Rocket Scientist
Soars to New Heights

Written by Judy Tierney

The year was 1957. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, accelerating the Soviet-U.S. space race and ultimately leading to the creation of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Meanwhile, 2,500 miles away, in Chuhar Chak, a small village in Punjab, India, the wonders of this world of space exploration were capturing the imagination and curiosity of a young boy who would later play a major role in shaping the aerospace industry.

Dr. Surinder Sharma Surinder and his wife Rashma at graduation in July 2017.

Although many of NCU’s graduates had not yet been born, the fascination and possibilities of this new frontier immediately took hold of Dr. Surinder Sharma, NCU’s 2017 Poster of the Year Award Winner. After finishing his primary and high school education, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College and then immigrated to Canada where he could be closer to the action.

In Canada, Sharma enrolled in the Master of Applied Sciences program at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. After graduation in the mid-1970s, he began working on first generation communication satellites for Telesat Canada.

“Because Canada is so large and sparsely populated, the only way to communicate to the smaller towns was via satellite,” Sharma explains. “When Telesat launched Anik-A1 in 1972, Canada became the first country in the world to have a domestic communication satellite in the geostationary orbit.”

NASA was the only organization that launched satellites, so Sharma was tasked with collaborating with the U.S. space organization. “I spent four intense months at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida preparing with the space shuttle and satellites,” recalls Sharma. “We partnered with astronauts, satellite manufacturers and other industry stakeholders to make sure everything worked properly before we successfully launched the first two commercial satellites in 1982 aboard the shuttle.”

Sharma’s plan was to work for several years before going back to school to earn his PhD. However, as it sometimes happens, life got in the way. For the next 40 years, Sharma excelled to the highest levels in his field.

When Higher Degrees spoke to Sharma and his wife Rashma at NCU’s 2017 graduation in July, they were holding Sharma’s United States Space Foundation Hall of Fame Award, one of the most prestigious honors in the aerospace and defense industry. Sharma was recognized for his role in helping to develop the satellite radio technology known today as Sirius XM Radio.

“Every great concept is developed through collaboration,” explains Sharma, reminiscing about his days at Sirius Satellite Radio in the 1990s and early 2000s. The company’s president, David Margolese, reached out to Sharma’s mentor, Robert Briskman, to discuss the possibility of beaming radio signals directly to cars, homes and businesses so that people could listen to the same programming no matter where they were.

“Every great concept is developed through collaboration.”

Dr. Surinder Sharma, NCU’s 2017 Poster of the Year Award Winner

“Rob and I did our slide ruler and back-of-the-envelope calculations and determined that we could do it,” says Sharma, recalling that they immediately became immersed in the project. “I was a workaholic back then and worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Rashma used to bring my two boys to the office to kiss me good night.”

After conducting a conceptual study and overcoming a series of significant hurdles, the team was granted a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license. “We then raised $1.8 billion dollars to develop and implement the technology which revolutionized the way we now listen to radio,” explains Sharma.

From there, Sharma started his own firm, providing technical and management consulting in satellite communications around the world. In 2013, while attending his youngest son’s white coat ceremony at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, Sharma’s long-time dream of earning his own doctoral degree was reignited. With support from Rashma and their sons, he enrolled in NCU’s School of Business and Technology Management to pursue a PhD specializing in management of engineering and technology.

“While it was Surinder’s decision to go back to school, I was 100 percent behind him and committed to helping him even though I did not have a background in engineering or aerospace,” says Rashma, a computer programmer with a master’s degree in psychology. “I was able to spend time helping with his research, and I found things that were very intriguing so it was a great learning experience for me too.”

Building from studies conducted by other researchers, Sharma’s dissertation work focused on how the technical and management competencies of U.S. government program managers impact the success of satellite acquisition programs. “Satellites play a major role in communications for government and civilian purposes, from national security and collecting intelligence to getting driving directions on our GPS and tracking the weather,” explains Sharma. “Unfortunately, these programs often experience cost overruns, schedule delays and performance shortfalls.”

“Earning a PhD has provided me with tools to help and support the aerospace and defense community. It is just remarkable.”

Dr. Surinder Sharma

His research verified that while both competencies are important for overall program success, management expertise is more critical than technical expertise. Additionally, the study determined that program context – external factors such as funding and human resources – which are out of the program managers’ control also play a key role. He learned that even a manager who is strong in both skill sets may fail without the proper financial resources and staffing.

Adding to the knowledge and work required constant collaboration with not only the other researchers, but also with NCU professors, mentors and an established network of business colleagues around the world. Countless hours were devoted to understanding previous studies, analyzing data and discussing findings. Sometimes he and Rashma would stay up all night researching, writing and sharing ideas.

Rashma was Sharma’s strongest critic, but also his biggest cheerleader. “In every letter or email I sent, even to Dean Bemski, I said my wife Rashma gets all the credit,” Sharma explains. “People say it takes a village, but you can never underestimate what a family working together can achieve. That, to me, is one of the greatest messages I’d like to convey to aspiring students.”

In 2017, Dr. Sharma graduated at age 69 with a 4.0 grade point average. As he approaches 70, he and Rashma view the PhD as the start of a new chapter. Although they are planning some personal time off to travel to India together, Rashma says they’ll be working on more journal articles and getting back to work part time.

“Earning a PhD has provided me with tools to help and support the aerospace and defense community,” says Sharma. “It is just remarkable.”

“This is bigger than being inducted into the aerospace Hall of Fame,” he concludes. “I found out how little I knew and how much there was to learn. There is still more for us to contribute so, this is not the end, it’s the beginning.”