An old ISRO hand with roots in Gujarat, Dr Shailesh Nayak, 61, who is currently secretary in the ministry of earth sciences, has been chosen by prime minister Narendra Modi to briefly hold the reins of the Indian Space Research Organization and the Department of Space following the retirement of Dr K Radhakrishnan on December 31.
Dr Nayak who is the chairman of the earth commission will also be the secretary Department of Space, chairman ISRO and chairman of the space commission for an interim period of one month untill a full fledged chairman is be chosen, officials in ISRO said quoting a government order.
The interim arrangement will see Dr Nayak, a Ph.D holder in Geology from the M S University of Baroda, return to ISRO after a break of nearly eight years. He had served ISRO’s Space Application Centre as a scientist for 29 years from 1977 to 2006 before moving to the ministry of earth sciences.
The outgoing ISRO chairman Dr Radhakrishnan had been due to retire in August 2014 when he turned 65 but he had been given a four month extension by the BJP government to see through programs that had reached a critical stage including the Mars mission.
Dr Shailesh Nayak will be the first earth sciences researcher to be in charge of ISRO. Past chairmen have had physics, aeronautical, communications or electronics engineering backgrounds and have been in charge of rocket or satellite development projects before being at the helm of ISRO.
The interim chairman will primarily have a role of supervising ongoing programs since no major launch or rocket tests are scheduled for the next month, sources in ISRO said. “It is an interim arrangement at present for a duration of one month as per the government order,” sources said.
ISRO has had a tradition of grooming in house leaders to take over the mantle of guiding the space program since the days of Prof Satish Dhawan who was the chairman between 1972 to 1984; Prof U R Rao who was chairman from 1984-94; Prof K Kasturirangan who was chairman between 1994-2003; G Madhavan Nair 2003-2009 and K Radhakrishnan from 2009-2014.
Only once in the past has an interim ISRO chairman been appointed in the form of Prof M G K Menon who as Secretary Electronics, cience and Technology, Defence Research, Environment held additional charge as ISRO chairman for a few months in 1972 following the death of ISRO’s founding chairman Dr Vikram Sarabhai.
Like the new interim ISRO chairman Dr Nayak, the outgoing ISRO chairman Dr Radhakrishnan had also served a stint in the Ministry of Earth Sciences before returning to ISRO to be chairman. Dr Nayak has also been a director at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) and the Indian National Tsunami Warning System where Dr Radhakrishnan was the founding director. According to Dr Nayak’s biodata he “conceptualized, installed and operationalized the Tsunami Early Warning system for India”.
The scientist who researched the geology of bauxite deposits in the Kutch and Valsad districts of Gujarat for his Ph.D also has initiated efforts where “the forecast for weather, climate and hazards has improved considerably,” according to his biodata.
Significantly, Dr Nayak also delivered the inaugural address at a SAARC seminar on “High Impact Weather Events and their Prediction over the SAARC Region” in December 2013. With using space science as a tool for regional diplomacy already being a clearly stated strategic goal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including creation of weather and disaster warning systems for the SAARC region, the appointment of Dr Nayak, who believes in larger societal uses for space technology, may be part of a larger plan, say ISRO insiders.
ISRO’s outgoing chairman Dr Radhakrishnan did not comment on his own plans for the future and the interim arrangement.