Envisioned to fulfill the requirements of scientists and engineers in the Indian Space Program, by offering undergraduate and postgraduate education and research programmes in space science and technology, the institute started functioning from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) campus, Thiruvananthapuram, on 14 September 2007 with an initial investment of ₹270 crores and annual recurring cost of ₹400 million by the state Government. The expenditure of each student during the course is supported by ISRO in the form of scholarships or assistantships, and successful students meeting a prescribed criteria are subsequently absorbed into ISRO as scientists. It is the only institute of its kind in India, which offers a BTech degree in Space Technology, and subjects exclusive to the arena of space science and technology. B. N. Suresh, former director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, is the founding director of the institute.
On 14 July 2008, the Union Human Resource Development Ministry, on the advice of the University Grants Commission (UGC), conferred deemed university status, under a new category, to the institute for a period of five years.
At its inception, the institute started functioning at the ATF Campus, under Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala. Modern environmentally friendly buildings of unique architecture merge well with the thickly wooded campus of 100 acres situated on the foot hills of Sahyadri.
A state-of-the-art residential campus built near Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre in Valiamala, Nedumangad, Thiruvananthapuram was inaugurated by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India on 25 August 2009. The institute started functioning in its new campus from 15 August 2010. The campus has an extension in the picturesque Ponmudi Hills, Thiruvananthapuram, for an observatory which is under construction.
IIST offers undergraduate (BTech), master's (MTech) and PhD programs in space science and technology, and also serves as a research centre. Doctoral programs in basic sciences and post-doctoral programs are also offered. Till 2013 batch, three different courses in BTech were offered, namely BTech in Aerospace, Avionics and Physical Sciences. As of 2014 admissions, a new 5-year Dual Degree (BTech + MTech/M.S) in Engineering Physics replaced the existing Physical Sciences branch. The MTech/M.S can be done in any of the following – M.S. in Astronomy & Astrophysics, M.S. in Earth System Science, M.S. in Solid State Physics or MTech in Optical Engineering. The seats are limited to 20 in the dual degree program from the existing 36 in Physical Sciences. 60 students each are admitted to the Aerospace and Avionics branches.
The admissions to the undergraduate (BTech) programmes for 2013 and 2014 were made through the All India Rank List prepared and published by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), based on the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) – Main. Previously, IIST admitted students through the IIT-JEE rank lists from 2007 to 2009, and conducted its own entrance exam called ISAT) from 2010 to 2012. However, applicants will need to qualify the JEE Advanced exam, and marks obtained in the same will be used in determining the eligibility of the candidate IIST offers 156 seats for admission to its B.Tech programmes in Aerospace Engineering, Avionics and Physical Sciences. Over 100,000 aspirants applied for these seats in ISAT 2012 making IIST one of the most selective institutes in India.
The applications for admission to MTech courses are invited directly and students are shortlisted based on undergraduate academic performance, GATE score and projects undertaken by them.
- Department of Mathematics
- Department of Physics
- Department of Chemistry
- Department of Earth and Space sciences
- Department of Aerospace Engineering
- Department of [[Avionics]]
- Department of Humanities
It has been ranked 8th among all universities of India by the NIRF adopted by HRD ministry, India in April 2016.
IIST also has a small observatory on campus equipped with an 8-inch Newtonian telescope. A 14-inch telescope will replace the 8-inch telescope in the near future. The telescope is housed in a dome on top of the Physical Sciences academic block. The dome is powered by two sets of solar panels.
VYOM ('sky' in Sanskrit) is the Sounding Rocket designed by the BTech students of IIST. Vyom had its maiden flight on 11 May 2012 when it took to the sky from TERLS. and the mission was a total success.The objective of the launch was to flight-test the solid rocket motor and the accelerometer payload developed for the project. Vyom is the first student made sounding rocket in Asia and the Vyom Mk II was planned for launch in 2015. IIST also runs a student satellite project, which is also slated for launch in 2014–2015 on board the PSLV.
IEEE student branch at IIST was formed in 2011 with Avionics as the co-ordinating department. Dr. B. S. Manoj serves as the student branch counselor. It provides a platform for students' development in the technical areas of Electrical, Electronics, and Computer Science and Engineering related areas. IEEE IIST SB organises various Distinguished Lectures and training programs to benefit the membership.
This is a student initiative at IIST to bring the creativity, experience, and ideas together. The club was formally inaugurated on 4 November 2013 with Dr. Pradeep Kumar and Dr. Praveen Krishna as its mentors.It serves as a platform to explore the student’s latent talents and thereby enable them to come out with their innovative ideas and thoughts.Members of this club have organised an interactive sessions, Workshops, competitions throughout the year.Club has also organised guest lecture on Mars orbiter mission by Dr. Ramanan and a lecture on ISRO's RLV-TD project by Shri Shyam Mohan (Project Director of RLV-TD, VSSC).This club has also released its first annual magazine Udaan Mach1.0
This club exposes students to the wonders of space. In 2009, the club organised Aparimit, an astronomy festival, to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, the activities of which have since then been integrated into Conscientia, the Science and Technology Festival. Members of this club have organised two telescope-making workshops apart from night-sky observation sessions and invited many eminent astrophysicists and space scientists for seminars and talks. The club also runs an observatory on campus.
This club conducts weekly quiz sessions where members challenge each other on a variety of topics like art, literature, sports, science and technology, films, politics, etc. QC also conducts quizzes during Dhanak, the cultural festival and Conscientia, the technical festival. Every year, QC organises QCFixion, its annual general quiz in Thiruvananthapuram. Previous editions of QCFixion have seen participation from colleges all over Kerala.
Started in 2010, this club is a gathering ground for students who like to question the challenges of science. A wide variety of topics are dealt with in the Physics club through weekly seminars by students and faculty.
Under the Department of Chemistry, this club works on student projects on fabrication and development of advanced materials. It was set up in 2009 with the efforts of IIST's third batch of undergraduate students and the Chemistry Department.
The following student festivals are organised at IIST every year.
Conscientia is the Annual Astronomy and Technology Festival of IIST. Conscientia offers various challenging events in different fields of engineering and science, including astronomy, aerospace engineering, electronics, computer science, mechanical engineering, robotics, etc. From the year 2010, the astronomy festival Aparimit has been incorporated into Conscientia. The 2010 edition was inaugurated by IIST's Chancellor, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India. In just a few years, Conscientia has evolved to become the largest technical festival in the state of Kerala. The 2014 edition of the festival is going to start on 28 February 2014. The official website of the festival 
Dhanak is the Annual Cultural Festival of IIST. Named after the Urdu word for 'rainbow', it stands for the splash of colour and sunshine that this festival brings with it. It spans all facets of cultural activity, including dramatics, fine arts, literature, quizzing, music, dance, film-making, and photography. The most awaited moment at Dhanak is the pronite, in which a DJ/Band is invited to perform. Dhanak 2015 witnessed DJ VH1 Supersonic and Dhanak 2016 will feature DJ Sunburn.
Started as an intra-college event in March 2012, IIST MUN has now become a national inter-college Model United Nations with United Nations General Assembly council held successfully in September 2012, 2013, October 2014 and April 2015. It has become an annual event, the 2016 event to be held in April.
IIST has collaborations with Universities Space Research Association and California Institute of Technology. The Satish Dhawan fellowship at California Institute of Technology was announced by Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman, ISRO on 3 June 2013. The fellowship provides an opportunity every year starting from the winter session of the academic year 2013–14 to one meritorious graduating student from the Aerospace Department of IIST to be sponsored by the Department of Space, Government of India to pursue Masters in Aerospace Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Preliminary talks are on for an MoU with EADS and École Polytechnique.