A Young Boy’s Journey From Remote Rajasthan to Becoming a Scientist at ISRO

In an interview, Anna Szolucha, a distinguished researcher and faculty member at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Jagiellonian University, speaks with Nitish Shrimal, a scientist at ISRO, about his career path and much more.

Throughout his academic and professional journey, Nitish encountered challenges that tested his resilience, from overcoming language barriers to adapting to unexpected career paths within ISRO. Yet, each obstacle served as a stepping stone, shaping his perspective on hard work and determination.

Attributing the success of Chandrayaan 3, he remarked that the event has instilled a sense of “we can do it” within ISRO and the nation.

Below are excerpts from a conversation between Szolucha and Shrimal, who is also a Chevening scholar. They have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Anna Szolucha [AS]: Could you tell me how your passion for space exploration began? What sparked your interest?

Nitish Shrimal [NS]: I grew up in a village in a remote part of Rajasthan. My family didn’t have many resources and, even in 2007, electricity wasn’t always available. Recognising these challenges, I knew I had to step up to improve my family’s life. It was during my 10th grade that I read about renowned scientists like APJ Abdul Kalam, who later became the President of India, and Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program. Their stories were deeply inspiring. Around the same time, I began reading about the Columbia accident and the tragic loss of Kalpana Chawla, further igniting my fascination with space. This eventually led me to learn about the formal paths to join space organisations like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

However, I wasn’t sure if I could ever get into ISRO. Back then, it was considered as prestigious and competitive as NASA or the European Space Agency, with extremely challenging entrance exams. I diligently prepared for the IIT-JEE entrance exam. Unfortunately, I missed the qualifying mark by a single point. 

I had also applied to a college called the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, which was a new college at that time. It wasn’t as prestigious then, but it was the only college in India dedicated to space studies. I chose Aerospace Engineering and graduated in 2016.

However, when I was in college, I faced a challenge because my primary language was Hindi, which is mostly spoken in the northern part of India. But B.Tech and bachelor’s degrees in Engineering are usually taught in English, so I had to learn and interpret engineering concepts in English and that was a significant challenge. I overcame that challenge and am fluent in it now. That was a personal achievement for me at that time, being able to learn a foreign language and excel at it.

Then in my final year of the B.Tech program, I met Professor R.V. Ramanan, who became my mentor. He taught spaceflight mechanics and he was also a deputy project director in Chandrayaan-1, which was India’s first Moon mission. I was very fortunate to learn the subject from such an expert. He was very humble and interactive, and he made sure that everyone in the class understood the material. He wouldn’t move on to the next topic until even the student in the last row understood the problem and could solve it. I was very impressed with him so I requested him to be my supervisor and he agreed.

I did my first internship on Sun synchronous polar orbit design at ISTRAC Bangalore, which is a tracking station for ISRO. The project that I also did was under Professor Ramanan’s guidance and it was on Earth re-entry trajectory optimisation using angle of attack modulation for a shift in landing site. So, suppose a spacecraft has to land on a particular landing site, but due to some reason, it needs to land on a different site, right? What changes would the spacecraft need to make in orbit at entry conditions? This was a fascinating project, and it sparked my interest in orbital mechanics. I wanted to pursue my career in orbital mechanics. I was very passionate about it.

However, when it came to recruitment in ISRO, the centre is allocated randomly. So, I was allocated to the Liquid Propulsion System Centre, where all the work is about propulsion. I was a little disappointed at that time that I didn’t get the field I wanted to work in, but it was also a good time to reflect. As I started working, my interest in propulsion grew. I’ve been working in this area for about eight years now. This experience taught me that whatever happens in life, happens for a reason, and in the long run, it doesn’t matter whether you get the subject you were initially interested in or not. We always adapt. It’s human nature to always adapt, even though it takes time, and you only realise it later.

I started my journey as a propulsion engineer at ISRO in 2016. After five years, I was looking for a change and new career opportunities. That’s when I saw a post from one of my colleagues that said, “I can’t keep calm, I was chosen for Chevening!” That’s the motto of the Chevening scholarship, and it sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know more about it. When I found out that the Chevening scholarship was a fully funded scholarship for all Commonwealth country professionals, I decided to apply for it, and I got it! It was a lot of hard work. The application process is a year long, and if you’re not at your best at any stage, you won’t get it. If I hadn’t gotten it, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Surrey on my own financial resources, so this was a much-needed scholarship. Once I secured it, I was over the moon, and I told myself that I had to make the most of this one year.

I participated in all sorts of activities, including volunteering. I participated in many university activities and even received the Employability award because I spent over 100 hours in workshops and volunteering activities. I also enrolled in an additional module, the Global Graduate Award: Introduction to Sustainability. In addition to my courses, I volunteered for One Young World, which was held in Manchester that year. I wanted to make the most of this year because it was a hard-earned opportunity, and I wanted to excel in it. I also knew this incredible opportunity allowed me to travel. I came to the UK to immerse myself in the culture, particularly the space culture. I visited Glasgow and, towards the end of my stay, ventured into Europe, visiting Pisa and Milan before returning to re-join ISRO. After my return, I was awarded the opportunity to work on Chandrayaan 3.

AS: The Chevening scholarship application process coincided with recruitment for New Space India Limited (NSIL). You were offered a position at NSIL but declined, even before knowing the scholarship outcome. This suggests it held great importance. Why was traveling to the UK and gaining that experience so crucial for you?

NS: I saw the New Space India Limited (NSIL) interview as a practice run. My primary goal was Chevening. Success at NSIL would boost my confidence for Chevening. However, once I got an offer letter from NSIL Deputy Manager post, I became interested in NSIL’s mission to privatise India’s space sector. The position as a deputy manager, one of the organisation’s initial members, was very appealing. However, I had to decline as it wouldn’t allow further studies within the first four to five years, and pursuing studies was a strong personal desire.

While my background is in aerospace engineering, with five years of propulsion experience, I lacked a holistic understanding of spacecraft operations. Other subsystems like thermal, AGNC, AOCS and Spacecraft Structures remained unfamiliar. Acquiring this knowledge would be advantageous in the long run, especially for future leadership roles in ISRO, where understanding how all subsystems interact is crucial.

Thankfully, the one-year Master’s degree program allowed the organisation to grant me leave. While a two-year program, more common in India and other countries, would have been challenging to pursue, the one-year format aligned with my availability perfectly.

Additionally, I harboured personal interests. As a cricket enthusiast, the scholarship presented an opportunity to visit Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket, and participate in related activities. Visiting filming locations for the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones brought me immense personal pleasure.

While I packed a lot into my trip, I never compromised my studies. In fact, I received the Cable & Wireless Award for Best Overall Performance in my cohort at the University of Surrey. Balancing it all required discipline and dedication but it was crucial to satisfy my cultural curiosity and experience this new world while still excelling in my studies. 

AS: You juggle a lot, balancing your current work at ISRO, your education and even a scholarship. Could you tell me about your concept of hard work? What role does it play in your life and how do you define it?

NS: In college, I came across the idea that with AI and other advancements, “smart hard work” would replace hard work as the key to success in the future. I embraced that notion and believed it for a while. However, joining ISRO made me realise that smart hard work can sometimes lead to skipping crucial steps in the process. You jump from point A to point B, but miss out on the valuable learning in between. True success, I’ve discovered, lies in embracing the “real hard work” that involves going through the entire process. This approach has yielded far more knowledge than shortcuts ever could. So, for me, hard work means fully engaging with the process, not finding ways to circumvent it.

AS: What motivates you in your current work as a space propulsion engineer? Who or what are you working for? What is your mission?

NS: While I enjoy my current position, I have a strong desire to share the knowledge I’ve gained. Coming from a humble background, I understand how unaware many people, especially in my village, are about space technology and its potential benefits for humanity. Just as I once struggled to navigate the path to ISRO, I see a gap in knowledge and accessibility that needs bridging. On a personal level, I try to connect with college students by offering career guidance, participating in podcasts and webinars (including some introductory sessions on rocket propulsion), and starting with basic principles like how a balloon flies, to spark curiosity in young minds.

During my search for a scholarship, I came across various options like the Chevening Fulbright and DAAD. Inspired to help others, I created a YouTube channel called ‘Your Scholar Guide’ to offer insights and guidance on scholarship opportunities. The channel received positive feedback and gained over 1,500 subscribers within six months.

One challenge I faced was obtaining an Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate for studying in the UK. This certificate, required for certain courses with potential misuse of sensitive technology, delayed my progress due to processing time and restrictions on specific keywords. Originally applying for Space Engineering at the University of Surrey, I had to switch to Satellite Communication Engineering within a short timeframe. Convincing both the Chevening scholarship committee and the University of Surrey required additional effort.

It highlighted a common issue faced by international students seeking ATAS certificates, which often leads to delays and confusion. To address this, I created a video explaining the application process, which gained significant views. While currently inactive, I plan to resume this initiative once I have more time from my professional commitments.

AS: As an alumnus of both the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology and the Chevening scholarship program, you have access to some impressive alumni networks. Many in the Indian space industry have spoken about the crucial role these networks play in their careers. Could you share your experience and highlight their importance to you?

NS: Absolutely. Networking undeniably plays a major role in shaping career trajectories. In fact, my professional network began with Professor Ramanan, who generously provided crucial reference letters for my Chevening application. His support made a significant difference. He also connected me with Meg Bhatnagar, a senior alumnus with coding expertise, who helped me overcome a challenge with my Earth re-entry trajectory optimization problem.

Furthermore, within my first batch at IIST, Vasu, a senior I met during an interaction at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, shared his experience as the first Chevening scholar there. He graciously explained the application process and guided me through it. This reinforced an important lesson: having someone available to answer questions and offer support makes reaching any goal, be it a scholarship, job or another aspiration, considerably smoother. It’s like having a lifeline in a challenging sea.

Mentorship is equally vital, regardless of career stage. Networking provided me with invaluable mentorship at various points in my journey: securing employment at ISRO, embarking on the Chevening scholarship, and now exploring opportunities in Europe with the support of Professor Andrea Lucca, my former supervisor at Surrey, who will be a referee for me based on his familiarity with my work. Essentially, networking offers continuous support and opens doors throughout your career.

Even currently, I actively engage with the CEO of Skyroot, India’s first private Space Company, demonstrating the ongoing benefits of networking.

AS: After graduating, you interned at ISRO. Reflecting on your first interactions there, what were your initial impressions of the organization?

NS: As a student, I perceived ISRO as heavily guarded, which is understandable for any institute of its kind. While you’re inside, you don’t feel it, but as an outsider, the security measures are evident. However, the people were friendly. During my bachelors internship, my guide at ISTRAC, Padma Dev Mishra, guided my friend and me throughout the project. He explained everything clearly and, being enthusiastic students, we completed the work that was supposed to take us six months in just a month. 

Years later, when I worked on the Chandrayaan 3 project and had to visit ISTRAC, the same centre for tracking propulsion performance of spacecraft, I met Mr. Mishra again. He had grown into a leadership position by then. Despite the seven-year gap, he recognised me and fondly recalled our collaboration. In fact, on the day Chandrayaan 3 landed on the Moon, I saw him commentating on the mission live on television. It was surreal to remember him as my guide and witness his professional journey. I captured a screenshot of him on TV and shared it on my WhatsApp status, highlighting how the person I once worked with was now a prominent figure in the mission. Such serendipitous connections bring little joys to life.

AS: You’ve likely encountered the American perspective on space as the “final frontier,” implying a need for conquest. Some contend this view is ethnocentric. Could you share your perspective on this metaphor and how you envision outer space?

NS: Unlike conquering, I see space exploration as a shared endeavour for the betterment of humanity. India’s space program has primarily focused on development and growth, providing crucial telecommunication infrastructure that has significantly boosted our education and IT sectors. Space activities also support disaster management, minimizing losses during cyclones, for example. These are valuable by-products of exploration.

From an Indian perspective, I believe in harmony and collective well-being. Space exploration should serve these values. Of course, understanding our place in the universe, searching for potential life elsewhere, and pursuing lunar and Martian missions are all important endeavours. However, I stand against a competitive space race.

AS: How do you envision India’s role in the international space sector? What are its strengths and how can it contribute more significantly?

NS: Recent surveys indicate that India’s contribution to the global space economy stands at merely 3%, highlighting our immense potential in this arena. Our young population, with 60-70% falling between 30 and 40 years old, represents a significant strength. However, proper guidance and a well-defined path are crucial. The success of Chandrayaan 3 has instilled a sense of “we can do it” within ISRO and the nation. While the Chandrayaan 2 setback raised doubts, Chandrayaan 3’s achievement has bolstered my personal confidence in ISRO’s capabilities as well. As an expert in my specific subsystem, witnessing such collective success strengthens my trust in the team. The ongoing lunar and Aditya missions further fuel our aspirations for space exploration.

India has the potential to be a leading force in space programs, as evidenced by the planned Chandrayaan 4 sample return mission. Additionally, the XPoSat mission, a collaborative effort between NASA and ISRO, launched on January 1, 2024, demonstrates our growing international partnerships.

AS: Your long-term ambition was to establish your own space company in India. Does this aspiration remain your ultimate goal?

NS: Absolutely, I still harbour that ambition, but my timeline has shifted. While two years ago I envisioned starting the company within six or seven years, I now believe that additional expertise and knowledge are key before embarking on this venture. My current goal is to gain further experience in the European or UK space sectors, potentially accompanied by a Master’s degree in business. I also have specific interests in demonstrating green propulsion technology and its potential role in spacecraft reusability. Establishing my own company remains a long-term objective, and although the timeframe has adjusted, the fundamental goal endures as my career path unfolds.

AS: What sparked your interest in green propulsion? What drives you to pursue this particular ambition?

NS: Earth’s resources are rapidly depleting. Conventional space and launch vehicle propellants like monomethyl hydrazine and N2O4 pose significant health and environmental risks. They’re carcinogenic, require extensive safety measures, and raise launch costs. My goal is to develop “green” propellants that are safer to handle, have no adverse health effects, and minimize environmental impact. Achieving these three goals would benefit people’s health, protect the environment, and potentially reduce costs.

AS: Some prominent ISRO leaders, like APJ Abdul Kalam, were known for their spiritual inclinations and philosophical views on space exploration. The current chairman has also been seen visiting temples before crucial launches. How do you view the relationship between spirituality and space exploration?

NS: I see them as distinct realms. One pertains to inner peace and mental well-being, the other to one’s professional domain. Good mental health can undoubtedly enhance performance in any profession, including space exploration. However, I believe they remain separate aspects. Inner peace can benefit various aspects of life, from personal relationships and finances to hobbies and networking. While someone might be spiritual and not interested in space, or vice versa, I don’t see an inherent connection between the two.

AS: Some perceive a contradiction between being a scientist and having spiritual beliefs in a higher power. You, however, view them as complementary. Is that accurate?

NS: Absolutely. They can be complementary, and managing them effectively is crucial. In trajectory design, we model potential errors caused by lunar gravity, solar perturbations, and atmospheric drag. However, for low-altitude targets, pinpointing these errors with absolute accuracy is impossible. There will always be some margin of error. In those instances, I believe in a higher power that minimizes these uncontrollable factors. While our current technology doesn’t offer a fully accurate model of Earth’s gravity, we do our job diligently, acknowledging that there’s a higher dimension at play that ultimately guides things towards the right outcome.

AS: To conclude, would you personally cherish the opportunity to travel to space, perhaps to the Moon or Mars?

NS: Absolutely! Witnessing astronauts perform spacewalks or journey to space stations always sparks wonder in me. The sheer thrill of observing Earth from outer space, appreciating its beauty and acknowledging it as our sole home in this vast universe, would be unparalleled. If possible, I wouldn’t limit myself to the Moon – both Mars and beyond beckon me.

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