Rockets are our means to explore the unexplored, by carrying scientific payloads and astronauts, that will help pave the way to the future of space research.

Anirudh Saraf, our next pathbreaker, Research Engineer at The Institute of Space Propulsion, one of the research centers of The German Aerospace Center (DLR), works as part of a team that researches, develops and tests Turbopumps for Rocket Engines.

Anirudh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about developing a keen interest in Space Thermal Engineering which led him to work on thermal optimization and thermal design of nanosatellites.

For students, satellites, space shuttles and rockets has broadened our understanding of space. You should aim to build on this experience and help overcome challenges we face in space exploration today and in the future. 

Anirudh, what were your initial years like?

I was brought up in Dharwad, a small city in Karnataka, a southern state in India. I spent my first 16 years there. I completed my pre-university studies in Hubli (20km from home) and then moved to Bangalore (400km from home) for my bachelor’s degree. My next move was for higher studies to Europe (6000km from home). Following the trend, I hope to be in Space someday, but for now I am a Space Engineer. 

Since my childhood days, I have been an all-rounder. I have always strived to be good at academics while being engaged in extracurricular activities. I have a penchant for sports and I like keeping fit. In my family, we are my parents, my elder sister and I. My family has always encouraged me to excel at whatever I want to do and to be good to everyone around me. It goes without saying that they have been a pillar of support behind my personal and professional decisions and I can’t thank them enough. 

What did you do for graduation / post graduation?

I hold a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from RV College of Engineering in Bangalore. Mid-way through my Mechanical Engineering, I decided to pursue a Master’s course in Space Engineering. It took me a year to figure out which one, but I ended up choosing the SpaceMaster course, which I believe is an excellent entry into the field of Space Engineering. You can read my SpaceMaster story here:

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

My earliest memory of me deciding my career was while watching the hefty Cathode Ray Tube Television at home, after a stressful day at primary school. I thought to myself, ‘’I will be a Power Ranger’’. With time, it was only a disappointment to know that I couldn’t take it up as a career and my interests shifted to watching Discovery Channel and Nat Geo. I must say these television channels have been my earliest sources of inspiration for studying Science and Engineering. The idea of exploring the unknown fascinated me and even more so the people who did it.

One of my high points during high-school was scoring a 10-pointer in my 10th grade. After which, I remember, I was interviewed by a local newspaper. They asked me what I aim to be and I replied to them “I want to be an Astronaut”. I think that was around the time that I had started pondering about the fascinating field of Space Engineering.

During my bachelor’s degree, I read books written by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Dr. Stephen Hawking and Dr. Carl Sagan. Their writings have left a deep impression on me and have inspired me to follow my passion. I was fortunate to have been taught by professors who had worked earlier as Scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The anecdotes they shared during their lectures and the discussions I had with them reinforced my will to pursue a career in Space Engineering. Finally, I drew a lot of inspiration from countless other Space Engineers, Scientists and Professionals out there who I not only read about but also was sometimes lucky enough to interact with.

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

Although my journey to be a Space Engineer started with my admission to the SpaceMaster course, there were a couple of other factors that I think helped me get there and beyond.

Firstly, my bachelor’s university (RVCE) offered opportunities to work at one of the several student teams available on campus. I joined the Aero-design team as a Mechanical Systems Engineer in my second year and it became my second life at university. We as a team worked on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): fixed wing airplanes, quadrotors, and tri-rotors. Working in this team helped me immensely to grow as an Engineer. It was a perfect breeding ground for applying our Engineering knowledge, being creative and learning to work in a team. This work helped me land an internship during my masters and more importantly gave me practical experience of working as an Engineer.  

Secondly, I chose electives which were inclined towards aerospace and space engineering: these included Aerospace Propulsion, Gas Dynamics and Combustion, and Space Technology and Communication. I further involved myself in several self-study courses related to space engineering. The fundamentals I learnt in these courses helped me prepare for a more specialized Master’s course.

To pursue a Master’s degree, I researched extensively on the courses available. I made a decision matrix based on several criteria and constraints that I had, and from the information that I got from university websites, students and alumni of the space courses, I applied to the top 6 universities on my list (mostly in Europe) and was selected in 5 of them. Ultimately, I decided to take up the SpaceMaster course in Space Technology and Instrumentation because I liked the course structure, the topics covered and the opportunity to study and network in more than one country.

The first semester of SpaceMaster was at the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg (JMUW). I was in awe of the courses and the topics we studied. I loved studying every topic: Systems Engineering, Space Dynamics and Space Physics. This was when I wrote to several professors and companies for an internship. I was fortunate to be hired as an intern at the DLR (German Aerospace Center) Institute of Space Propulsion to work on Liquid Rocket Engine (LRE) Turbopumps. Turbopumps form an important cog in LREs. They are rotary machines which supply propellants at a high pressure to the combustion chamber of a rocket engine. They consist of a turbine on one side which drives the pump on the other. In my internship, I worked on developing a preliminary design tool for cryogenic LRE pumps. This tool helps in deriving the primary dimensions of the pump and its impeller.  

During the course of the master’s programme, I had developed a keen interest in Space Thermal Engineering. We had only one sub-unit on it and I wanted to learn more. In my third semester at the LTU Campus in Kiruna, Sweden, the university offered a course called Special Studies which was very modular. Along with the course director and my professor, I devised a specialized course in Space Thermal Engineering which allowed me to study the topic in more detail and read several books on it. In fact, it helped me find a suitable master thesis in the same field in a leading nanosatellite company called GOMSPACE in Aalborg, Denmark.

In my masters thesis, I worked on thermal optimization of nanosatellites. In particular, it was about optimizing the coatings on the outer surfaces to maintain the temperatures inside the nanosatellite within an operating range. Nanosatellites are roughly shoe box sized satellites weighing anywhere between 1 – 10kg. They are packed completely with payloads, electronics and control equipment which generate heat. The temperatures of these components and the nanosatellite structure itself is the result of a balance between the heat generated and the thermal interaction with the space environment. The position and orientation of the satellite in orbit with respect to the sun and the earth dictates the heat it absorbs and radiates, which in turn results in rise and drop of its temperatures. The absorption and emission of heat from surfaces is dependent on thermo-optical properties called absorptivity and emissivity, unique to a material or a coating material. In my thesis I focused on optimizing these property values to constrain the operating temperature within a specified range. To solve this optimization problem, I first developed a thermal model for the nanosatellite and correlated it with in-orbit data. I then used this as a base model to run optimization schemes on, considering different reference orbits and orientations. The outcome of the optimization problem was the decision on the best coatings to apply on different surfaces of the nanosatellite for a given mission. 

After my masters thesis at GOMSPACE, I was hired as a Space Thermal Engineer there and this was my first job in the space industry. The experience of working at a space-company with talented colleagues from all over the world was fabulous. I worked on thermal design and analysis of satellites, which involved tasks like calculating heat fluxes on the satellite, evaluating heat generated in different electrical components during various mission modes and obtaining the worst case temperatures within the satellite. I also helped set up thermal modeling and analysis procedures based on learnings from my courses and the thesis. I further participated in development projects and test activities which broadened my knowledge and helped me understand the end-to-end satellite design and manufacturing process: from feasibility study, preliminary phase, detailed phase, to testing and verification.

Two years down the line, I got an opportunity to return to the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion and this is where I work currently.

How did you get your first break?

I think my first break was the internship at DLR. I was very new to Europe and the way internships and jobs work here. I had to write quite a few applications to get a hang of it. After one of the lectures in Space Propulsion, I met the professor and asked him if I could intern at his Institute. I wrote him an application and ended up getting selected. The four months of internship was very memorable to me since this was the first opportunity for me to work in the space sector.  

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

There are several challenges a master student faces during their time abroad, and so did I. In my case, since the masters course was an Erasmus double-degree programme, we had to change countries every semester. Getting adjusted to the food, the language, the weather and the culture in each country was a little challenging. However, it was an informed decision to take up this course and I was up for it. Indeed, it introduced me to different cuisines, made me tough, allowed me to learn new languages and cultures, and meet wonderful people from all over the map.

A mental challenge which did lead to some sleepless nights was having an Education Loan. This is one of the common challenges Indian students face when they study abroad and I went through this too. Even though I was confident that I would land a job after my masters degree, I always had it in the back of my mind that it is going to be a tough task for a foreigner to land a space related job in Europe, particularly because Space and Defence always go hand in hand. What helped me a tad was the mobility scholarship we got as Erasmus students. It helped cover part of our living expenses, but the dark clouds of the education loan were always looming over my head. One very strong mantra I always follow and which keeps me going through tough times is: If I work hard towards a goal I will achieve it irrespective of what. This kept me focused on my plans and objectives. Eventually I did land a job, and my shoulders felt much lighter when I did pay back the loan. 

Looking back at this experience, I’ve learnt that, given a difficult situation or a challenge, there are factors we can control and those we cannot. Focusing on the ones we can control is the key. It is only natural for us as humans to be anxious about our future especially when our brains can do an outstanding job at imagining countless future scenarios, mostly negative, when we are worried. Being in the present, focused on our goals and working towards them is much more time-worthy than contemplating the what-ifs. It is easier said than done, but I try to incorporate it with challenges I face now.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role as Research Engineer at DLR

I currently work as a Research Engineer for Turbopumps at the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion in Germany. DLR has one of the largest research infrastructures in Germany with as many as 55 research institutes under its belt today. Research and Development in the broad fields of Energy, Transport, Space, Aeronautics, Security and Digitalisation is conducted at these institutes. The Institute of Space Propulsion specializes in Rocket Research and Testing. I work in a project called LUMEN which stands for Liquid Upper Stage Demonstrator Engine. The main aim of this project is to strengthen system level understanding of rocket engines and to enable tests of new engine components in a representative environment.   We as a team are researching, developing and testing Turbopumps for Rocket Engines. You are welcome to read the latest updates from our team at the Institute’s website:

What problems do you solve?

As a Research Engineer, my tasks are varied. In Design and Analysis, I mostly work on the thermal design, bearings and seal systems. With manufacturing and testing, I support my team with fluid system design, sensors and instrumentation, operation sequences, test preparation and planning.

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

My job demands being an all-rounder, perhaps not in terms of extracurricular activities, but within the engineering role. This is something I have always enjoyed doing from my childhood and hence the role fits me perfectly.

The other important skill that I require in my job is to be quick at learning new topics. Having strong fundamentals definitely helps a lot, but being able to absorb and apply new knowledge is crucial. Having worked in student projects and internships has helped me develop a personal way to approach new topics and get to speed quickly. More importantly, having an accommodating team and knowledgeable colleagues has definitely worked in my favour.

Problem-solving, analytical and critical thinking skills are definitely needed, and I have acquired them mostly during the team projects I worked on during my master’s degree, and the experience I acquired during my internship and job.

What is it you love about this job?

As a person, I am driven by challenges and that is something I love about this job. Every day is a new challenge to solve, and it makes the learning curve very steep.    

How does your work benefit society?

I am a firm believer of a quote from Dr. Stephen Hawking: “Our goal is nothing less than the complete description of the universe we live in”. As humans, we are inquisitive beings and we should strive to understand how things work around us. Innumerable scientists and engineers work towards this goal. For space, Rockets are our means to explore the unexplored: by carrying scientific payloads and astronauts. The project I work on currently focuses on modular design, development and testing of a newer class of rockets using Liquid Oxygen and Methane as the propellants. I believe the challenges we work on will augment our understanding of the systems involved and help pave the way to the future of space exploration. 

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

There are two memorable events at work, which are dear to me and I will remember forever.

The first one was when I worked as a thesis student at GOMSPACE. I was working on a thermal model of a nanosatellite. I got an opportunity to compare my model with in-orbit data from the satellite-telemetry. I was ecstatic to see that my model predicted the temperatures within the satellite pretty well and the sense of accomplishment as a student was out of this world. This gave me a ton of confidence to continue working on the thermal design aspects of nanosatellites. 

The second experience is that of the goosebumps I get in a Test Control Room when a rocket component I work on is being tested. This exhilarating feeling is no less than the ones we see in the Mission Control Room in the space movies.   

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would advise students to follow their passion. Scope different fields to find your passion. Get involved in volunteership opportunities, join teams in your college and outside, and talk to people about your interests. Find your own way to get inspired. Once you know your passion, get involved in the community and augment your knowledge. It is a huge waste of time if we spend most of the day hours, 5 days a week on something which doesn’t give us satisfaction. Follow your passion. 

Future Plans?

I’d like to continue working in this fascinating field of space. I only have a few years of experience now, and I believe there is a lot for me to learn from a technical and a leadership view point. I have worked a couple of years within satellite development and a couple more now within rocket research which has broadened my understanding of space systems. I would like to build on this experience and help overcome challenges we face in space exploration today and in the future.