienna, International Astronautical Federation (IAF)’s International Program Committee at Paris, International Astronautical Congress (IAC) at Hyderabad, Prague, Jerusalem, Mexico and Adelaide.

He is a member of the Technical committee for Space Transportation and also International Project/Program Management Committee of IAF. He has published papers in journals & seminars in the area of structural dynamics and control, dynamic analysis of separation mechanisms, vibration & acoustic testing, launch vehicle design and launch services management.