Gita Aravamudan

Professor Satish Dhawan was a handsome man, with the looks and bearing of a 1950s Hollywood film star. As we stood by him for the last time in his Bangalore home, I was struck by the expression on his face. In death as in life, Professor Dhawan had dignity. And charm.

I almost expected him to get up with that twinkle in his eye and say, "You forget that young man of yours. Come, I'll tell you what to write about the space programme."

That was a little joke between us. When Professor Dhawan, who died in the first week of the new year, took over India's space programme in the early 1970s, my husband was a young engineer in charge of the small rocket-launching station in Thumba, Kerala, and I was just starting out as a journalist. We had decided I wouldn't write about the space programme as there was bound to be a clash of interests. Professor Dhawan learnt about this almost as soon as he got to know us both. And he loved to pull my leg!

When he took over the space programme, the morale of his new team was at its nadir. Vikram Sarabhai, the man who had dreamt the dream, had died suddenly in his sleep one night. His rather awesome mantle had fallen on the shoulders of this aeronautics professor from the Indian Institute of Science -- an outsider.

Sarabhai's team of handpicked young engineers was apprehensive. What would the new man be like? Was he very Westernised? Would he be standoffish? How would he fit into the groove vacated by the kurta- and slipper-clad Sarabhai who could make each one feel special and wanted?

Professor Dhawan's academic credentials were awesome. He had a BA in maths and physics, an MA in English literature, a BE in mechanical engineering, an MS in aeronautical engineering from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate from Caltech. At age 42, he had become the youngest director of the Indian Institute of Science, a post he continued to hold even after he took over the space programme.

Vikram Sarabhai had died in his 50s. He had big dreams, but would they ever become reality?

Professor Dhawan, who was also then in his early 50s, took over without any fanfare. And soon it seemed as if he had always been there. Sarabhai was not forgotten. But now his tenuous dream assumed muscles and sinews. The Indian Space Research Organisation became an entity.

Professor Dhawan, it turned out, was a builder and a no-nonsense man. His vision was tougher, more streamlined and rooted in reality. His method of functioning was similar to that of Sarabhai and yet so different. He too could charm his scientists into giving of their very best. He too knew how to listen. And he also knew how to get things moving when they had to move.

He was also an intensely private man who shunned the limelight. Generous when it came to apportioning credit, he hardly took centre stage, not even after a successful launch when the limelight is so beckoning.

Professor Dhawan's years at the helm were marked by growth. Everything grew in size and potential. He planned big and set deadlines. He valued people's opinion, and once he put someone on a job, he never interfered.

When it was time for him to step down, he left as he came -- without fanfare. He had already groomed his successor, and he was quite comfortable in his new avatar as 'Bheeshma Pitamaha'. Even after he retired, Professor Dhawan continued to go to his office at the ISRO headquarters every day. As a member of the Space Commission, he continued to guide the programme as it reached unprecedented heights. And, as always, engineers of varying ranks flocked to him for technical guidance.

And then there was his fascination with the aerodynamics of bird flight. The launching station at Sriharikota provided plenty of material. Migrant birds from all over the world come to the Pulicat Lake surrounding this island. Others lived in the forests surrounding the launch pads.

When Professor Dhawan arrived at Sriharikota, everyone pitched in to help. Rocket engineers vied with professional birdwatchers and the department photographers to help him compile material for his research. The result was a beautiful little monograph on bird flight.

For a man who pioneered satellite technology in the country, Professor Dhawan shunned the TV simply because he couldn't bear to see how this complex technology was being misused. He was an idealist to the end. The man who gave wings to the people he worked with never sought a halo of his own.

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