Dr. Vikram Sarabhai: The man who fathered the Indian space program


By Nithin Sridhar

On the 12th of August in 1919, Sarla Devi, wife of noted industrialist Ambalal Sarabhai, gave birth to a son in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, who later grew up to become the father of Indian space program.

Picture credit: en.wikipedia.org
Picture credit: en.wikipedia.org

Today is the 96th birth anniversary of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the renowned Indian physicist who was instrumental in the establishment of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was one among the eight children of Sarla Devi. His early education happened at a private school and he passed his matriculation from Gujarat College in Ahmedabad. After matriculation, he joined St. John’s College, University of Cambridge in England. In 1940, he received Tripos in Natural Sciences.

In 1942, he got married to Mrinalini Sarabhai, a celebrated Indian Classical dancer and choreographer. When the second World War started, he briefly returned to India and worked under Dr. C.V.Raman at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. In 1945, he went back to Cambridge and completed his PhD.

When India got its independence in 1947, Dr. Sarabhai returned back to India. He persuaded various friends and charitable institutions controlled by his family to fund a research institute in Ahmedabad. His efforts led to the establishment of Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) on 11 November 1947. He set up various observation centers across the country due to his interest in studying solar physics and cosmic rays. He was also instrumental in the establishment of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. But, his most important contribution was the setting up of ISRO.

In 1962, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru founded Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with Dr. Sarabhai as its chairman. This INCOSPAR later grew and became ISRO in 1969. Dr. Sarabhai had to do a lot of convincing regarding the importance of a space program before the government finally gave a consent to it. Dr. Sarabhai has been often quoted as saying:

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. 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.”

Apart from heading ISRO, Dr. Sarabhai was also appointed as the Chairman of Atomic Commission in 1966, after the death of Dr. Homi Bhabha in an air-crash.

When Dr. Bhabha was alive, he helped Dr. Sarabhai to set up India’s first rocket launching station. The station was established near Thiruvananthapuram on the coast of Arabian Sea and the inaugural flight with sodium vapor payload was launched in November 1963.

The efforts at fabrication and launching of the first Indian satellite was started by Dr. Sarabhai which finally bore fruit in 1975, when “Aryabhata” was put into orbit.

Dr. Sarabhai passed away on 31st December 1971 at Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. The cause of death was determined as heart attack due to excessive stress. The contribution of Dr. Sarabhai to Indian society is very vast and diverse. He was instrumental in founding many institutions like Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad, Nehru Foundation for Development in Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad Textiles Industrial Research Association (ATIRA), Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, Darpana Academy of Performing Art in Ahmedabad, Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) in Kalpakkam, and Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Bihar among many others.

Dr. Sarabhai was awarded Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in the Republic of India, in 1966 and was posthumously awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award bestowed in India.