Vikram Sarabhai: Father Of India’s Space Program

Vikram Sarabhai: Father Of India's Space Program

Vikram Sarabhai is an Indian physicist and astronomer. He spearheaded and helped start space research in India. He is therefore internationally known as the Father of the Indian Space Program. Sarabhai is also credited for developing nuclear power in India.

Early Life

Vikram Sarabhai was born on August 12, 1919, into the prominent Sarabhai family of industrialists, who were committed to the Indian independence movement.

He was the son of Ambalal Sarabhai, who was a very wealthy industrialist. Ambalal Sarabhai had amassed a lot of wealth allowing his children to pursue their interests. His mother was Saraladevi Sarabhai.

Vikram Sarabhai’s Education

Vikram was schooled in the family school started by his mother, Saraladevi Sarabhai, which was based on the Montessori model. He completed his intermediate exams from the Gujarat College, Ahmedabad after which he moved to the United Kingdom.

He studied in the University of Cambridge, England, where he took his tripos(undergraduate) in natural sciences in 1940. 

Due to World War II, Sarabhai returned to India. After his return to India, he worked in C.V. Raman’s lab at the Indian Institute of Science. He took up research in cosmic rays publishing his first research paper entitled “Time Distribution of Cosmic Rays” in the Proceedings of Indian Academy of Sciences.

After the end of the war, he returned to Cambridge University in 1945 to work towards his PhD in cosmic ray physics. In 1947, he was awarded a PhD by the Cambridge University for his thesis “Cosmic Ray investigation in Tropical Latitudes”. After getting his PhD he returned to India and continued his research in cosmic ray physics. In India, he studied interplanetary space, solar-terrestrial relationships and geomagnetism.

Vikram Sarabhai married classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai in 1942.
Vikram Sarabhai married classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai in 1942. (Source

Professional Life

Vikram Sarabhai is known as an institution builder, having helped establish countless research and industrial institutes in diverse fields. After returning from his PhD, he helped build his first institution, the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA).

With no formal training in the textile industry, Sarabhai managed to change the textile industry through sincere rigorous hard work. The formation of ATIRA led to the modernisation of the textile industry in India.

“There is no leader and there are no led. A leader, if one chooses to identify, one has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow. One wants permissive individuals who do not have a compelling need to reassure themselves that they are leaders” 
Quote By Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai was also instrumental in the setup of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad in 1947. PRL is one of the most important institutes for space sciences in India.

Sarabhai was a man of deep cultural interests. His interests ranged from music, photography to archaeology and fine arts. With his wife Mrinalini, he established Darpana, an institution devoted to the performing arts.

He also developed many institutes such as:
1. Indian Institute of Management (IIM)
2. Ahmedabad, Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR)
3. Kalpakkam, Variable Energy Cyclotron Project, Calcutta
4. Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Hyderabad
5. Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar.

Sarabhai did this by convincing prominent industrialists and organizations to sponsor the creation of these centres. The establishment of these centres was crucial to the growth of India.

After the death of Homi Bhabha in 1966, Vikram Sarabhai took up the mantle of chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India (later renamed as the Department of Atomic Energy). His work resulted in the development and establishment of India’s nuclear power plants. His work also laid the foundations for the indigenous development of nuclear technology for defence purposes.

Dr Bhaba was an enigmatic leader in the development of nuclear power in India. His death would have left an irreplaceable vacuum in Indian nuclear science, had it not been for Dr Vikram Sarabhai who stepped up and led India towards becoming a nuclear power.

The Indian Space Program

Vikram Sarabhai often spoke of the importance of establishing space research in India. He talked about how it was important to establish ourselves globally, as second to none in the application of technologies in space and hence play a meaningful role in the community of nations.

For this outcome, he established the Indian National Committee for Space Research in 1962, which was later renamed the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

The Nike-Apache rocket parts being brought to the Thumba launchpad using bicycles and bullock carts. (Source)

Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha, widely regarded as the father of India’s nuclear science program, supported Dr Vikram Sarabhai in setting up the first rocket launching station in India called the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram.

As a result of Dr Sarabhai’s efforts the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched during July 1975 – July 1976 in collaboration with NASA, and the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, was put in orbit in 1975 from a Russian cosmodrome. All these happened posthumously.

Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station
Mary Magdalene Church in Thumba can be seen on the left of the image. The bishop’s home was converted into an office, the church became the workshop, and cattle sheds served as storage houses and laboratories. Undeterred by the little funding and few facilities, a handful of enthusiastic young Indian scientists began assembling their first rocket. These included the likes of Homi Bhabha, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Vikram Sarabhai. (Source)

Death and Legacy

Sarabhai died on 30 December 1971 at Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1966 and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972. He was also awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1962.

Vikram Sarabhai was truly an important scientist and has helped in the development of India. He is a nation builder and institute builder of utmost importance in modern Indian history.

Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai, (left) Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and head of India's Department of Atomic Energy and Dr. Thomas O. Paine, NASA Administrator, sign an agreement to cooperate in an unprecedented experiment using a space satellite to bring instructional television programs to some 5,000 Indian villages.
Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai, (left) Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and head of India’s Department of Atomic Energy and Dr. Thomas O. Paine, NASA Administrator, sign an agreement to cooperate in an unprecedented experiment using a space satellite to bring instructional television programs to some 5,000 Indian villages. (Source)
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