It’s not for nothing that S. Somanath is referred to as the "people’s scientist" in scientific and academic circles.

It was quite appropriate then that Mr. Somanath’s keynote address dwelt on how people power transformed the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India’s space agency, from a “cauldron of events and a cauldron of technologies” to a world-class organization.

“People are the key in an organization,” he said. “If you have a set of inspired people in an organization, the organization will take care of itself.”

Tracing the history of ISRO, he said it was Vikram Sarabhai, who is considered the father of India’s space research program, who gave the organization a vision. When a newly independent India was struggling to build itself, along came Sarabhai, advocating an organization for space. Sarabhai persuaded research scholars from Europe and the U.S. to come to India and work. In the initial days, they worked in a shed and a church building with no infrastructure.

In a scenario where different people were focused on different objectives with no clear target, Satish Dhawan, another doyen of space research in the country, brought a different perspective. Mr. Somanath said Dhawan decided that the islands of work should be coalesced into a program, and thus started a launch vehicle project at ISRO.

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who later became the president of India, was chosen by Dhawan to lead the project. “Something fantastic happened to the organization,” Mr. Somanath said. “There was now a clear goal, a vision to do something. We substantially bridged the gap of 50 years that existed between India and the West.”

At a time when projects and project managers were unheard of, Kalam, along with former ISRO chairman K. Kasturirangan, is credited with creating systems in the organization. Mr. Somanath spoke about some of the other important leaders at ISRO, such as its former chairmen: Madhavan Nair, who brought energy to the team, K. Radhakrishnan, who spotted talent and mentored people, and A. S. Kiran Kumar, who believed that abilities are never fully brought out unless challenged.

In conclusion, he said that when you leave an organization, you do not leave behind only something you have built. You leave behind memories and the people you have inspired.