Meet Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer who taught rocket science to India
"There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose," Dr. Vikra Sarabhai had said as he laid the foundation of India's space program as the country was still emerging from the shadows of the British empire and a brutal partition.
December 30 marks the 51st death anniversary of the physicist, who envisioned India's rise into space and the need to go beyond the borders of our planet, even as the country was struggling to put three meals on the table. He laid the foundation of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in 1969 and, in the five decades since then, India has not only left the planet but has also ventured onto the Moon and Mars.
Vikram Sarabhai was born on 12 August 1919 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and came from an illustrious business family, who were industrialists at the time. Vikram Sarabhai was one of the eight children of Ambalal and Sarla Devi. While the family was involved in the Indian freedom movement, Vikram Sarabhai was attracted to the sciences from an early age.
While he attained his early education in India, he moved to the University of Cambridge in England for higher studies and returned to a free India in 1947. He worked for his Ph.D. under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Sir C. V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
In 1962, he took over the responsibility of organising Space Research in India as Chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR).
He was able to convince the government of the importance of a space program for a developing country like India in the wake of the Russian testing of the Sputnik satellite. However, before that, he had already founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad in 1947 to continue research activities.
"We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society," he said at the time.
He established the first rocket launching station in India at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram on the coast of the Arabian Sea, primarily because of its proximity to the equator. India launched its inaugural flight to space on November 21, 1963, with a sodium vapour payload. Dr. Sarabhai then started a project for the fabrication and launch of an Indian satellite. As a result, the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, was put in orbit in 1975 from a Russian Cosmodrome.
It was his efforts that led to the development of India's workhorse rocket the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). He also mentored former president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, India's foremost rocket scientist. Dr. Sarabhai is credited with the creation of not just Isro but also the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, Variable Energy Cyclotron Project, Calcutta, Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar among others.
The cosmic ray and space scientist was awarded the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award for Physics in 1962 and was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1966. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan posthumously.