Vikram Sarabhai is often credited as the father of Indian Space Programme. But wisdom of the scientist stands way beyond this title. Some of India’s most celebrated institutions like Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad and even the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) stand tall as a testament of his enduring legacy.
Vikram Sarabhai was born in a family of industrialists in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. His students, teachers, colleagues and associates remember him as a deeply humble man.
Even so, Sarabhai, born on 12 August 1919 to a family of industrialists in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, is remembered by colleagues, students and associates as a deeply humble man. Because of his private wealth, he accepted only the token salary of one rupee per month.
In his book Wings of Fire, former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam recalled that he was touched by the “warmth and friendliness” of Dr. Sarabhai when he interviewed him for the post of rocket engineer at INCOSPAR (the Indian Committee for Space Research, the precursor to ISRO).
As we prepare to launch our most ambitious space project till date, to send humans beyond Earth, it is also imperative to remember the man who laid the foundation of this incredible journey.
Sarabhai did his schooling in Ahmedabad from a private institute run by his family. After completing his school, he went on to study natural sciences at the prestigious Cambridge University in 1940.
When the Second World War broke out, he came back to India and joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. He was a research scholar under Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman and working on cosmic rays. After the war was over, he went back to Cambridge and completed his doctoral studies.
Two years later, he found love in an established classical dancer, Mrinalini and tied knot with her same year. They also set up an academy called the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in 1949 in Ahmedabad.
Upon his arrival in India, he worked to strengthen the scientific infrastructure of the country. His first attempt towards this goal was set up the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad in 1947. A couple of years later, he contributed to the textile industry and established the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association in 1956 to oversee management of the developing sector.
He was appointed as the founding chair of INCOSPAR which later became ISRO with the aim to formulate the backbone of India’s space program. The critics who questioned the “poor nation’s” quest to stars must have found their answers in Sarabhai’s defense of the need. He once 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.”
Name etched on the Moon
The first rocket launching station of the country was set up in a small fishing village in Kerala called Thumba in 1963 and the country’s first rocket was launched on November 21, the same year. Two years later, the United Nations recognized the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station as an international scientific facility.
After the sudden demise of Dr. Homi Bhabha, the following year, he took over as the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1966 and with the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972.
Meanwhile, as you must be searching for ways to pay your tributes to this great visionary, don’t forget to steal a glance at the moon. Why? Because, two years after his death, one of the craters in the Sea of Serenity on the lunar surface was named after him. In fact, the lander of India’s Chandrayaan 2 is also named Vikram as a token of respect and gratitude for the founding father of ISRO.