A man ahead of his time

Issue 03, 2021

A man ahead of his time

Dr Padmanabh K Joshi Divya Arora |author

Issue 03, 2021

Dr. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai (August 12, 1919 – December 30, 1971) was a visionary physicist and industrialist, who initiated research in space and nuclear technologies in India. We recall the life, work and achievements of this pioneering Indian scientist

Widely known as the ‘father of the Indian space programme’ Dr Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was an award-winning scientist, industrialist and innovator, who helped establish the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and led it as chairman. A ‘creative scientist’, as he is popularly referred to, Dr Sarabhai encouraged the advancement of science education in India and changed the face of nuclear technology in the nation. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumous), the country’s third and second-highest civilian award, respectively.

Early life

Born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on August 12, 1919, Dr Sarabhai earned his doctorate from Cambridge University. During his time at Cambridge, he studied cosmic rays and published many research papers on it. After returning to India, he founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad in 1947, when he was just 28 years old. After PRL, he set up the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad and guided the establishment of ISRO. He was also responsible for setting up multiple other institutions in the country, including the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad; the Variable Energy Cyclotron Project in Kolkata; the Operations Research Group (ORG), New Delhi; Nehru Foundation for Development, Ahmedabad; the Community Science Centre, Ahmedabad and the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, along with the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association. Dr Sarabhai was committed to the development of India and believed that the development of a nation is intimately linked with the understanding and application of science and technology by its people.  He catapulted India to the centre of the advancements at a time when the world looked upon the country as a third-world nation.

In 1972, India Post issued a stamp dedicated to Dr Vikram Sarabhai with an image of a Rohini rocket in the background

Space Technology

After the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite in 1957, Dr Sarabhai felt the need for India to have a space agency as well. He convinced the then Union government to start the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) programme. He had said: “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.” In 1963, he established the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), at Thumba, near Trivandrum, along the Arabian Sea coast. Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha, widely recognised as the father of India’s nuclear science programme, supported him in setting up the centre. TERLS was the first International Rocket Launching Facility in India from where any country could launch their sounding rockets and conduct experiments. In 1966, after the death of Dr Homi J Bhabha, Dr Sarabhai became the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, India. During the period, he voiced some brilliant ideas on linking up atomic power development with industrial development of backward regions, like setting up an agro-industrial complex in the Gangetic plain or in the arid area of Kutch. Dr Sarabhai wanted to use the field of space technology solely to further the development of the nation and not to advance the cause of nuclear development in India for defence. He was an active member of the Pugwash Continuing Committee, which was initiated by Nobel Award-winning British polymath Lord Bertrand Russell for disarmament in the world. Dr Sarabhai set up the Indian Pugwash Committee and convened the Pugwash Continuing Committee Meeting in India from January 27 to February 1 in 1964 at Udaipur. There, he presented a paper titled ‘Demilitarisation of Space’, a pioneering initiative, considering that space exploration had only just begun.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists work on the orbiter vehicle of ‘Chandrayaan-2’, India’s first moon lander and rover mission planned and developed by ISRO, in Bengaluru, on June 12, 2019. The Chandrayaan-2 lander is named ‘Vikram’ (valour), after the pioneer of the Indian space programme Dr Vikram Sarabhai. A crater on the Moon, captured by Chandrayaan-2, has been named Sarabhai after Dr Vikram Sarabhai

A Goodbye too Soon

Unfortunately, for India, Dr Sarabhai left the world too early (December 30, 1971). Ravi J Mathai, educator, professor and the first director of IIM, Ahmedabad, very appropriately wrote: “There are three attributes which set men apart from animals… They are the mind, the heart and the soul. If in these attributes lie the measures of greatness, then Vikram was great. His mind was great. He could see far and in all that he did, he had a vision of the future…He was a physical scientist but the physical sciences could not contain him. His vision demanded the total use of knowledge that blended disciplines of many fields to accomplish changes which no single discipline could encompass. The institutions he founded reflected this…” Other than a brilliant mind, Dr Sarabhai also had the patience and the rare gift of listening and understanding, and always seeing the good in others. Today, India is known for its scientific prowess in the space and nuclear sphere. The pioneering work of Dr Vikram Sarabhai for the advancement of science and technology for the country’s growth and development will always be recalled in glorious words.

Dr Padmanabh K Joshi Divya Arora

Dr Padmanabh K Joshi heads the Dr Vikram Sarabhai Archives at the Nehru Foundation for Development in Ahmedabad. He completed his post graduation and doctoral studies in Political Science from Gujarat University. His doctoral thesis was also on Dr Sarabhai. His areas of interest include leadership, institution-building and management of scientific organisations. Divya Arora is a publisher and a bookseller. She was nominated in 2009 for the Young Publishers’ Entrepreneur Award. In 2013, she received the prestigious Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Scholarship at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. She takes a keen interest in art and design. Dr Padmanabh Joshi and Divya Arora have co-authored a book on Dr Sarabhai titled Vikram Sarabhai India’s Space Pioneer
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