Interplanetary travel poses several challenges to humans due to the unpredictable and hostile nature of the space environment !

Girish Utage, our next pathbreaker, Lead – Propulsion Engineer at Space Machines Company (Bangalore), works on in-space transportation systems, and is involved in the design and development of propulsion sub-systems for spacecrafts.

Girish talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his most memorable work developing the cooling system for a rocket engine which got test fired successfully.

For students, if you want to push the boundaries, there is no greater challenge than what space has to offer, because we are venturing into the unknown, with only technology to support us !

Girish, what were your growing-up years like?

I was born in Karnataka and grew up in Maharashtra in a middle-class family. My mother is a housewife and my father is a veterinary doctor. I did my schooling in a village till 10th standard where I was staying with my grandparents. Since school, I have been very passionate about Mathematics and Physics. This led me to enroll for a diploma course where I earned a diploma degree in Mechanical Engineering.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Later on, I opted for a bachelor’s degree in 2011. I completed my Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pune in 2014. In 2015, I joined my post-graduate studies where I enrolled for a Master’s in Technology. In 2017, I completed my master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering with a specialization in Thermal and Propulsion. After that, I worked as a Propulsion Engineer at Skyroot Aerospace for 2 years. In September 2020, I joined as a Lead – Propulsion Engineer at Space Machines Company.

I took admission to the diploma after completing my secondary school instead of going to higher secondary school because I was aware that during that period, I would be gaining more experimental knowledge on top of theoretical subjects before getting my bachelor’s degree which would help me during my engineering. I was directly admitted to the 2nd year of engineering after completing a 3-year diploma course. During that time, I was aware of what I was going to learn as I had already done preliminary studies on those subjects during our diploma. This helped me to understand in detail every physics concept that I was going to learn beforehand. We were also doing a more detailed study of those topics in bachelor’s courses when compared to diploma courses. During my last year of engineering, I was inclined toward doing a master’s degree in thermal sciences due to my interest in thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluid mechanics. Hence, I wrote the GATE exam but did not get a good all-India rank (6000-ish). Then I took a break for a year to study for the GATE exam and in 2015 when I wrote again, I got a 3000-ish all-India rank, which at that time was a good rank to get into a well-reputed college for masters.

I got interviewed at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), which is situated on the western coast of India, Trivandrum, Kerala, for my MTech in Thermal and Propulsion. This institute is one of a kind where students learn about space engineering. The institute is funded by the Department of Space. I got selected after the interview and was admitted in 2015 for my master’s degree.

Tell us about the primary influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career.

I could say the turning point of my life came when I got admitted to IIST for my master’s degree. During my M. Tech at IIST, two scientists were doing their masters alongside us. They were from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). We usually hear stories about rocketry from them. This is the first time that I was introduced to rockets and their different subsystems, which include structures, propulsion and aerodynamics. I got to learn from them about the different types of engines used in different rockets in ISRO as well as other space organizations in the world. During that same period, I learned rocket propulsion as one of my academic subjects, which enhanced my knowledge of rocket propulsion. I also got to learn advanced fluid dynamics, advanced heat transfer, gas dynamics, aircraft propulsion etc. which are the basis for the design of rocket propulsion systems. I should say those were the people and those were the subjects which started influencing me to learn more and more about rocketry. Hence, I decided during that time to take a job in the rocket propulsion sector for my future career.

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 M. Tech, I did not have any job in hand. Though I wanted to join ISRO, I couldn’t because I needed to clear the ICRB exam to join as a scientist in ISRO. During the last semester of my M. Tech, I got an offer from one of the professors from IIT Bombay to work with him as a research fellow. I went to Mumbai as soon as I submitted my thesis work. I joined there as a Junior Research Fellow in the Mechanical Engineering department where I was involved in carrying out simulations on a two-phase flow heat exchanger. At one point in time, I realized that though I was good at what I did, I felt that the work may not be one that I wanted to take up in my future career.

So I decided to quit the fellowship after three months and started studying for the ICRB exam. I came back to Pune where I stayed with my friends and used to spend my whole day in the library. I usually sit in a library for 13-14 hours a day. During that time, I once appeared for an exam but I was not able to clear it and missed it by a very short margin. Still, I believed in myself and continued my preparation to write the exam for next year.

During that time, I got an interview call from a startup. The company name was not mentioned as the company was working in stealth mode. I was given a task to complete a project. I completed the project within 4-5 days and submitted it. I got an offer to join them with an offer letter shortly after. At that point, I got to know the company name. It was Skyroot Aerospace and the position offered to me was Propulsion Engineer at Hyderabad. This was in the year 2018 and it had been a year since I completed my master’s. The vision of the company was to develop a launch vehicle for their customers to launch satellites in space. I believed in the vision and joined them as a founding member of the organization. I started working as a Propulsion engineer in mid-July of 2018. I was involved in the design and development of rocket engines from scratch. We were only two guys when we started our liquid propulsion team at Skyroot Aerospace.

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first breakthrough when I got an offer from Skyroot Aerospace in April 2018. It was a time when I did not have any job offers after completing my master’s degree. I was studying hard to pass the ICRB exam to get into ISRO. Meanwhile, I got to know that two ex-ISRO scientists wanted to start a launch vehicle company in India. I knew that there were companies/people in the USA who were developing launch vehicles privately at that time, though there were none in India. Earlier, I thought it was impossible to start a launch vehicle company privately here in India as it requires a lot of resources, funding and clearance from the government. But I believed in the vision of Skyroot Aerospace and applied for the Propulsion Engineer post. I appeared for an interview and got selected after completing a small project and joined as a Propulsion Engineer as the 6th person in the company.

The founders believed in me and my knowledge and, at first, gave me the task of designing and developing a liquid propellant rocket engine. I started from scratch to do so with an intern alongside me. It was a really interesting task where I was involved in solving complex and unknown problems. I also started working with some retired ISRO scientists who helped me to understand how to solve complex problems easily. I have received a lot of knowledge from ex-ISRO scientists which I will be using while designing any new system. Also, I used to get help from them whenever I got stuck while solving any problems. They also usually reviewed our work week by week, based on which I got guidance on designing a rocket engine. I got a lot to learn from them and I feel fortunate to have worked with them.

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

Challenge 1: The very first challenge I would like to address is clearing the GATE exam to be get admitted into a well-reputed college for a master’s degree. I tried two times to get a good score and I succeeded only on my 2nd attempt. I got around 3000-ish all-India Rank, which helped me to get interviewed at different IITs. I was studying hard to get that score and was spending 14-15 hours every day in the library.  I feel this was a challenge which I had taken on myself during that time to get into a well-reputed college to fulfill my hunger for learning.

Challenge 2: While studying at IIST, I was working on a project to predict two-phase flow behavior. Though this was a challenging task, I felt I could solve it to some extent. I mentioned “to some extent” because I was assigned to develop an experimental setup as well as to showcase the behavior of the flow on top of theoretical models. In the first days, I worked on modelling the system theoretically and I completed that in a short time. In later stages, I started developing the experimental facility from scratch. I designed every sub-component for testing and was also able to manufacture them at the vendors’ place. I started sourcing them at the IIST’s test facility, but due to time constraints, I was not able to assemble, integrate and test them. But I believe that being given some more time I would have been able to complete experimental facilities and tests from scratch which was a good challenge for my master’s thesis. Even though, I got a very positive response from my supervisor and the project evaluator after completing my project to some extent. So I believe this is another challenge which I partially completed during my studies and solved to the extent that I could. 

Challenge 3: I should say the next biggest challenge I have solved is developing a full rocket engine from scratch. At that time, when I started my career, I was only aware of rocket propulsion terminology and knew the basics of rocket propulsion to some extent. When I started developing that code, I started realizing the issues associated with it and the challenges in solving the complex problem. On top of that, the manufacturing issues needed to be incorporated while generating that code. I gained a lot of confidence when I completed that code and got used to designing a rocket engine. Later that year, the engine was manufactured and test-fired successfully and the results very closely matched the theoretical model which I had developed.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

After working for 2 years at Skyroot Aerospace, I decided to take on some more exciting challenges in my career and hence moved on to Space Machines Company (SMC), where I will be working for an in-space transportation system. Currently, I am leading the propulsion team here at SMC. I do the design and development of propulsion sub-systems here at SMC for our spacecraft. I am also involved in outsourcing, evaluating, assembling, integrating and testing propulsion systems and their components for upcoming missions.

What are the skills needed for a Propulsion Engineer?

A Propulsion Engineer should be aware of the propulsion basics and how to carry out one-dimensional mathematical modelling of propulsion physics.  He should be able to carry out fluidic simulations once the mathematical modelling of components is done. This will help an engineer to understand how different components would behave in an actual environment. If an engineer is still looking for a more rigorous and detailed study to be carried out, then he can do thermo-structural simulations of the same components where a mathematical model is developed and fluidic simulations are carried out. This completes one cycle of development and this needs to be followed for different components in the whole development process.

Other than this, a propulsion engineer can take the next step where he starts testing those components which he has designed during the development cycle. This gives an immense understanding of the physics behind that. He will also get to know how multiple issues arise while manufacturing which we can’t see during the simulation phase.  

The above-mentioned cycles will be carried out by different engineers under the propulsion team. These include a Thrust chamber development engineer, CFD simulation engineer, Mechanical engineer, Test Propulsion engineer, Assembly and Integration engineer etc. All these engineers and their associated tasks will come together to develop one single rocket engine.

How does your work benefits society? 

As a rocket propulsion engineer, I believe space travel is the future. As scientists are predicting, due to the increased population on earth, the resources available here are not enough for every person. This increases the need for interplanetary travel. Interplanetary travel will increase in the coming future. SpaceX is already working on the biggest rocket which could take people from Earth to Mars. This will be the first step in colonization on Mars. A propulsion system is the heart of any rocket or spacecraft that produces thrust to push an object or vehicle forward. I believe that by working in this industry, I am contributing little or more towards the goal of exploring space and the goal of Mars colonization. I do my best to contribute to this industry which indirectly helps humans not only explore space and the resources found on earth and other planets but also preserve them for posterity. Also, it is possible to extract resources which are abundantly available on other planets for life on earth.

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

I feel the most memorable work in my career was developing the cooling system for rocket engines. I was a beginner when I started this work and was unaware of most of the terms. Slowly, I started gaining knowledge and I developed a theoretical model of it. The model has been validated with different engines across the world and it gave very close results to the engine performance. The next year, the model was evaluated through in-house experiments. Using this model, a rocket engine was developed in-house and the engine got test-fired the very same year. I was overwhelmed when I saw the engine fire coming out. I have designed the whole engine with nozzle geometry with a cooling system for it and it has come out very well as per the theoretical modelling based on my calculations. This gave me immense confidence, later on, to take on unknown challenges in my career and solve them in a shorter time. The success was not only for me but also for the whole propulsion team working on that project. I was part of the team and I believe this is teamwork to reach that milestone.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

A person who is willing to join as a propulsion engineer in any organization should be thorough in propulsion basics which can be learned from Rocket Propulsion books. On top of it, one has to be thorough with any one of coding languages to mathematical model the physics of the system. Another thing to be considered is carrying out simulations of fluidic, thermal and mechanical processes. So for this, one has to be thorough with physics and associated software to carry out those simulations. And lastly, he must have the ability to take and solve unknown complex problems with perseverance.

Future Plans?

Currently, I’m leading the propulsion team here at Space Machines Company. I would be looking forward to leading the programs in the coming future and helping to grow my team here. Also, I will be continuously contributing to this scientific community, which may help to some extent with space exploration and be part of this exploration journey.