A Tribute: Satish Dhawan (1920-2002)

Rajendra K. Bera, Chief Mentor, Acadinnet

On 25 September 1920, in pre-independent India, Devi Dayal and his wife were blessed with a son they named Satish, in Srinagar, Kashmir. During his lifetime Satish Dhawan would become an iconic figure in India’s higher education system and raise India’s space program to levels then considered a dream. Along the way, he guided and mentored several talented people who too served India with great distinction and honor; the most prominent among them was the self-effacing Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (1931-2015), the Missile Man of India,  a distinguished aerospace engineer, highly decorated with India’s national civilian honours (including the Bharat Ratna in 1997) for his immense contributions in building the base for India’s rocket and missile technology. He was an inspiration to civil society. Abdul Kalam eventually served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007. Kalam had nothing but sheer admiration for Dhawan. He wrote, “The unique feature of his teaching was that he created a spirit of research and enquiry in me, taught me how to design without giving me the design.[1]

Satish Dhawan himself was a gifted student. This is evident from his unusual academic profile:  a BA in physics and mathematics (1938), an MA in English literature (1941), and a BE (with honors) in mechanical engineering (1945) from the Punjab University, Lahore.  In 1946 he travelled on a government scholarship to the United States. There, at the University of Minnesota, he earned an MS in aeronautical engineering in 1947, and from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) he earned the Engineer’s degree in 1949 in aeronautics and a PhD in aeronautics and mathematics in 1951. His PhD  advisor was the renowned professor Hans W. Liepmann who along with Anatol Roshko (also at Caltech) wrote a classic textbook, Elements of Gas Dynamics, in 1957.

Dhawan’s Caltech years gave him the breadth of scholarship, depth of research and an opportunity to hone his skills in investigating problems independently and efficiently. From this point onwards his professional career would be stamped with these rare qualities from which others like Abdul Kalam would benefit in their early professional years and into the future. Dhawan’s Engineer’s and PhD theses, respectively, were

  • Dhawan, Satish. Engineer’s thesis, On the design and use of a flexible nozzle for the Galcit transonic tunnel. California Institute of Technology, June 1949.[2]
  • Dhawan, Satish. Direct measurements of skin friction. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology, 1951.[3]

Taken together the scientific output was very significant as they produced some pioneering work on boundary layer flows in fluids. Liepmann and his two students Roshko, and Dhawan worked together and demonstrated the importance of the state of the boundary layer, laminar vs. turbulent, on resulting shock-wave pattern and pressure distribution. This was Dhawan’s first participation in active research.[4] This classic work is elegantly presented in NACA Report No. 1100 published in 1952.[5] The trio worked and got along so well that it “laid the foundation” for their lasting friendship over the next half century. Following this work, Dhawan started his PhD work on the direct measurement of skin friction.[6]

In his PhD thesis, Dhawan showed great ingenuity in developing a device to measure local skin friction on a flat plate by measuring the force exerted upon a minute movable part of the plate by means of a reactance device. The device was then used to make accurate measurements in  the low speed range, both for laminar and turbulent boundary layers and then in the high speed subsonic range in turbulent boundary layers. Finally, some measurements were made in supersonic flow. Those were the days when wave drag and induced drag experienced by a body moving through a fluid were much better understood than skin friction and boundary layer whether in theory or in experiment. A much better understanding was critically needed to design high speed aircraft (e.g., fighters) and missiles. The research done was a great success and Dhawan’s stature as an outstanding researcher was established. His PhD thesis (with minor editorial changes) also appeared as a NACA Report in 1953.[7]    

In addition, Dhawan and Roshko collaborated on the design and construction of an ingenious flexible nozzle for conducting research in supersonic flows. At Caltech, Dhawan’s entire time was spent at the Graduate  Aerospace Laboratories of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT); its first director was the Hungarian aerospace genius Theodore von Kármán (1881–1963) from 1930 to 1949.            

In 1951 Dhawan returned to India and joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) as a scientific officer. In 1955, he became a professor and head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering succeeding (O.G. Tietjens, 1948 – 1955) and, in 1963, was appointed director of the institute (succeeding Suri Bhagavantam, 1957–1962), a position he occupied till 1981. Throughout his career, the influence of Caltech and Liepmann is highly visible. In scope and aim, he clearly wanted to emulate GALCIT. As Liepmann wrote about his association with Dhawan: “Ever since then, we in GALCIT have had close contacts with the Indian Institute of Science, and thus a calibration station for admission, leading to some excellent Indian graduate students at GALCIT.”[8]

During his tenure as director of IISc, he set about rejuvenating the Institute with foresight and vision and expanded its academic scope by introducing new disciplines that included automation and control; materials science; molecular biology and biophysics; computer science; technology for rural areas; theoretical physics, applied mathematics; solid state chemistry; and atmospheric sciences,[9] while augmenting the faculty with new talent.  

During 1971–72 Dhawan was a visiting professor at Caltech on a sabbatical. While there, Vikram Sarabhai, highly regarded as the Father of the India’s space program, unexpectedly passed away on 30 December 1971, creating a sudden leadership vacuum in the nascent program. The then prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi promptly and urgently summoned Dhawan to return to India and take charge of the program. Dhawan agreed but only after some pragmatic conditions articulated by him were conceded. They included

¼ his views about the space program that India should pursue, its administrative structure, and the need to keep it away from Delhi. If these were accepted he would be honored to lead the program. The government agreed, and a new structure was set up involving a policymaking Space Commission, an administrative arm of the government called the Department of Space. And a science and technology agency called the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)—all three headed by one person.[10]

Thus began a parallel career track for Dhawan who continued to be the director of IISc at Bangalore. He convinced the government that this arrangement would bring synergy to the space program as it would establish the necessary close ties between the IISc and ISRO in developing space technology. This was clearly a variation of the GALCIT model he had seen work remarkably well at Caltech. He was persuasive enough. On a token salary of Rs. 1 per month, he became the chairman of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the chairman of the Indian Space Commission.

Dhawan’s strategy for organizing India’s space program carried great foresight. This is reflected in the resolution setting up the Space Commission and the Department of Space. It read:

In order to promote a rapid development of activities connected with the Space Science, Space Technology and Space Applications, the Government of India consider it necessary to set up an organization, free from all non-essential restrictions or needlessly inelastic rules, which will have responsibility in the entire field of Science and Technology of Outer Space and their Applications.”[11]

The Space Commission was established with full executive and financial powers modeled on the lines of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Dhawan well knew the exasperating and dampening effect a scientifically uninformed government bureaucracy has on the development of forward looking science and technology, and the herculean efforts needed to counter it. I got a sardonic expression of it from him in a chance encounter when I made a casual remark about the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project India had just initiated, while watching a hang gliding demonstration in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) sometime in the 1980s.

Dhawan wanted the space program to have a sustainable national relevance with close interfaces with end users. One of his primary aim was to make space technology work for the development of Indian society, starting from the grassroots. He constantly worried about the lower strata of society and how they could be uplifted with a humane protective cover provided by space technology—the unemployed, unskilled, uneducated—without being uprooted, displaced, and dispossessed of their pristine cultural heritage. He had a deep sense of moral order and social justice.

Among his scientific and technical contribution to the space program was the final configuration—solid-liquid-solid-liquid—of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the dependable workhorse of ISRO. Dhawan based the configuration on a mix of factors that included available technical expertise, infrastructure, launch schedule and funds.

Dhawan’s list of accolades include Distinguished Alumni Award in 1969 from Caltech, and an IISc Distinguished Alumni Award in 1981. He was elected to the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1970 and served as its president during 1977-1979. In 1978 he was elected to both the US National Academy of Engineering, and the Indian National Science Academy. He became a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1972. India honored him with the Padma Bhushan (1971), Padma Vibhushan (1981), the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration (1999), acknowledging him as “one of our foremost scientists, teachers, and national builders ¼ and [who] is deeply concerned with the solution of national problems through the use of science.” He received several honorary doctorates, including one from Cranfield Institute of Technology, UK. Following his death, the satellite launch centre at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh was renamed as the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.

Remarks by Hans Liepmann

Here are some views expressed by his mentor Professor Liepmann.[12]

“Satish was immediately accepted and respected by this highly competent and proud group of young scientists. He showed an unusual maturity in judging both scientific and human problems, a characteristic that today is called “leadership quality.”

“Satish could be tough without having to get mad first—a trait that I envy”

“Many years ago Satish told me that accurate weather prediction could improve India’s economy decisively. With the flock of satellites he helped organize, Satish did indeed do something about the weather. Now future geophysical satellites will be launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, named in his honor last September.”

All those who have come in touch with Dhawan have expressed similar views and sentiments. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan (former chairman of ISRO, 1994-2003) summed up nicely the human and humane persona of Dhawan, “a rare human being of his kind – a lovable teacher, an intense researcher, an innovative technologist, an able institution builder and an excellent academic administrator, all at the same time but distinctly visible.”[13] His MA in English literature strikingly stands out in his academic record; it gave him an unusual edge in communicating with the high and mighty and added wit and luster to his personality that never failed to charm people.

My brief recollections  

During my career at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) at Bangalore (1971-1995), Dhawan was Chairman, Research Council of NAL (1984–93), I have exchanged perhaps a-dozen sentences with him on various occasions in informal surroundings but had enough opportunity to listen to him between those sentences. I first heard of his academic background as presented here from him in addition to snippets of his younger days at a dinner party in Bangalore sometime in the 1980s. A few of us had gathered around him and we heard him in fascination as he recounted those days. We gasped when he mentioned studying for his MA in English. It was so unexpected! On another occasion I felt that he had some faint idea about my research work, more specifically a research paper of mine that Sir James Lighthill, FRS and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (1969-1979, succeeding Paul Dirac), had favourably commented on in a letter to me in 1991 and which I had shared with some colleagues and friends. My greatest impression about Dhawan was formed when I met Professor Liepmann in his office at Caltech in early 1980. I curiously asked him how he chose students from India. His response was remarkably simple. He said he knew very little about the Indian education system and therefore had no particular method. But if “Satish makes a recommendation” we don’t ask questions; we simply accept the person!  It was therefore a great pleasure for me to learn that Dhawan was posthumously admitted to GALCIT’s Hall of Fame in 2018. I was also very disappointed the day I met Liepmann in not being able to meet Professor Richard Feynman who was indisposed that day on account of his cancer. I consider Feynman as my only teacher from whom I learnt physics from his enduring “Lectures on Physics, Vols. I-III”. I wanted to tell him how grateful I was.

I have always wondered If Feynman’s Lectures and Liepmann & Roshko’s book on Gas Dynamics could teach me so much in absentia, how much more I would have learnt if I had been in Caltech. It was quite obvious to me that Dhawan did benefit enormously from the environment and culture at Caltech which was further burnished by his MA in English literature.  Of the many Indian Caltech alumni I have met and know, none has impressed me as Dhawan has. The difference I believe was his MA in English literature. It made him a person one felt delighted to know and listen.

Hans Liepmann passed away on 24 June 2009. He was the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics, 1945–1985, Emeritus and the third director at the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT, 1972-1985).[14] Anatol Roshko later became the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics at GALCIT (1955–1994), a position Liepmann once occupied. Roshko passed away on 23 January 2017. He was 93.

Professor Rajendra Bera is the author of a forthcoming book, The Amazing World of Quantum Computing to be published by Springer Nature. He is also the sole inventor on 28 US patents, all assigned to IBM.



Abdul Kalam (2003). Abdul Kalam, A. P. J.  Satish Dhawan– A creative teacher”, Resonance. October 2003, pp 56-62. https://www.ias.ac.in/describe/article/reso/008/10/0056-0062

Dhawan (1949). Dhawan, S. On the design and use of a flexible nozzle for the Galcit transonic tunnel. Engineer’s Thesis, California Institute of Technology. June 1949. https://thesis.library.caltech.edu/1422/ and https://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechETD:etd-04202004-110634

Dhawan (1951). Dhawan, S. Direct measurements of skin friction. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. 1951. https://thesis.library.caltech.edu/3779/1/Dhawan_s_1951.pdf

Dhawan, S. Direct measurements of skin friction”, Technical Report 1121, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Washington DC. 1953. Available at https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930092157.pdf (It is essentially Dhawan’s PhD thesis).

Kasturirangan (2003). Kasturirangan, K. About Prof. Satish Dhawan. Resonance, October 2003, pp. 48-55. https://www.ias.ac.in/public/Volumes/reso/008/10/0048-0055.pdf

Liepmann (2002). Liepmann, H. Satish Dhawan 1920-2002. Remembering Satish Dhawan. Engineering & Science, No. 4, pp. 41-43. http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/4072/1/Obituaries.pdf

Liepmann, Roshko, and Dhawan (1952). Liepmann, H. W., Roshko, A., and Dhawan, S. On reflection of shock waves from boundary layers. NACA-TR-1100, 1952. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930090967.pdf

Narasimha & Siddhartha (2015). Narasimha, R., and Siddhartha, V. Chapter: Satish Dhawan, 1920—2002. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, U.S.A., Vol. 19, Memorial Tributes. The National Academies Press, Washington D.C.  2015. https://www.nap.edu/read/21785/chapter/18


[1] Abdul Kalam (2003).

[2] Dhawan (1949).

[3] Dhawan (1951).

[4] Liepmann (2002).

[5] Liepmann, Roshko, and Dhawan (1952).

[6] Liepmann (2002).

[7] Dhawan (1953).

[8] Liepmann (2002).

[9] Narasimha & Siddhartha (2015).

[10] Narasimha & Siddhartha (2015).

[11] As quoted in Kasturirangan (2003).

[12] Liepmann (2002).

[13] Kasturirangan (2003). 

[14] Caltech (n.d.). GALCIT History. Caltech. http://galcit.caltech.edu/about/history