Dr. S. Somanath is succeeding Dr. K. Sivan as the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). K. Sivan is completing his extended tenure on Friday. That makes us think, what does it take to become the chairman of India’s prestigious space research organisation? We look at the list of ISRO chairmen and their educational qualifications to find out.

List of ISRO chairmen and their educational qualifications

1. Vikram Sarabhai (1963–1971)

Vikram Sarabhai, internationally regarded as the Father of the Indian Space Program was a physicist and an astronomer. He was the founder of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). He initiated space research and helped develop nuclear power in India. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan (1966) and Padma Vibhushan in 1972 (posthumously). 


Vikram Sarabhai attended Gujarat College in Ahmedabad but moved to Cambridge University in 1940 to study natural sciences. He started his Ph.D. at Cambridge University in 1945 and wrote a thesis on “Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes,” in 1947.

2. M. G. K. Menon (January 1972 – September 1972)

Mambillikalathil Govind Kumar Menon was the successor of ISRO’s founder Vikram Sarabhai. He became the chairman of ISRO in January 1972. He studied at Jaswant College, Jodhpur, and the Royal Institute of Science, Bombay (now called The Institute of Science, Mumbai). He later moved to the University of Bristol for his Ph.D. in elementary particle physics under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Cecil F. Powell in 1953.


He has been awarded several prestigious awards like Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology (1960), Padma Bhushan (1968), FRS (1970), Padma Vibhushan (1985), and Abdus Salam Medal (1996).

3. Satish Dhawan (1972–1984)

Satish Dhawan was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. He succeeded M. G. K. Menon to be the third chairman of ISRO. He was the longest-serving chairman of ISRO. He studied at the University of the Punjab in Lahore, British India (now in Pakistan) and completed a Bachelor of Science in physics and mathematics, a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and a Master of Arts in English literature from there.


Later, he completed a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and an aeronautical engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology. He also did a double Ph.D. in mathematics and aerospace engineering. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1971, and Padma Vibhushan in 1981. 

4. Udupi Ramachandra Rao (1984–1994)

Udupi Ramachandra Rao was a space scientist. He is known as “The Satellite Man of India” and pioneered India’s first satellite launch Aryabhata in 1975. He became the fourth chairman of ISRO in 1884. He is the first Indian to be inducted at the Satellite Hall of Fame, Washington, and in the International Astronautics Federation (IAF). 


He completed his B.Sc. from Government Arts and Science College, Anantpur, M.Sc. from Banaras Hindu University, and Ph.D. at Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad under the guidance of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of ISRO. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1976, and Padma Vibhushan in 2017.

5. K. Kasturirangan (1994 – 27 August 2003)

Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan was the fifth chairman of ISRO. He is a space scientist and has been awarded the three major civilian awards from the Government of India: the Padma Shri (1982), Padma Bhushan (1992), and Padma Vibhushan (2000).


K. Kasturirangan graduated in Science with Honours from Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai, and obtained his Master of Science degree in Physics, from the University of Mumbai. He received his Doctorate Degree in Experimental High Energy Astronomy in 1971, working at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.

6. G. Madhavan Nair (September 2003 – 29 October 2009)

G. Madhavan Nair succeeded K. Kasturirangan to become the sixth chairman of ISRO. He did his B.Sc. in Engineering (1966) from the College of Engineering, Trivandrum with a specialization in Electronics & Communication Engineering. After completing his graduation, he attended a training program at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) Training School, Mumbai.


G. Madhavan Nair was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1998, and Padma Vibhushan in 2009 by the Government of India.

7. K. Radhakrishnan (30 October 2009 – 31 December 2014)

Koppillil Radhakrishnan headed the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) between November 2009 and December 2014 as Chairman of Space Commission, Secretary of the Department of Space, and Chairman of ISRO. He was the seventh chairman of ISRO.


He has a degree in Electrical Engineering from Kerala University. He studied management at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore. He obtained his doctorate from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, He wrote his thesis on ‘Some Strategies for the Management of Indian Earth Observation System’. He received the Padma Bhushan Award in 2014, for his contribution to Science and Engineering, especially in the field of Space Science and Technology.

8. Shailesh Nayak (1 January 2015 – 12 January 2015)

Shailesh Nayak was the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for a very small span of time. He was the Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences and was temporarily appointed as the Chairman of ISRO till the government could find a person to succeed K Radhakrishnan, who retired on December 31, 2014.


He did his Ph.D. in geology from M. S. University of Baroda, Vadodara, and specialized in Oceanography, Remote sensing. He was honoured with an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Andhra University in 2011 and Assam University in 2013. 

9. A.S. Kiran Kumar (14 January 2015 – 14 January 2018)

A.S. Kiran Kumar served as the chairman of ISRO from January 2015 to January 2018. He is credited with the development of key scientific instruments aboard the Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan space crafts. 


He completed his graduation in Physics (Honours), and MSc in Electronics from the National College of Bangalore University. He then did his MTech in Physical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He was awarded Padma Shri in 2014. He also received France’s highest civilian awardChevalier de l’Ordre national de la Lgion d’Honneur – for his contribution to India-France space cooperation in 2019.

10. K. Sivan (15 January 2018 – 14 January 2022)

K. Sivan is currently serving an extended tenure as the Chairman of ISRO. He is completing his tenure on 14th January 2022. Under his chairmanship, ISRO launched Chandrayaan 2, the second mission to the moon on 22 July 2019. 


Sivan is the son of a mango farmer and is the first graduate from his family. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Madras Institute of Technology, and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He earned a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 2006. K. Sivan will be succeeded by S. Somanath as the Chairman of ISRO.

11. S. Somanath (14 January 2022 -)

S. Somanath is an aerospace engineer and rocket technologist and is the newly appointed chairman of ISRO. He will be starting his tenure on 14th January 2022. He will be the 11th chairman of ISRO and will succeed K. Sivan for the position. He has previously served as the Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). He is known for his contributions to launch vehicle design.


S. Somanath has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from TKM College of Engineering, Kollam. He also has a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore with a specialization in Dynamics and Control.

The chairmen of ISRO come from different social and economic backgrounds with varied educational qualifications. It’s not just their educational qualification that made them the chairman, it’s their contribution to their respective fields. From the start of ISRO in 1963 by Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO has seen exceptional talents who have made the country proud.