Lessons Learnt running a Student Space Organisation in India

From the Wikipedia posts last month, I have been dwelling a bit in the past. This has been for two reasons, to re-establish some connections with the space community and to make sure that I have closed all the old open loops. One of the open loops that I found was sharing what I had learnt from running a space organisation in India. This post hopes to close that loop. This is also a post that my friend Srinivas Laxman has been after me to finish and publish. This is also the result of various conversations that I have had since then. Although unnamed, I’d like to thank these people for putting several things in perspective.

I started the Indian chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) as an information-sharing, project based and activist space organisation. While it fulfilled the objectives of information sharing, the number of projects it did or the space activism it did or does can be found lacking.

For starters, there are quite a few people who love to stop you from running a space organisation in India. There are very few who will encourage you. I got stuff like, “You already have enough on your plate getting a mechanical engineering degree from Mumbai University, why do you want to burden that trying to run a space organisation?” or jabs that was even taken to my final semester practical exams by jealous professors in front of the external examiner. It requires thick skin, personally and the ability to laugh at yourself and have the strength to push through. You also need the wisdom to learn when to stop. When your life goes or begins to go for a toss, it is usually a good time to pause and fix your life. If you still want to start and run a space organisation, do consider some of the things I share here and make your call. Please take some time out to share what you learned, in the end so that some one else can benefit from what you learned.

When you begin a space organisation and seek people who can become members, some of the common things you will hear is what benefit they will get out of it. This is a fair question. Only thing, just the chance to discuss with a bunch of strangers your passion for space exploration and some activities is not sufficient for them to put in money, which you need to legally register the organisation in India. You do not get help unless they are close friends, who help reluctantly. You do not see people offering to share telescopes with you so that you can put a star gazing session. You see people asking for free stuff – newsletters, t-shirts, badges and what not. Mind you, this is not just for a space organisation but any non-profit that you want to start in India. Later on, even if you get people to work with on or for various activities, you will find it difficult to find people who can help you with paperwork or administration. This is stuff you need to do – given India’s non-profit laws and structure.

In SEDS, I used the information sharing to spark in a few peers interest in various areas – rocketry, satellite building, cansats etc. These turned out to be projects that started off, worked well into the planning and design phase but got stuck in the hardware stage. This was mainly due to the lack of Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) stuff available for space in hobby shops and other stores and limited access to workshop in engineering colleges. Even with access to workshops, very few found it worth their while to actually manufacture hardware. Very few SEDS projects reached the hardware stage.

When faced with challenges in accessing and testing hardware in India, students found it easier to just give up on the projects rather than raise questions with officials and try to open communication lines with people in India’s space agency, ISRO or the Government. Students seemed averse to the idea of activism that would enable space activities to progress beyond the design stage. For reasons that I am not able to figure out, this activism did not come even for information sharing by ISRO prior to launches, etc. For me, this led to a frustrating phase. Coupled with frustrations in my own studies, I found it easier to leave space for a while and fix my life.

SEDS continues to function today. I have kept away from it deliberately to encourage the students of today to take a call on what they think they should work on.

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