With NASA launching KalamSAT, the world’s smallest and lightest satellite, on 22 June 2017, Indian teens set a new benchmark. We talk to Rifath Sharook, who led the team which created this record. Here are excerpts from the interview.
PC: Putting together the world’s smallest satellite, beating more than 80,000 contestants to get selected by NASA – all at the age of 18 years. How did it all happen?
RS: To tell how it all happened at just 18, I believe in God and I think it’s God’s blessing.
It all began with my dad, who was and continues to be my inspiration. He was also a scientist but passed away when I was only ten years old. After that, it was my mom and my family who stood by me and encouraged me.
Then came in Dr Srimathy Kesan, our Mission Director, whom I met for an interview during my stint as a student journalist with a popular Tamil magazine. We realised that both of us shared the same vision and passion. We set about putting together a team, which is now more like a family. The team worked with the same mission and vision, and the rest is history.
PC: While you led the team, every other member also made critical contributions. Tell us about your team members and the roles they played.
RS: It is impossible to succeed without a great team, be it KalamSAT or any other mission. I believe that my team is the best because we understand each other very well. Yagna Sai, lead technologist, managed assembly and fabrication. Abdul Kashif, lead engineer, dealt with engineering drawings and calculations. Tanishq Dwivedi, flight engineer, looked after simulation and flight calculations. Vinay Bharadwaj, structural engineer, worked on the structure and the outer shell of the satellite. I donned the mantle of the lead scientist and managed electronics and communication, computers and coding of the satellite. Gobinath, the biologist of our team, was responsible for all the biological experiments that would be conducted during the mission. For example, we performed an experiment to learn about agriculture in space. For this, we sent seeds on board the KalamSAT to understand the effect of radiation on the DNA of seeds.
PC: Tell us how your mission director, Dr Srimathy Kesan, guided the team towards success?
RS: Dr Kesan isn’t just my mentor, she played the role of a mother to my team and a father to me. It is just not possible to sum up her importance to us. She is our Godfather, Godmother…, in fact, she is everything to us.
PC: Apart from being the smallest satellite, what are the other features of your satellite?
RS: The main objective of this mission was to test the performance of reinforced carbon fibre polymer in space and during launch. A deeper understanding of this would make future missions more economical and reliable. At the same time, we also wanted to help decrease space junk and space pollution, so we designed a sub-orbital and reusable satellite.
PC: What were some important challenges you faced while working on this project?
RS: The toughest challenge was making a simple but powerful satellite, and one that was very small in size.
PC: How did you manage your studies along with your passion?
RS: When you have a passion for something, you find a way out. Instead of pursuing engineering, I decided to do B.Sc in Physics because I love physics and I have passion for it. Also, it is closely related to my work. This way, managing studies, passion, work and everything else became simple for me.
PC: What is the role of your parents in your achievement?
RS: My dad, who was an astronomer, passed away when I was ten years old. He helped me develop an interest in rocket science and space. He was also the first person to inspire me. Both my dad and I used to do small projects together in his lab, which helped me learn the basics early on. In fact, I wrote my first code and program to say ‘Hello World’ when I was only five years old.
But after my dad passed away, I didn’t have anyone to guide me. However, even at that time, my mom and family members supported me. Although I was an average student, they never forced me to study. In fact, I was always allowed to do what I wanted to and encouraged to make my dreams come true.
PC: What is your advice to children who are keen on making a career in space technology?
RS: Follow your passion and create your own path to achieve what you want. But, for this to happen, parents should allow their children to identify their passion instead of pushing them to join coaching institutes and tuitions.
PC: What are your plans for the future?
RS: It’s big, really big. As incredible as it may sound, our aim is to make Space Kidz India a Private Space Agency in India like SpaceX and a tech giant. But, let’s wait and see.
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