Bengaluru: Dr Vikram Sarabhai is widely known as the ‘father of the Indian space programme’. He helped establish the Indian space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and led it as chairman.
Sarabhai was also responsible for setting up multiple other institutions in the country, including the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, and the Variable Energy Cyclotron Project, Kolkata. He also set up the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, with his wife, the famed dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai.
He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1966 and a posthumous Padma Vibhushan in 1972.
Sarabhai died of unknown causes on 30 December 1971 in Kerala, after having inaugurated the Thumba Railway Station earlier in the day.
Born into a wealthy family
Sarabhai was born into a wealthy industrialist family on 12 August 1919. His father Ambalal Sarabhai built Calico Mills, one of Ahmedabad’s oldest textile mills that ran for over a century. His family were committed members of the Quit India Movement against the British Raj.
Vikram Sarabhai completed his schooling in Gujarat and attended Gujarat College, but dropped out to join the University of Cambridge, UK. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in natural sciences in 1940.
Due to the immense restrictions caused by the Second World War, Sarabhai returned to India and worked on cosmic rays under physicist C.V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. Keen on pursuing a doctorate, he returned to Cambridge in 1945, and defended his thesis, titled ‘Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes’, in 1947.
The same year, aged 28, he returned to India, and established the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad with the aid of charitable trusts and endowments from industrialist friends, to continue his work on cosmic rays. The institute, which came to be known as the “cradle of space sciences” in India, is still one of the world’s leading research institutions for space and allied sciences.
Having a keen interest in industry as well, he set up the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association the same year.
Acknowledging the need for management and business education in India, Sarabhai set up IIM-A in 1962, modelling it after the Harvard Business School. A connoisseur of the arts, he also set up the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts with wife Mrinalini in 1949.
Other projects and institutions Sarabhai was involved in establishing include the Operations Research Group (ORG), the Nehru Foundation for Development in Ahmedabad, the Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad, the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) in Kalpakkam, the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) in Hyderabad, and the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jaduguda, Jharkhand.
He also served as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India from 1966-1971, and is widely credited with continuing the legendary Homi Bhabha’s work and establishing India’s nuclear power plants.
ISRO and legacy
After the erstwhile USSR’s Sputnik satellite was launched in 1957, the entire attention of the physics community shifted towards space sciences. Many countries ramped up their development of a space programme.
In India, Sarabhai and his peers wrote to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to start a space programme, which came to be known as the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). At INCOSPAR, Sarabhai worked with Bhabha to set up India’s first rocket station in Thumba, called the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. India’s first sounding rocket was launched on 21 November 1963.
INCOSPAR was revamped and rechristened ISRO in 1969. Here, Sarabhai was instrumental in building India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, which was launched in 1975, four years after his death.
Sarabhai collaborated with foreign space agencies regularly to make space more accessible to Indian citizens and build the Indian space programme. He entered into an agreement with NASA in the 1970s to use their satellites to broadcast educational programmes to more than 5,000 Indian villages.
Sarabhai’s legacy lives strong today and continues in the Indian space programme and the nuclear programme, both of which focus on indigenous development — just as he envisioned.
The lander of India’s Chandrayaan-2, Vikram, was named after him, and so was the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), ISRO’s facility for rocket development in Thiruvananthapuram.
A crater on the moon, at Mare Serenitatis or Sea of Serenity, visible to us on the near side, is called the Sarabhai crater in his honour.