Who was Vikram Sarabhai?

Indian Vikram Sarabhai, in full Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai, was born on August 12, 1919, in Ahmadabad, India, and died on December 30, 1971, in Kovalam (India). Indian award-winning physicist, industrialist and innovator who initiated space research and helped develop nuclear power in India, he is considered the founding Father of the Indian space program. Vikram Sarabhai is also credited with establishing the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Vikram Sarabhai was born into a family of industrialists. He attended Gujarat College, Ahmadabad, but later shifted to the University of Cambridge, England, where he studied natural sciences, in the 1940s. World War II forced him to return to India, where he undertook research in cosmic rays under physicist Sir Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. In 1945, he returned to Cambridge to pursue a doctorate and wrote a thesis, “Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes” in 1947.

He founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmadabad on his return to India, when he was twenty-eight years old. After the Physical Research Laboratory, Vikram Sarabhai set up the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, and guided the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The range and breadth of Vikram Sarabhai’s interests were remarkable. In spite of his intense involvement with scientific research, he took active interest in industry, business, and development issues. Vikram Sarabhai founded the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association in 1947 and looked after its affairs until 1956. Realizing the need for professional management education in India, Sarabhai was instrumental in setting up the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad in 1962.

After the launch of Russia’s Sputnik 1 satellite, Vikram Sarabhai felt the need for India to have a space agency as well. He convinced the Indian government to start the Indian National Committee for Space Research program with the following quote: “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”.

Establishing during the Nehru government the Indian National Committee for Space Research in 1962, which was later renamed the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Sarabhai also set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in southern India. The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) is an Indian spaceport established on November 21, 1963, operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It is located in Thumba (Thiruvananthapuram), which is near the southern tip of mainland India, very close to Earth’s magnetic equator. It is currently used by ISRO for launching sounding rockets. The first flight was a sodium vapor payload, and was launched on November 21, 1963.

After the death of physicist Homi Jehangir Bhabha in 1966, Vikram Sarabhai was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India. Carrying forward Bhabha’s work in the field of nuclear research, Vikram Sarabhai was largely responsible for the establishment and development of India’s nuclear power plants. He laid the foundations for the indigenous development of nuclear technology for defense purposes.

Dedicated to the use of all aspects of science and technology in general and to space applications in particular as “levers of development”, Vikram Sarabhai initiated programs to take education to remote villages through satellite communication, and called for the development of satellite-based remote sensing of natural resources.

The Indian space program began well after the pioneer era: the U.S.S.R. launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, the United States of America followed in 1958 with Explorer 1 before being joined by France in 1965, with Astérix; the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada and Italy had also launched their own satellite but not independently.

With the live transmission of the 1964 Summer Olympics across the Pacific by the American Satellite Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite launched in 1964 from Cape Canaveral, demonstrating the power of communication satellites, Vikram Sarabhai quickly recognized the benefits of space technologies for India. The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the Indian Government. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) appeared in August 1969. The prime objective of ISRO was to develop outer space technology and its application to various national needs. It is today one of the six largest space agencies in the world. The Department of Space (DOS) and the Space Commission were set up in 1972, and ISRO was brought under DOS on June 1, 1972. The Indian space program, thanks to Vikram Sarabhai, mainly focuses on satellites for communication and remote sensing, the space transportation system and application programs.

Aryabhata was India’s first satellite, named after the famous Indian astronomer of the same name. It was launched by India on April 19, 1975 from Kapustin Yar, a Russian rocket launch and development site in Astrakhan Oblast, using a Kosmos-3M launch vehicle. It was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). “It was not until 1980 to see the first satellite launched by an Indian rocket with an Indian firing point”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, India did not have the means to embark on a space program that rivaled the great powers of the time. The objective was more modest and aimed at putting outer space systems and satellites at the service of national development, all that was needed to get India out of underdevelopment. India was a non-aligned country and the country multiplied partnerships, without choosing a camp during the Cold War: with the United States of America, the U.S.S.R. and France, to develop small launchers or application satellites. “The big problem of India in the 1970s was to master the outer space technologies, including in the field of materials. Launchers required very specific alloys. India started from scratch, but gradually, the country developed its capabilities, at its own pace, it gave itself time”.

Vikram Sarabhai died in the beginning of the 1970s. He has truly created the Indian space program and has influenced astronautics throughout the world.