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The Indian Institute of Space Technology (IIST)


A BUNCH of youngsters dressed in casuals walk out of the low-slung, tile-roofed building located on the shore of the Arabian Sea at Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram. The day’s classes have just ended at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), established by the Department of Space in September 2007, close to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). They belong to the first batch of 138 students (11 of whom are women) who have joined the four-year B.Tech courses in Avionics and Aerospace and the five-year integrated post-graduate programme in Applied Sciences.

Prakhar Agarwal, a tall, bespectacled student from Lucknow, says, “My interest is in aerospace. Nowhere else you can see technology in action when you are studying. Our programme is unique because of its goal. We use space technology for the betterment of humans.” Prateep Basu from Ranchi chips in: “There is a difference between studying in a conventional college and studying in a place that sends up rockets.” Sudha Bendapudi and Megha Garg point out that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) do not offer an undergraduate programme in avionics. “The IIT course deals with aeronautics, that is, flight mechanics. There is not much emphasis on astronautics. The IIST focusses on astronautics,” said Megha.

The IIST is the world’s first space university to offer undergraduate programmes. From this academic year, it will start three post-graduate programmes in areas of specific interest to the ISRO. One student has registered for Ph.D. If things go according to plan, the institute will move to its own spacious campus at Valiamala, 23 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram, in September 2009. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will lay the foundation stone for the campus in July or August.

G. Madhavan Nair, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told Frontline on June 21: “We want to build the IIST as a world-class institute that can produce high-quality manpower in space science and technology. It is a unique set-up. Most colleges offer only post-graduate courses. But here, we want to train the students at a young age and expose them to space science and technology so that they become leaders in this area tomorrow.”

Admission to the IIST is through the IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Examination). The IIT-JEE prepares two lists for admission: the main list and an extended list. Candidates whose names figure in the extended list are eligible to join the IIST.

Besides, students from the main list, who are keen on joining the institute can opt for it. About 4,000 students, who have got through the IIT-JEE in this academic year, are expected to register for admission to the 150 seats in the IIST’s undergraduate programmes.

The institute does not charge tuition or other fees and hostel accommodation is totally free of cost. Besides, the students are given Rs.3,000 every semester as book allowance. Students completing the course with a first class will be absorbed into ISRO. They will be asked to sign a bond that they will work for ISRO for five years. If they jump the bond, they will have to pay Rs.10 lakh to the Department of Space.

Quality manpower

Dr. B.N. Suresh, Director of the institute, who recently retired as VSSC Director, said, “We consider the IIST an investment for our ambitious future programme. The idea is to get bright students into the IIST and train them so that they will get plenty of opportunities to work in ISRO.” The IIST will meet ISRO’s demand for quality manpower for its space programmes.

The vision that suffuses the IIST, according to Suresh, is that “it will be a place where technology, research and academics are integrated seamlessly”. “The students are thrilled at the prospect of working in high-end technology areas. We have triggered their initiative by asking them to do their own projects,” he said. For instance, a group of students has designed a rover that can be used for inter-planetary missions. Another group has designed a remote-controlled aircraft.

Another important initiative of the IIST is to expose its students to experiments that have real-life applications. In the last semester, every student did two experiments at the VSSC laboratories. Some students were asked to assemble a gear-box, dissemble it and prepare a report. Another experiment related to the electro-chemical energy system on Chandrayaan-1, the spacecraft that India plans to send to the moon in September. One other related to a Chandrayaan payload.

What motivated the Department of Space to set up the IIST? Despite the best efforts of ISRO, it was unable to recruit high-quality scientists and engineers during the past 10 years. This situation arose mainly because of the prevailing job-market situation wherein engineering/science students preferred to work for software companies. ISRO was unable to attract talent from the IITs, the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and other prominent universities. At the same time, the Department of Space had planned several ambitious programmes such as Chandrayaan-1 and 2, a manned mission to space, inter-planetary exploration programmes beyond Chandrayaan, and Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch VehicleMark III.

“All these required high-quality human capital. That is when we came upon the idea of starting our own institute to produce engineers and scientists in space science and technology. That propelled the ISRO Chairman to take the initiative,” Suresh explained.

Moreover, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen about the management of human resource in ISRO. After every successful rocket launch, he would invariably ask the ISRO top brass: “How are you going to manage your human resource? Are you able to get them?” When ISRO’s plan to set up the space institute was conveyed to him, he appreciated the move. The Central government gave the approval to set up the IIST in April 2007.

The IIST has attracted a young and talented corps of 26 academics. C.S. Narayanamurthy, who has a Ph.D. from IIT Madras, was teaching in the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, before he joined the institute. He is now the Head of the Department of Physics. Raju K. George is the Head of the Department of Mathematics. P.S. Robi, who heads the Department of Aerospace Engineering, earlier taught at IIT Guwahati.

The syllabi

They said the syllabi were tailored to meet ISRO’s needs. A high-powered committee headed by Prof. R. Natarajan, former Director of IIT Madras and former Chairman of the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), spent 400 man-hours to frame the syllabi. The committee comprised professors from the IITs, the NITs and other institutions. Every department’s board of studies, which consists of teachers from the IITs and ISRO staff, refined the syllabi further.

For instance, the syllabus for B.Tech (Avionics) will cover the entire spectrum of electronics. Students will specialise in digital electronics, control systems, radio frequency systems, computer science and software engineering. The Aerospace programme lays stress on aircraft structure, aerodynamics, flight dynamics, machine dynamics, and so on. The M.Sc. course will focus on astronomy, astrophysics, remote-sensing, planetary science and atmospheric science.

“Students who pass out of the IIST will not require separate training. They can be directly absorbed into any programme of ISRO,” said Suresh.

Prakar Agarwal summed up thus: “When we came here, we were a bunch of students who were fascinated by space science. After we joined the IIST, our horizons have widened and our dreams have started materialising into projects.”

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