Bengaluru: When the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) was founded in 2007, it was meant to launch a new generation of young space scientists into the control rooms of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The reality is turning out to be somewhat of a misfire.
Starting from the very first batch that joined ISRO in 2011, former IIST students have been quitting the organisation, even before their stipulated contract ends, paying lakhs out of their pocket to leave.
What experiences do these space engineers, unique to Asia, have at ISRO — and what is it that’s driving them away, leading to such a high turnover rate for younger employees?
The absence of a culture of innovation and a lack of focus on research were among the issues that cropped up when ThePrint spoke to IIST graduates and former ISRO employees, to understand the daily working lives of the students who go from India’s space university to India’s space agency.
How IIST works
Situated in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, IIST is Asia’s first university for the study of space. Together with ISRO, it comes under the aegis of the Department of Space.
Set up to meet ISRO’s rising need for engineers, the autonomous deemed university offers both B.Tech and integrated M.Tech courses, focussed around three main areas — aerospace engineering, avionics, and physical sciences. Students go through a three- or four-year programme, with roughly 160 students per batch.
Upon graduation, the students are typically “absorbed” by ISRO, subject to available positions. They are contractually obligated to work at the agency for a minimum of three years, a necessary condition for acceptance into IIST.
The very first stumbling block comes when students sign up for placements at ISRO.
“We are allowed to pick the centres we want to work at, but are not allowed to apply to specific available positions,” explained Neha Chohan, a Finland-based space engineer who worked at ISRO for four years after graduation from IIST.
Students are typically informed of the number of openings available at ISRO’s different centres spread across the country geographically (and within Bengaluru), but have no choice in picking what they want to work on. This has resulted in many graduating with one specialisation and ending up working in another.
“We were absolutely not given any choice with respect to work. It was randomly assigned, or at least the assignment procedure for roles wasn’t disclosed,” said Chohan. “This was unfair because you graduate with a speciality and should at least be allowed to work in it.”
In contrast, members of the public who apply through ISRO’s public recruitment exams are made familiar with the available positions and apply to those.
The pay for a fresh batch of graduates joining ISRO is typically higher than the initial salary offered to graduates joining IT companies, but from there, the growth stalls. As government employees, all ISRO employees receive fixed and structured pay rises after every year.
However, the health and dental benefits are unparalleled, said Parth Sharma, who worked at ISRO from 2013 to 2021.
Working at ISRO
“On the technical side of things, it feels like being inside a big production house,” said Chohan. “There are so many things happening. Everywhere you go, you learn something new and get to see projects from conception to fitting in the launch vehicle and going to space. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Others ThePrint spoke to echoed the sentiment.
“The people are also very approachable, including senior engineers and well-known names,” said Sharma. “All the bosses I had in my eight years were excellent and supportive, and helped me gain wide exposure.”
Both men and women stressed that the culture is very inclusive of women. While there is a visible lack of women in the senior-most positions at the Department of Space, several female engineers have led missions and teams.
“My colleagues and seniors were wonderful too,” said a space startup founder, who had been posted to Sriharikota and joined from the very first batch of IIST graduates — and quit after just two years.
“But people quit for other reasons. In Sriharikota where I was posted, there are no hours, there are regular launches throughout the year, it’s extremely stressful, very hot, and the attrition rate is very very high,” added the founder.
At other centres too, once the novelty of being at ISRO, seeing a Kalam walk into a room to chat with you, and observing satellites being fitted into launch vehicles wears off, graduates said they quickly started to realise that the organisation only colours within well-established lines.
“There is a huge aversion to risk and attempting anything new,” said a Germany-based space engineer who worked at ISRO for five years. “There is a real lack of innovation. There have been unfortunate failures in the past for which people were penalised, including the unfortunate Devas incident where people were taken to court, so there is a fear of taking ownership for anything new.”
The common refrain among IIST graduates deciding to quit ISRO is: There is nothing more to learn.
Quitting to study
ISRO runs like a factory, said the graduates, with emphasis on production and launch numbers. “The entire emphasis is on how many launches we can make in a year, and then repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again,” said Chohan. “It’s called the Indian Space Research Organisation, but where’s the research?”
ISRO is famed for its consistently reliable polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV), which the agency fondly calls its workhorse. The organisation has more than 50 international satellite customers, and has performed record launches of over 100 satellites in one go.
“Launching satellites constantly keeps the focus on profits. The motivation for a government organisation should have been the opposite,” said Chohan. She quit a year before fulfilling her contract, paying the fee and enrolling for a graduate degree in Europe.
Most IIST graduates who enter ISRO to eventually quit do so to pursue a master’s degree rather than take up a job elsewhere, said the startup founder. He quit after two years at ISRO when he had signed up for a five-year contract, paying Rs 10 lakh out of his own pocket. He went on to pursue a graduate degree in Europe, where many former Sriharikota employees also find the weather more favourable.
“There were many MoUs signed,” said the Germany-based engineer. “But there has been no update on any of them. Not to mention, any time there is a new chairperson, all focus gets reoriented. There isn’t much freedom to dabble in anything new either.” The engineer had fulfilled the contractually obligatory five years at ISRO, and immediately quit to pursue a graduate degree and then work in Europe.
“After completing eight years, I felt like I had learned whatever I could at ISRO,” said Sharma. “After a point, you start getting managerial work as younger people join, and I was more interested in working in a startup-like culture, where things are moving.” Sharma is now employed by the satellite data and analytics firm SatSure in Bengaluru.
For anything that’s flown, space heritage is established and the vehicle is considered safe to fly. To do anything beyond would be asking for a long bureaucratic process with many senior engineers unwilling to risk the loss of reputation in the event of failure, said Chohan.
This report has been updated to correct that the first batch joined ISRO in 2011, and Parth Sharma worked at ISRO between 2013 and 2021.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)