Remembering Vikram Sarabhai
Vikram Sarabhai with Prime minister Indira Gandhi when she visited the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station, Ahmedabad in 1967 | Image source: Space Application Centre, ISRO
Vikram Sarabhai (12 August 1919 – 30 December 1971) was an Indian physicist and astronomer who initiated space research and helped develop nuclear power in India. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1966 and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972. He is internationally regarded as the Father of the Indian Space Program.
Childhood & early life
He was born on 12 August 1919 in Ahmedabad. He came from the famous Sarabhai family who were major industrialists.
He attended Gujarat College, Ahmadabad, but later shifted to the University of Cambridge, England, where he took his tripos in natural sciences in 1940. World War II forced him to return to India, where he undertook research in cosmic rays under physicist Sir Chandrasekhara 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 in Ahmadabad on his return to India.
The range and breadth of Sarabhai’s interests were remarkable. Despite his intense involvement with scientific research, he took active interest in industry, business, and development issues. 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.
Establishing 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. After the death of physicist Homi Bhabha in 1966, Sarabhai was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India. Carrying forward Bhabha’s work in the field of nuclear research, 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 defence purposes.
Dedicated to the use of all aspects of science and technology in general and to space applications in particular as “levers of development,” 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.
Award and recognitions
He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1966 and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972. He is internationally regarded as the Father of the Indian Space Program. On 12 August 2019, Google’s Doodle for India commemorated Sarabhai’s 100th birth anniversary. Also, Indian Postal Department released a commemorative Postal Stamp On his first death anniversary (30 December 1972. In 1973, the International Astronomical Union decided that a lunar crater, Bessel A, in the Sea of Serenity will be known as the Sarabhai crater.
The lander on India’s moon mission Chandrayaan-2 which was to land near the South Pole of the moon on 20 September 2019, was named Vikram in his honour. On his 100th birthday on 12 August 2019, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced an award in the name of Vikram Sarabhai. The Vikram Sarabhai Journalism award in Space Science Technology and Research will be given to those journalists who have contributed to the fields of space science, applications, and research.
On 30 December 1971, Sarabhai was to review the SLV design before his departure for Bombay the same night. He had spoken to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on the telephone. Within an hour of the conversation, Sarabhai died at the age of 52 due to cardiac arrest in Trivandrum. His body was cremated in Ahmedabad.