Mangalyaan and more: Isro scientists prove why they're the coolest at Reddit AMA

By FP Staff

So the Mangalyaan mission has been a success with congratulations pouring in from the PM to NASA to pretty much everyone else. We also know the key names from ISRO who made this Mangalyaan mission a success.

But what is it really like to work at ISRO for a young engineer? Are they geeky, what's the number of women like? These are questions that three ISRO scientists answered on an AMA session (Ask me anything) on Reddit. You can check out the full session here.

So what did the ISRO AMA reveal to us? We take a quick look at some important things.

On Food: One redditor asked "Where do you get food from while at work, and does dominoes deliver? What do rocket scientists eat when working?"

Sadly Dominoes doesn't deliver right into the office. As the ISRO scientists revealed, you'll have to walk to get your pizza due to security issues.

They wrote, "We have our internal canteen, and no, Dominos doesn't deliver because our security stops them. You can get them to deliver if you can go to the main security check point at the entrance and take the delivery (in urban centres). For most centres in southern India, rice, curries, chapatis, and various veggies are the usual lunch. There is sweetmeat every now and then and special food on some occasions, but mostly traditional Indian food. Also, no ISRO meal is complete without a bowl of yoghurt."

So a little bit boring.

On Salary: Of course this is question that would dominate the minds of most Indians. Seriously though how much does an Indian scientist make in the beginning is an intriguing question and the answer isn't too bad.

According to ISRO scientists: "The pay is more than 6.5 Lakhs per annum without taxes. There are good insurances with nominal contributions."

They also said that they have a lot of sarkari perks which are expected. There's also a "health service scheme that provides access to multi and super speciality hospitals at a nominal monthly contribution."

And there's a more detailed answer on salaries as well: "The youngest engineer in ISRO makes (without taxes), currently 6.4 lakh per annum without deductions, at Bangalore. Add 48k to that when we get PRIS. Add another 30k if the DA becomes 100% next month. So, about 7.2 lakh per annum without any deductions (Starting salary)." Now that package might not be as good as any high-flying MBA job, but perks include housing, transport, health service scheme, etc which sounds good.

On the whole 'we're spending money on space and not poverty debate: This was clearly a knock-out answer. When asked about the whole cost debate around the Mars mission, the ISRO scientists pointed out that a) not only was their stuff cheaper than NASA's but b) it was their satellites that helped ensure India was prepared for Cyclone Phallin.

They wrote,

"The other things which need the said attention and funds are more of an operations problem than of finance. Our Mars mission cost a fifth of what a planned 'Statue of Unity' is going to cost. NASA's projected budget for 2013 is about $ 18 Billion, which will approximately be 0.5% of the total US budget. ISRO's allotted budget for fiscal year 2013-14 is $ 950 Million, almost 19 times less, and is about 0.33% of the total Indian budget. So, no, ISRO is not taking a bite out of the poor and hungry Indian's pie. In fact, through its remote sensing and communication programs (IRS and INSAT), we are only helping build an essential infrastructure for the country. Then, there is disaster management: we saved millions (of lives and dollars, both) by being well prepared for the cyclone Phailin. That is where maintaining cutting edge technological capability through R & D pays! Remote sensing helps our farmers and fishermen: the beloved poor-hungry-Indians and enables them to buy food. Giving them food, is not the answer. And our communication satellites are well, apart from connecting the remotest parts of a diverse and large country (telemedicine and edusat), are enabling me to answer this question in real time."

Tax breaks: Sadly they don't get any. They write, "We don't get any tax breaks, we rather pay a 'professional tax' apart from the income tax. 😛 There are some pension deductions too, but we get that back when we retire (either as pension or in bulk)."

On Work Hours: According to one ISRO scientist's answer it looks like the work hours are long at the organisation. "I have delivered a 85 hour work week 2 weeks ago, right now, the number is 60. The rule says you can't be asked for more than 40," wrote one of them. They also added that the working shift week is usually from Monday to Friday in most places but "operations related centres" also have "holiday-less shifts."

Representational image of ISRO scientists. AFP

On satisfaction levels at ISRO: The scientists wrote, "Most of my coworkers who have left ISRO (very few in numbers) did so because they wanted other things in life. Like money(went for management), or power (went for administrative services)."

They also wrote that you won't be doing the cool-stuff as soon as you join and yes there's office politics too. "Everyone obviously does not get to work on the exciting stuff. Someone has to do the other work, but it is always the organisation first. I would say the satisfaction levels among the younger engineers are slightly lower, which leads to higher attrition. There is internal politics, just like any other place."

What the seniors are like: According to one response, "Senior scientists still forward early 21st century chain mails." Another Reddit user asked if you can be cheeky with the seniors.

The ISRO scientists replied: "Yes. Just make sure you are right, checking and re-checking is your duty. Mistakes are allowed, but being cocky while making one is not really cool, is it?"

Another wrote, "It's a mixed bag. They are very supportive and always ask for ideas but then, everyone has ideas. It usually takes a lot of effort to get an idea across and get a unilateral acceptance. And then there are ego issues. After all we are all human."

The Humour side : The ISRO scientists weren't afraid to showcase their humourous side as well. When asked if they would get the gold coin that every employee got after Chandrayaan, they replied, " Yeah, that was probably the biggest thing ever given to employees. We were not in ISRO then, so cannot comment. Hope they give one now after Mars mission and D5."

When someone asked why ISRO was building a third launch pad in the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota and not somewhere else, they replied,"Because we must have it on the east coast (to use earth's rotation in our favour) and we can't have it further down south on the east coast due the existence of a populated landmass called Sri Lanka. If anything goes wrong, it should fall into the sea, not on another country." Nobody can disagree with that logic. When asked what India would need to get a company like SpaceX, they replied Elon Musk.

Finally the best response was when someone asked if they as a private citizen could fund ISRO. The ISRO scientists replied, Pay your taxes. That's the only way."

On the use of social media: The ISRO scientists wrote about how the organisation has also improved their social media presence. The Mars Orbiter is already on Twitter. However they admitted that the webcasts were still bad.

They wrote, "Earlier, online coverage, photos and webcast were bad. However, the facebook presence now has greatly improved things. Photos are way way better and updates are really good. The facebook experiment has gone really well and is helping ISRO to reach a wider audience. However, much more needs to be done. There were live videos for all missions, shown on DD national. The webcast is pathetic, as you said. I don’t know why the resolution is so bad given that DD broadcasts in HD. Also, the webcast requires a Windows media player plugin. Who uses that?"

What happens when a project fails: They wrote, "The load usually gets destroyed or just gets thrown into an unintended orbit (depends on where the failure occurs). Yes, if the satellites have a good amount of fuel, the orbit can be corrected and the satellites can be used. However, this can't be done if the launch vehicle fails at an early stage."

What's their love like and the gender ratio as ISRO: When asked "do women dig ISRO scientists?", one of them replied, "Oh yes, cool all the way. I don't know about other scientists but they sure dig me." However his friend quickly revealed the truth saying, "He's kidding. I know for a fact that he is more single than Lance Armstrong's nut."

The scientists also revealed that ISRO has a "lot of young people, fairly good number of females, varies from centre to centre" working in the organisation.

And finally what about aliens: The scientists were asked, "Are we alone in the universe and Have you noticed extraterrestrial ufo's monitoring earth?" They replied that "Maybe, both possibilities are equally scary" and "No, not yet."