Vikram Sarabhai and India’s Space Odyssey

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    From creating history by launching 104 satellites in one go to executing the Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan at a fraction of a cost, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has emerged as one of India’s most talked about and respected scientific institutions. The country is even dreaming of a manned space flight in the not-too-distant future. So, it might be humbling to learn that the Indian space odyssey started, not as an attempt to flex scientific muscle with interplanetary exploration but to help the remotest and the poorest in the country’s heartland gain access to basic education and information.

    Time and again, critics have questioned the rationale of India investing millions every year in space research when about 30% of our population is still striving for clean drinking water, uninterrupted electricity, toilet facilities and road and rail connectivity among other things. But what a lot of them don’t know is that the father of India’s space program, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, too was on their side of the argument.

    Born on 12th August 1919, in Ahmedabad, Sarabhai belonged to an affluent Jain industrialist family. After earning a PhD from Cambridge for his thesis on ‘Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes’ in 1947, Sarabhai decided to continue his research on his return to India.

    With ample resources at his disposal, he established the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) at his residence in Ahmedabad called ‘The Retreat’.

    A man with an insatiable appetite to explore and learn, the young scientist soon expanded the research areas and created the infrastructure for this institute.

    Today, PRL is at the forefront of research in the field of space and the allied sciences. Yet, incredibly, it was just one of the 42 institutions that Sarabhai helped set up, including the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A).

    However, Sarabhai’s interest in space came with the International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957-58 during which a convention of international scientists was held, and he attended as India’s representative. It was here that Russia took the world by storm by successfully launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial earth satellite, thus opening a new frontier in the Cold War – the space race.

    This prompted many competitive countries to develop their own technology, not only as a display of power but also to also match steps with the cutting-edge work being done in space science. For example, in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established to counter the USSR’s then-fledgling space ambitions. This was their next step to becoming a world leader.

    Another country to enter the game was China. The perceived nuclear threat from the US (and later the USSR) forced China’s Chairman Mao to use space technology to create ballistic missiles and weapons. He considered it a military necessity to ensure national security.

    All this inspired Sarabhai to get India her own space program. But for a country that had only just won its independence and was wrestling with serious developmental and other challenges, was it reasonable to invest in space exploration, which was then only meant for ‘elite nations’? The resource-scarce government wasn’t convinced.

    Sarabhai had an answer for this. He noted:

    "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."

    Sarabhai’s space program was oriented towards elevating the lives of ordinary folk. He wanted to use weather and communication satellites for tsunami and flood warnings and rescue services. He also wanted to use satellite television for direct broadcast in villages – so that children could be educated and villagers informed about farming, health, hygiene and family planning.

    Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a great believer in modern science, was batting for Sarabhai. His idea of democracy was open to scientific and industrial outlook and, thus, in 1962, the government set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). Since the committee was then part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Dr Homi Bhabha played an important role in its development.

    One of the first tasks taken up by INCOSPAR was to establish a rocket launch pad station and, for this, Sarabhai selected a bunch of young engineers to be sent to NASA for training. The group, recruited from PRL and the DAE, included APJ Abdul Kalam, HGS Murthy and R Aravamudan, among others.

    Meanwhile, they started looking for a site to set up the station and the basic requirement was a place close to the magnetic equator of the earth, making it the ideal location for scientists to conduct atmospheric research. They settled on a site owned by a church in Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram, and Sarabhai convinced the bishop to hand over the site to them.

    All set, it was time for execution. “In this endeavour, India was encouraged and supported by many Western countries like the US, the UK and West Germany. India was provided essential equipment like telemetry receivers, tracking systems and computers. Some of them came on loan and some were outright gifts,” noted R Aravamudan, an ISRO pioneer, in his autobiography ISRO: A Personal History.

    Finally, on 21st November 1963, the first sounding rocket, supplied by NASA, blasted off from Thumba in the presence of scientists from the US, the USSR and France, thereby kickstarting India’s space program. Following the successful launch, Sarabhai is reported to have sent a simple telegram back home. It read, ‘Gee whiz, wonderful rocket show.’ Exactly four years later, on 20th November 1967, India launched its first indigenous sounding rocket Rohini 75, whose parts were famously transported by bicycle.

    ICONOSPAR grew to become the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1969 and, the rest, as they say, is history. Sarabhai often used to say, “I have a dream, a fantasy may be, that we can leap-frog our way to development,” and he did succeed in creating a means to do just that.

    Since then, India’s space infrastructure has enriched the lives of its citizens through socio-economic developments by leading in telemedicine, remote sensing, geo-mapping, mineral prospecting, radio networking, mobile communications, meteorological observations, disaster monitoring, etc.

    The most recent example is the accurate warnings for Cyclone Fani, which helped the authorities evacuate people and keep damage to a minimum. This earned India much praise from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

    Sarabhai died on 30th November, 1971, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan posthumously in 1972. A year later, the International Astronomical Union decided to name a crater on the moon after him and, more recently, the Lander for Chandrayaan-2, tentatively to be launched in mid-July, is proposed to be named ‘Vikram’.

    Cover Image - Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) |

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