With every rocket launch, we build our national capabilities in defence, communication, remote sensing and space research. 

Pranay Raj, our next pathbreaker, Materials Scientist at the Rocket Fabrication Facility at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, is responsible for qualification of materials for use in aerospace.

Pranay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being awed by the launch pads, rocket booster manufacturing facilities and the Mission Control Center in his first role at the Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota, which gave him great insights into the kind of research that goes on in exclusive research establishments like DRDO, ISRO and BARC.

For students, there is a certain amount of pride in contributing to the growth of the nation in direct and indirect ways through core Aerospace Research !

Pranay, what were your initial years like?

I grew up in the multicultural metropolitan city: Hyderabad. My parents are both government employees, though their work is strikingly dissimilar. Dad’s an Artist while my mother is a Scientist. Both of them graduated from the best universities at their time; JNTU and OU. Being a child of government employees, my parents thought it’d be best if I study in a Kendriya Vidyalaya and hence I spent my whole schooling in K.V.Picket till my 10th class. 

Growing up, I watched discovery and national geographic channels all day. Thanks to these channels, science seemed very cool. I tried hard to be good at math and sciences throughout school and college. Learning the abacus gave a major boost to my mathematical capabilities. My mother was someone I looked up to from a young age. Although my parents pushed me to do well in my academics, they also made sure I spent a good amount of time playing sports and learning music. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For a kid who was interested in math and physics since childhood, mechanical engineering seemed to be a perfect fit. I chose to study at BITS-Pilani because it allows one to study two degrees at the same time. And since I was good at mathematics, I chose to do an integrated master’s in mathematics as well. By 2016, I had graduated from BITS-Pilani with two degrees.

I thoroughly enjoyed studying mechanical engineering. Mathematics turned out to be way too different from the mathematics you learn upto your college. It was interesting nevertheless. Advice for students: Go through the curriculum of the stream you’re planning to take up.

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

After graduating from BITS, I was very sure that I’d want to have a career in mechanical engineering. For my final year project, I did a project that involved research on flame-holding characteristics inside the combustion chamber of a ram-jet engine for missile applications. This gave me a great insight into the kind of research work that goes on in exclusive research establishments like DRDO, ISRO and BARC.

I also did an internship at my mom’s office at National Remote Sensing Center, ISRO where I used my math and coding skills to map 2-D images into 3-D spaces. This project also helped me publish my first international research paper. 

Later, I got selected for a paid internship at a Solar-tracking company where I got to learn design aspects of mechanical systems. They offered me a job which I refused eventually. After working on interesting projects at ISRO and DRDO, I felt the learning prospects at this company were less. 

I also refused to sit for placements on campus because if I had got a job in IT, analytics or finance, I’d feel like I wouldn’t have done justice to my degrees. 

Your first job mostly dictates where your life is headed. I wanted to make sure I got the direction right. After university, I decided to prepare for various competitive exams to get into good research roles at organizations of the likes of BARC, ISRO and DRDO. I was able to make it through ISRO’s exam and the interview. After being ranked 17 all over India, I got to call myself a scientist at ISRO. It was a dream come true.

Looking back, I had immense support from my parents and great insights from my aunt who is a senior scientist at DRDO. She motivated me and guided me in preparation for the interviews.

How did you get your first break? 

I got into ISRO at SDSC SHAR (Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota) first and then I took a transfer to VSSC, Trivandrum.

My first role at ISRO was at Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota. It’s a huge office with huge structures like the launch pads, rocket booster manufacturing facilities, and the Mission Control Center. People only dream to see the sights I used to see every day as I got to work on actual rocket hardware in the launch vehicle assembly building. The first few months at SDSC SHAR were overwhelming for me as I was just amused at the magnificence of work that happens there.

At SDSC, I was in charge of filling solid propellant into the rocket hardware. I was also responsible for the upkeep of a huge facility where these processes take place. Like how a typical production plant runs, we had schedules for the production of rockets that we had to adhere to. Propellant filling is a highly critical and hazardous operation. My job was to ensure all the related systems were in their best condition as there is no room for error when the propellant filling process starts. I was leading a team of highly skilled technicians who would carry out the operations and service these critical systems with utmost care and safety.

Being passionate about design, I designed and realized several systems that helped improve the safety of the processes and helped increase the production rate of solid motors. Here, I was designing the equipment that supports the operations and service of rockets. But I wanted to get into the design aspects of the rocket. After 3 years at SDSC SHAR, I got an opportunity to work on rocket materials at Vikram Sarabhai Space Center and I took it.

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

Challenge 1: My limited Knowledge.

I knew that the knowledge I had when I graduated was limited. To strengthen it, I was studying and giving exams for 12-14 hours every day. This process lasted for 6 continuous months. All I knew was that if I wanted to add something to myself, I’d first need to build a strong foundation of essential engineering knowledge to support it. Thats what kept me going.

Challenge 2: My limited communication skills.

Since childhood, I was always scared of public speaking. To eliminate this fear, I started teaching at a nearby coaching center. Everyday for 2 hours, I used to teach college students mathematics and physics. Within a few months, I was very used to talk-n-chalk. When I was interviewed for a scientist position at ISRO, they gave me a board and chalk and asked me to explain everything on the board. Being used to teaching, I had very less fear and hesitancy.  I was able to answer most questions with great clarity of thought using the blackboard.

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

I currently work as a Materials Scientist in the Rocket Fabrication Facility at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center which is the lead center for design and development of launch vehicles of ISRO. 

My job involves qualification of materials for use in aerospace, developing new processes that aid in manufacturing of intricate aerospace components, and development of manufacturing standards (For example: 3D printing) that helps to assess and ensure the quality of rocket components. For example, we are currently developing a process to weld aluminium and steel to form a leak proof joint for flow of propellant from the tank to the combustion chamber. Welding using conventional methods makes the joining of these components impossible. 

What skills are needed in this role? How did you acquire the skills?

Without doubt, knowledge of materials is a must. I was able to gather the knowledge through reading and discussions with my colleagues and seniors. What is more important is the practical knowledge that we gain through experiments guided by the wisdom of our senior scientists. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day at the office is about 10 hours, of which I spend about 3 hours in meetings to discuss the status of our experiments and further plan of action, 3 hours of literature survey and report writing, 4 hours in conducting experiments and the related logistics. 

What is it you love about this job? 

The best part about this job is the kind of people you get to work with. I’m surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the country. Each of them is an expert in his/her field of study. Aerospace industry is a culmination of the best of technologies the world has to offer in terms of performance and reliability. I thank heaven and stars for this opportunity as I get to interact with the people that develop these engineering marvels in various fields like computer science, nanotechnology, instrumentation, communication and many more.

How does your work benefit society?

Growth of ISRO means the growth of the nation in direct and indirect ways. With each rocket launch, we build our national capabilities in terms of defence, communication, remote sensing and space research. 

When we develop advanced manufacturing processes and attain reliability in the process, we pass on the know-how to the Indian industry. This helps society indirectly. Private manufacturers can utilize these processes for spin-off applications for commercial purposes that lead to employment opportunities and the growth of our economy. 

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

Initially, when I was working at Satish Dhawan Space Center, I was working in a facility that made Solid Rocket Boosters. After a lot of reluctance, I was able to convince my boss that we could research the flow properties of propellant. After 2 months of 14-hour workdays and several experimental failures, I and a team of colleagues were able to predict the flow behaviour (Rheology) of propellant. 

This meant we could simulate propellant flows on software instead of relying on costly experiments. This study helped us develop precision valves to control the flow of propellant into the rocket hardware later on and improved the safety of the process by a huge margin.

I am glad that I was determined to do the study and pushed myself and my team to hustle despite the reluctance from upper management.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

There is no replacement for hard work. You can think you’re intelligent but it does not mean you’ll be successful, like how being tall doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good basketball player. Sure, being tall helps, but you still have to put in effort.

Learn to be comfortable out of your comfort zone. That’s where your growth is. This is a quote that motivates me personally: If you don’t do what you can’t do, you’ll never be what you can be.

Future Plans?

Personally, I’m planning to pursue a master’s in material sciences to understand material behaviour better. And  I am hoping that it’ll eventually give me things to think about topics I can research on to gain a PhD. 

Professionally, I’m planning to get into air-breathing engines or reusable launch vehicles after I finish my project of the development of semi-cryo engines. The future of rockets is a combination of both air-breathing and reusable launch vehicles and that’s where I’d want to be.