Space exploration is not just about technical knowledge but also about leadership skills, perseverance and resilience in overcoming the obstacles in your path.

Nitish Shrimal, our next pathbreaker, Chevening Scholar & Scientist/Engineer at Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, ISRO, is currently pursuing MSc (Space Engineering) at University of Surrey, UK.

Nitish talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about initially being inclined towards orbital mechanics but taking up the challenge of working on rocket propulsion at ISRO.

For students, when your eye is on space, no challenge should be big enough to stop you from aiming high !

Nitish,Your background?

I come from a rural, backward village Renwal Manjhi of Rajasthan, India. The environmental conditions in my village are too harsh. People do not have access to drinking water, electricity and are mainly dependent on farming. My father used to run a small grocery shop and we lived in a 1 room 1 kitchen house while I was in high school. I remember, in the days of rain, our home ceiling used to leak and we would continually change our sleeping locations. During this time, because of no access to electricity, I would go to the nearest petrol-pump, early in the morning by 4 AM to study under the road-light for preparation of 10th class examinations. During this time, I had one chapter about Science & Innovation in my 10th class book which talked about Space Scientists such as Vikram Sarabhai, APJ Abdul Kalam and Astronaut Kalpna Chawla. The initial struggle of these space scientists to lay down the foundation of the Indian Space Program motivated and inspired me. And some time then, I developed interest in space technology subconsciously. In class 10th, I studied hard and scored 93.83% marks in my 10th examination. I was among the top-7 in my district in Jaipur and was ranked 16th in my state. I was awarded with Dainik Bhaskar Merit Award 2009 and was selected for a Govt. of Rajasthan sponsored 7-days camp at Shri. Oswal Jain Public School at Alwar, Rajasthan. I learned creative and structured thinking while on this 7 days camp. 

I remember an incident from my school when I learned and found resilience in my leadership skills while I was in 12th class in 2011. I met with a tragic accident and broke my left leg. My father didn’t have enough money to operate my leg. He somehow managed the money and I was operated upon after 2 days. After my operation, I had to take bedrest for 4 months due to which I missed school. I was in despair and thought I may never be able to walk on earth again. But I could conquer this battle with a strong will and due to the support of my mother. She motivated me to study with this condition so that I don’t lose a year. I studied with her help. She would hold the book in front of me and I would study. It was because of our strong determination, hard-work, and willpower of that I was able to score a decent 81.82% marks. Subsequently I could obtain a scholarship for my UG studies at Indian Institute of Space Science & Technology (IIST). I learned through each of these experiences and persisted through these, which finally led me to become an Aerospace Engineer in ISRO. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

As mentioned in the above section, I did B. tech in Aerospace Engineering at IIST which is a pioneer in aerospace engineering in the whole of Asia. After 5 years of work in ISRO, I applied and have now been chosen for the UK Govt.’s Prestigious Chevening Awards Scholarship. Through this fully funded scholarship, I will now be studying MSc. in Space Engineering at University of Surrey, UK. The scholarship is quite competitive in the sense that each year over 60000 candidates apply for the scholarship from 160+ countries globally and around 1500 get selected, which comes to a success rate of just 2-3%. The scholarship is aimed at developing global leaders who will make an impact in their home country post after their Masters studies. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I vividly remember the smile on the face of Space-X scientists and in particular Space-X CEO Mr. Elon Musk, when, after three consecutive failures of launching their first rocket, they finally succeeded in their 4th attempt. Elon musk had money, only to fund his 4th launch and if he had not succeeded, he would go bankrupt. But eventually he succeeded. It was a life changing moment for him and it inspired a whole generation. I was fascinated by his incredible success which had opened new gates for enthusiasts in the field of space. Since then I wanted to be a Leader of Elon Musk’s caliber, even more than a Rocket Scientist

I also owe a lot to my teachers. I would like to mention two teachers who had a big impact in making me the person who I am today. During my secondary education, I had a teacher named Ratan Lal Verma, who used to teach Science & English. He not only taught these subjects in an efficient manner (given that he was teaching in a school in a ‘village’) but also used to focus on students’ interpersonal skills while organizing a number of extracurricular activities. I believe his efforts in those times shaped my thinking patterns and inspired me to always think bigger. 

I was also fascinated when I came in contact with Prof. RV Ramanan while I was in 3rd year of my B. tech studies. He had been Deputy Project Director of Chandrayaan-1 mission while working at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and was now transforming students at IIST. He used to teach Space Flight Mechanics and Space Missions Design with such ease and in such a fun way that even today every aerospace student of IIST would have special memories of his class. I was fortunate to do my final year project under his guidance on ‘Earth Re-entry Trajectory Optimization for Shift in Landing Sites’.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my 12th in Jaipur, I studied in Aerospace Engineering at IIST. In IIST, I did my 3rd year mandatory internship at ISRO Satellite Tracking & Command Centre, Bengaluru on ‘Sun Synchronous Polar Orbit (SSPO) Design’. Subsequently, my final year project was on Earth Re-entry Trajectory Optimization for Shift in Landing Site at IIST under guidance of Prof. Ramanan. 

In the SSPO orbit design project, a C++ code was written in a Linux based system using which the ‘Revisit time’ of a sun-synchronous orbit was configured. (Note – SSPO is an orbit which experiences constant illumination of sun on earth and therefore is of at most importance in global surveying). This means it is synchronised to always be in the same ‘fixed’ position relative to the Sun.

In my final year project, i wrote a code in C++ for optimization of a re-entry module entering on a specific landing site of earth (say Shriharikota). The code was about determining changed entry conditions if we have to change the landing site due to some reason. For optimization, Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO) was used and bank angle modulation was used for control. The results of code were validated with NASA’s Apollo 10 and new results for possible shift in landing latitude, longitude were produced.

After completion of my studies in 2016, I was absorbed in ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre which provides propulsion systems for ISRO’s Space Missions. I joined here as Scientist/Engineer – SC post and have recently gotten promoted to Scientist/Engineer – SD.  

Sometime during Nov 2020, I applied for New Space India Limited which was formed by the Govt. of India as part of historic space reforms in India. I gave the interview and was fortunate to get selected for the Deputy Manager (Mechanical) post for its initial batch. 

During the same time, I also came to know about Chevening Scholarship through one of my seniors. I did my research and applied to this prestigious scholarship which covers all the expenses incurred during a master’s study in any field in the UK. 

My mentors Shri. M Vinodha Kumar and Shri. K Rajagopal who were also my supervisors at my workplace, guided and helped in my scholarship application for which i am deeply thankful to them. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was absorption into Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, ISRO in Trivandrum. I was posted in the Satellite Propulsion Systems group in the Centre and my initial days were very challenging. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: My whole education has been in Hindi medium as I did my schooling from a village and my parents were not capable enough to put me in an English Medium School. Subsequently too, I never switched to English Medium. Hence, the first and foremost challenge I faced in college was ‘learning the subjects’. I remember a funny incident from my first year when in a viva, the examiner asked me ‘Colligative Properties’. I knew what colligative properties are if he had asked me in Hindi, but didn’t know what colligative properties words exactly meant in Hindi. As a result I couldn’t answer the question and that gave a pretty bad impression. Later, I realized that I had to work on my English and hence started learning it on my own. I started interacting in classes and started watching YouTube content in English which helped to a great extent. After graduation, I also undertook an English Communication course at NPTEL which talks about ways of effective communication at workplace. 

Challenge 2: At the end of my graduation in 2016, I was more inclined towards the Orbital Mechanics and Space Mission Trajectory Design field, solely because I had done both of my B. Tech projects in these areas. I was also having a great deal of knowledge of the fields, therefore It was quite natural. Because of this, when I was positioned in the Propulsion field, it was a little challenging to learn a new subject which was not of my primary interest. However, I did learn Rocket Propulsion, once again through NPTEL lectures and topped them because of daily interactions with extremely knowledgeable Scientists at ISRO. Ultimately, I could learn the key aspects of the field. Today, as I look back, these challenges have done nothing but to help me grow as a person. 

Challenge 3 I wouldn’t say it was a challenge but it was more of a decision that I had to make based on self-belief. As I have mentioned, I had been selected for Deputy Manager at NSIL and received their offer letter in Feb 2021. But my Chevening results had not come out yet. In fact, the list of candidates shortlisted for the interview too had not come out. NSIL was going to be an adventurous journey as all ISRO satellites would be launched through NSIL in the future. But they wouldn’t grant their employees study leave for at least a period of 5 years. At this stage, somebody would call me insane if I told them that I declined the NSIL offer in the hope that I would go for Chevening. (Given that, Chevening interview shortlist had not come out, Interviews had not taken place) But I took this decision and decided to give my all to Chevening. Fortunately I was shortlisted for the interview first and then performed well in the interview and got selected for Chevening as well. I remember it was 05 Aug 2021, around 10:30 PM when I received the most awaited email. “Congratulations Nitish!, You have been chosen for Chevening”. I just couldn’t believe it. It was finally happening. I felt a sense of gratitude and peace. So the point I want to make here is – always back yourself. Always have strong self-belief because no one knows you and your capabilities BETTER THAN YOU. (To know more about my Chevening Journey connect with me on Instagram @nitishshrimal)

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as a Space Scientist?

I work at Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre which is part of ISRO. I solve problems related to satellite propulsion and contribute to Indian Space Program. 

My work at ISRO, Trivandrum, includes design, development and delivery of salient satellite propulsion systems. Space propulsion and in particular satellite propulsion is difficult in space as dimensions involved are too minute (of the order of 10^-6). Therefore, at most care needs to be taken while designing spacecraft propulsion systems. Spacecraft propulsion is important as it takes over from launch vehicle propulsion after final stage burn and transfers the satellite into its intended orbit (Interplanetary, GSO, SSPO or Lunar orbit). Spacecraft propulsion is the core of a spacecraft’s life and spacecraft fuel is the one which determines the spacecraft’s life in the particular orbit as it uses the fuel for various Orbit correction maneuvers in orbit. All these factors, are needed to be taken into account while designing and developing a satellite propulsion system and that’s what I do at LPSC, Trivandrum.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

The skills required are Leadership, Networking, Time management, Resilience and Perseverance. I acquired them through various experiences in my life. For example, I learned Patience and Perseverance while preparing my Chevening Application. Chevening is a tough journey which tests a candidates’ resilience throughout the year and I consider myself fortunate that I came to know about such an opportunity and applied. 

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love about my job is the fact that I am able to actively contribute to a national cause by working on satellites on a daily basis. I also love engaging, innovative and insightful discussions that I get to be part of solely because I am working in this organization. Though some days are too exhausting, at the end of the day, the satisfaction of being able to give my bit for the space program of India fills my heart and I sleep with content. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work indirectly helps society helping people stay connected through communication, DTH services, Internet service which are provided by Communication satellites put in Geo Synchronous Orbit aboard GSLV vehicles of ISRO. 

Other useful applications of satellite launching are surveillance at borders, climate monitoring, cartography, disaster management, healthy vegetation identification, remote sensing, remote studies in the villages and many more. Though I am not directly connected to all these, my work contributes to these areas when each ISRO employee does their job to perfection. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Last year, I carried out significant studies on a particular type of Propulsion system – Green Propulsion System within my team. It was well taken and appreciated in my team and is still close to my heart. In addition to that, last year sometime in February, I visited one of the schools where I had studied and guided students about career opportunities, possible career paths and subject selection. Students seemed very happy with this interaction and the experience was very memorable for me. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would advise students to go for hard work. Nowadays there is a trend to go for ‘smart hard work’, but from my personal experience, you don’t get to see each aspect of work when you do smart work. You tend to skip some information. Hence, what I have found from my experience is that there is no replacement to ‘Hard work’ and if you want to fully grasp each and every detail of anything that you do, hard work is your only friend. 

Future Plans?

I am planning to return from the UK after my Space Engineering studies through Chevening, and will continue working with my current organization for development of the “Green Propellant” project which is in line with UK policies in India towards Sustainable Development Goals. I am working on this project because, during each launch, tons of toxic gases are produced in the environment. With this project, I aim to reduce the harmful toxic gases in a rocket launch by replacing the conventional toxic propellant by ”Green Propellant. I also plan to advise students about opportunities to study abroad and unique career paths that they can embark on by taking advantage of the number of scholarships and fellowships out there. To know more about such options I encourage you to connect with me on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.