Home News A Young Boy’s Path From a Remote Area of Rajasthan to ISRO as a Scientist

A Young Boy’s Path From a Remote Area of Rajasthan to ISRO as a Scientist

A Young Boy’s Path From a Remote Area of Rajasthan to ISRO as a Scientist

Nitish Shrimal has accomplished everything, from mastering the English language to finishing his bachelor’s program to being awarded the esteemed Chevening scholarship. He now wants people from lowly origins like himself to have access to this knowledge.

In a Discussion, Anna Szolucha, a respected researcher and teacher at Jagiellonian University’s Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, discusses career journeys and more with Nitish Shrimal, a scientist working at ISRO.

During his academic and professional journey, Nitish faced various challenges that put his resilience to the test, such as overcoming language barriers and navigating unexpected career shifts within ISRO. However, each hurdle became a stepping stone, molding his outlook on the importance of perseverance and dedication.

Speaking about the success of Chandrayaan 3, he noted that the achievement has fostered a collective belief of “we can do it” among both ISRO and the nation.

Here are some lightly edited excerpts from a discussion between Szolucha and Shrimal, who is also a Chevening scholar.

Anna Szolucha [AS]: Can you share what initially sparked your interest in space exploration and how your passion for it began?

Nitish Shrimal [NS]: I grew up in a village in a remote part of Rajasthan. My family faced many challenges, with limited resources and sporadic access to electricity even in 2007. Seeing these struggles, I felt a responsibility to uplift my family’s life. It was during my 10th grade that I came across the stories of renowned scientists like APJ Abdul Kalam, who later became the President of India, and Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer of the Indian space program. Their journeys deeply inspired me. Around the same time, I learned about the Columbia accident and the tragic loss of Kalpana Chawla, which further fueled my fascination with space exploration. This curiosity eventually led me to discover the formal pathways to join esteemed space organizations like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

However, I was unsure if I could ever make it into ISRO. At that time, it was regarded as prestigious and competitive as NASA or the European Space Agency, with incredibly tough entrance exams. I dedicatedly prepared for the IIT-JEE entrance exam. Sadly, I fell short of the qualifying mark by just one point.

I had also applied to a college called the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, which was relatively new at the time. While it wasn’t as renowned back then, it stood out as the only college in India solely dedicated to space studies. Opting for Aerospace Engineering, I graduated from there in 2016.

During my college years, I encountered a significant hurdle because my primary language was Hindi, which is predominantly spoken in the northern part of India. However, engineering programs like B.Tech are typically taught in English. Therefore, I had to grasp and comprehend engineering concepts in English, which posed a considerable challenge for me. Nonetheless, I persevered and conquered this obstacle. Now, I am fluent in English, which was a notable personal achievement for me back then—being able to learn a foreign language and excel in it.

In my final year of the B.Tech program, I had the privilege of meeting Professor R.V. Ramanan, who became my mentor. He taught spaceflight mechanics and had also served as a deputy project director in Chandrayaan-1, India’s inaugural Moon mission. Learning from such an esteemed expert was a stroke of luck for me. Professor Ramanan was incredibly humble and interactive, ensuring that every student in the class grasped the material. He wouldn’t progress to the next topic until even the student in the last row understood the problem and could solve it. His dedication deeply impressed me, so I approached him to be my supervisor, and thankfully, he agreed.

For my first internship, I worked on Sun synchronous polar orbit design at ISTRAC Bangalore, a tracking station for ISRO. Additionally, I undertook a project under Professor Ramanan’s guidance, focusing on Earth re-entry trajectory optimization using angle of attack modulation to adjust landing sites. Essentially, if a spacecraft needed to land on a different site than planned, what adjustments would be necessary in orbit and entry conditions? This project was enthralling and ignited my passion for orbital mechanics. From then on, I was determined to pursue a career in this field, driven by my deep-seated passion for it.

However, during the recruitment process at ISRO, the allocation of centers is done randomly. Consequently, I was assigned to the Liquid Propulsion System Centre, where the focus is primarily on propulsion. Initially, I felt a bit disheartened as it wasn’t the field I had hoped to work in. Yet, this turned out to be a valuable moment for self-reflection. As I delved into my work, my interest in propulsion gradually blossomed. Over the course of eight years, I’ve dedicated myself to this area. This experience taught me an important lesson: in life, things happen for a reason, and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t always matter whether you end up in your initially desired field or not. We humans have a remarkable capacity to adapt, even if it takes time, and often, we only realize its significance later on.

In 2016, I began my journey as a propulsion engineer at ISRO. Five years later, seeking new opportunities, I stumbled upon a post from a colleague proclaiming, “I can’t keep calm, I was chosen for Chevening!” Intrigued by this, I delved deeper into what the Chevening scholarship entailed. Upon learning that it offered fully funded opportunities for professionals from Commonwealth countries, I decided to apply. It was a rigorous year-long process, demanding my best at every stage. Securing this scholarship was crucial; without it, pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Surrey would have been beyond my financial means. Once I received the news of my acceptance, I was ecstatic and resolved to make the most of this golden opportunity during the year ahead.

During my time as a Chevening scholar, I was engaged in a wide array of activities, including volunteering and university events. My dedication was recognized when I received the Employability award for investing over 100 hours in workshops and volunteer work. Additionally, I expanded my learning by enrolling in an extra module, the Global Graduate Award: Introduction to Sustainability. Beyond academics, I volunteered for One Young World, held in Manchester that year. I was determined to maximize this opportunity, knowing it was hard-earned. Moreover, I was eager to explore and immerse myself in the UK’s culture, especially its space culture. My travels took me to Glasgow, and as my time drew to a close, I ventured into Europe, visiting Pisa and Milan before returning to ISRO. Upon my return, I was privileged to be assigned to work on Chandrayaan 3, further affirming the value of my experiences abroad.

AS: The application process for the Chevening scholarship aligned with the recruitment for New Space India Limited (NSIL), where you were offered a position but declined it even before knowing the scholarship outcome. This decision suggests that the scholarship held significant importance for you. Could you elaborate on why traveling to the UK and gaining that experience was so crucial for you?

NS: Viewing the New Space India Limited (NSIL) interview as a rehearsal, my main focus remained on the Chevening scholarship. Succeeding at NSIL would have boosted my confidence for Chevening. However, upon receiving an offer letter for the NSIL Deputy Manager position, I became intrigued by NSIL’s mission to privatize India’s space sector. The opportunity to serve as a deputy manager, among the organization’s founding members, was undeniably appealing. Nevertheless, I had to decline the offer as it would have restricted further studies for the initial four to five years, and pursuing further education was a strong personal aspiration of mine.

While my expertise lies in aerospace engineering, with five years of experience in propulsion, I recognized a gap in my understanding of spacecraft operations. Subsystems such as thermal, AGNC, AOCS, and spacecraft structures were areas I hadn’t explored extensively. I realized that gaining proficiency in these areas would be beneficial in the long term, particularly for potential leadership roles in ISRO. In such positions, having a comprehensive understanding of how all subsystems interact is vital for effective decision-making and problem-solving.

Fortunately, the one-year Master’s degree program aligned with the organization’s ability to grant me leave. While a two-year program, more common in India and other countries, might have posed challenges for me to pursue, the one-year format fit seamlessly with my availability.

Moreover, I had personal interests that I wished to pursue. As a cricket enthusiast, the scholarship provided me with the chance to visit Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket, and engage in related activities. Exploring filming locations for popular series like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones also brought me great personal joy.

Throughout my trip, I managed to fit in numerous activities without ever compromising my studies. In fact, I was honored to receive the Cable & Wireless Award for Best Overall Performance in my cohort at the University of Surrey. Achieving this balance demanded discipline and dedication, but it was essential for me to satisfy my cultural curiosity and immerse myself in this new world while also excelling academically.

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

NS: During college, I encountered the notion that with advancements like AI, “smart hard work” would supersede traditional hard work as the pathway to success in the future. I embraced this idea for a while. However, my experience at ISRO taught me otherwise. I realized that relying solely on “smart hard work” could sometimes lead to skipping essential steps in the process. While you may jump from point A to point B, you miss out on the valuable learning experiences in between. True success, I’ve come to understand, lies in embracing “real hard work,” which involves fully engaging with the entire process. This approach has provided me with far more knowledge and growth than shortcuts ever could. So, for me, hard work means committing to the process wholeheartedly, rather than seeking ways to bypass it.

AS: What drives your motivation as a space propulsion engineer at ISRO? Who or what inspires your work, and what is your mission?

NS: While I find fulfillment in my current role, I am driven by a deep-seated desire to share the knowledge I’ve acquired. Coming from a humble background, I recognize the lack of awareness among many, especially in my village, regarding space technology and its potential benefits for humanity. Having experienced the challenges of navigating the path to ISRO myself, I am keenly aware of the gap in knowledge and accessibility that needs addressing. On a personal level, I strive to connect with college students by providing career guidance, participating in podcasts and webinars (including introductory sessions on rocket propulsion), and initiating discussions on fundamental principles such as how a balloon flies, with the aim of igniting curiosity in young minds.

In my quest for scholarships, I explored various options like Chevening, Fulbright, and DAAD. Driven by a desire to assist others, I launched a YouTube channel called ‘Your Scholar Guide’ to share insights and guidance on scholarship opportunities. The channel garnered positive feedback and amassed over 1,500 subscribers within just six months.

One challenge I encountered was obtaining an Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate for my studies in the UK. This certificate, necessary for certain courses involving potentially sensitive technology, posed a delay due to processing time and restrictions on specific keywords. Initially applying for Space Engineering at the University of Surrey, I had to swiftly switch to Satellite Communication Engineering. Convincing both the Chevening scholarship committee and the University of Surrey required additional effort.

It underscored a prevalent challenge encountered by international students seeking ATAS certificates, often resulting in delays and confusion. To tackle this issue, I produced a video elucidating the application process, which garnered substantial views. Although presently inactive, I intend to revive this initiative once I can allocate more time from my professional obligations.

AS: As a graduate of both the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology and the Chevening scholarship program, you have access to some remarkable alumni networks. Numerous professionals in the Indian space industry have emphasized the pivotal role these networks play in their careers. Could you please share your experience and underscore their significance to you?

NS: Absolutely. Networking undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in shaping career paths. In my experience, my professional network began with Professor Ramanan, who graciously provided crucial reference letters for my Chevening application. His support made a significant difference in my journey. Furthermore, he facilitated my connection with Meg Bhatnagar, a senior alumna with coding expertise, who assisted me in overcoming a challenge related to my Earth re-entry trajectory optimization problem. These connections have been instrumental in my career growth and problem-solving endeavors.

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

Mentorship holds equal importance regardless of career stage. Networking has provided me with invaluable mentorship at various junctures in my journey: from securing employment at ISRO, to embarking on the Chevening scholarship, and now, as I explore opportunities in Europe with the guidance of Professor Andrea Lucca, my former supervisor at Surrey, who will serve as a referee based on his familiarity with my work. Essentially, networking offers continuous support and opens doors throughout one’s career, facilitating growth and development at every step.

Even now, I maintain active engagement with the CEO of Skyroot, India’s first private space company, showcasing the enduring benefits of networking.

AS: Looking back on your early days at ISRO after graduating, what were your initial impressions of the organization during your first interactions there?

NS: As a student, I initially perceived ISRO as heavily guarded, which is understandable given the nature of its work. While inside the premises, the security measures didn’t feel intrusive, but from an outsider’s perspective, they were quite apparent. However, what stood out most to me were the people. During my bachelor’s internship, my guide at ISTRAC, Padma Dev Mishra, was incredibly welcoming and helpful. He patiently guided my friend and me through the project, explaining everything clearly. Fueled by our enthusiasm as students, we managed to complete the work that was expected to take six months in just one.

Years later, during my involvement in the Chandrayaan 3 project, I had the opportunity to visit ISTRAC once again, the same center where spacecraft propulsion performance is tracked. It was there that I encountered Mr. Mishra once more. Remarkably, he had ascended to a leadership position since our initial collaboration. Despite the seven-year gap, he recognized me and warmly reminisced about our past collaboration. What struck me even more was witnessing him commentating on the Chandrayaan 3 mission live on television on the day it landed on the Moon. It was a surreal experience, remembering him as my guide and witnessing his remarkable professional journey unfold before my eyes. I captured a screenshot of him on TV and shared it on my WhatsApp status, highlighting how the person I once worked with had become a prominent figure in the mission. These serendipitous connections truly bring little joy to life.

AS: You’ve probably encountered the American perspective on space, often depicted as the “final frontier,” suggesting a sense of conquest. Some argue that this viewpoint is ethnocentric. I’m curious to hear your perspective on this metaphor and how you envision outer space.

NS: Unlike the notion of conquest, I view space exploration as a collaborative effort aimed at enhancing the well-being of humanity. India’s space program has prioritized development and progress, particularly through the establishment of vital telecommunication infrastructure. This infrastructure has played a significant role in the growth of our education and IT sectors. Additionally, space activities contribute to disaster management efforts, helping to mitigate losses during events like cyclones. These tangible benefits are invaluable by-products of our exploration endeavors.

From an Indian perspective, I firmly believe in harmony and collective well-being, and I think space exploration should be aligned with these values. While endeavors like understanding our place in the universe, searching for potential life elsewhere, and pursuing lunar and Martian missions are undoubtedly important, I am opposed to the idea of engaging in a competitive space race. Instead, I advocate for cooperation and collaboration among nations to ensure that space exploration benefits all of humanity and fosters unity rather than division.

AS: What part do you see India playing in the global space industry? What are its advantages and how can it make a bigger impact?

NS: Recent surveys reveal that India’s contribution to the global space economy currently stands at just 3%, underscoring our significant untapped potential in this field. One of our major strengths lies in our youthful population, with 60-70% falling between the ages of 30 and 40, presenting a formidable resource. However, proper guidance and a clearly defined trajectory are essential to harness this potential effectively. The success of Chandrayaan 3 has fostered a renewed sense of confidence and determination within both ISRO and the nation as a whole. While the setback experienced during Chandrayaan 2 may have raised doubts, the triumph of Chandrayaan 3 has reinstated my personal faith in ISRO’s capabilities. As an expert in my specific subsystem, witnessing such collective success further solidifies my trust in the team’s abilities. Moreover, ongoing missions to the moon and the Aditya mission to study the sun serve to bolster our aspirations for continued advancements in space exploration.

India indeed possesses the potential to emerge as a formidable force in space programs, exemplified by initiatives like the upcoming Chandrayaan 4 sample return mission. Furthermore, the XPoSat mission, a joint endeavor between NASA and ISRO, which launched on January 1, 2024, serves as a testament to our expanding international partnerships. These endeavors underscore India’s growing stature in the global space community and pave the way for further collaborative efforts on a global scale.

AS: Previously, you expressed a long-term ambition to establish your own space company in India. Does this aspiration continue to be your ultimate goal?

NS: Absolutely, my ambition to establish my own space company in India still burns brightly. However, I’ve adjusted my timeline. While two years ago, I aimed to launch the company within six or seven years, I now recognize the importance of acquiring additional expertise and knowledge before undertaking such a venture. My current goal is to further my experience in the European or UK space sectors, possibly pursuing a Master’s degree in business. Additionally, I’m particularly interested in showcasing green propulsion technology and its potential for spacecraft reusability. Establishing my own company remains a long-term objective, and although the timeline has shifted, the core goal remains steadfast as I navigate my career path.

AS: What ignited your interest in green propulsion? What motivates you to pursue this specific ambition?

NS: The depletion of Earth’s resources is a pressing concern. Traditional space and launch vehicle propellants, such as monomethyl hydrazine and N2O4, pose considerable health and environmental hazards. They are carcinogenic, necessitate extensive safety precautions, and inflate launch costs. My aim is to pioneer the development of “green” propellants that are safer to handle, devoid of adverse health effects, and minimize environmental harm. Accomplishing these objectives would not only safeguard human health and preserve the environment but also hold the potential to lower costs associated with launches.

AS: Some notable ISRO leaders, such as APJ Abdul Kalam, were renowned for their spiritual inclinations and philosophical perspectives on space exploration. Even the current chairman has been observed visiting temples before significant launches. How do you perceive the interconnection between spirituality and space exploration?

NS: I perceive spirituality and space exploration as distinct realms, each serving its own purpose. Spirituality is primarily concerned with inner peace and mental well-being, while space exploration falls within the domain of one’s professional endeavors. While maintaining good mental health can undoubtedly enhance performance in any profession, including space exploration, I view spirituality and space exploration as separate aspects of life. Inner peace derived from spirituality can positively impact various facets of life, including personal relationships, financial stability, hobbies, and networking. It’s entirely possible for individuals to be spiritual without a particular interest in space exploration, or vice versa. Therefore, I don’t see an inherent connection between spirituality and space exploration, as they serve different facets of human experience.

AS: There’s a perception that being a scientist and holding spiritual beliefs in a higher power are contradictory. However, you see them as complementary. Is that an accurate assessment of your perspective?

NS: Absolutely. I view spirituality and scientific pursuits as complementary, and effectively managing them is essential. In trajectory design, for example, we meticulously model potential errors caused by various factors such as lunar gravity, solar perturbations, and atmospheric drag. However, when it comes to targets at low altitudes, achieving pinpoint accuracy is inherently impossible due to these uncontrollable variables. In such cases, I believe in a higher power that helps to mitigate these uncertainties. While our current technology may not provide a completely precise model of Earth’s gravity, we diligently carry out our responsibilities, acknowledging the existence of a higher dimension that ultimately guides events towards the desired outcome.

AS: To wrap up, would you personally value the opportunity to journey into space, maybe to destinations like the Moon or Mars?

NS: Absolutely! The prospect of traveling to space, whether to the Moon, Mars, or beyond, fills me with immense excitement. Watching astronauts conduct spacewalks or embark on missions to space stations never fails to evoke a sense of wonder within me. The sheer thrill of witnessing Earth from the vantage point of outer space, marveling at its beauty, and recognizing it as our singular home in this vast universe would be an experience beyond compare. If given the opportunity, I wouldn’t confine myself to just the Moon – the allure of exploring Mars and venturing further into the cosmos beckons me irresistibly.