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Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai: Father of the Indian Space Program

Posted December 31, 2009 2:00 PM by Steve Melito

Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of India's greatest scientists, Dr. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai. Regarded as the father of India's space program, the noted physicist is also remembered as "a rare combination of an innovator, industrialist and visionary".

Early Life

Vikram Sarabhai was born on August 12, 1919 in Ahmedabad, a city in western India, to a wealthy family that practiced Jainism, an ancient dharmic religion whose tenets include non-violence and spiritual progress. Sarabhai's father owned a series of mills in Gujarat, India's westernmost state. His mother founded a private Montessori school to educate her eight children. Both parents were involved in India's independence movement, which aimed to end British colonial rule.

Scientific Education

As a young man, Vikram Sarabhai attended Gujarat College in Ahmedabad and passed the intermediate science examination. He later moved to England and earned a science degree from St. John's College in Cambridge. In 1940, Sarabhai returned to his native land and became a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, under the direction of Nobel Prize winner Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman.

For several years, Vikram Sarabhai built and operated scientific equipment at solar and cosmic ray observatories in Bangalore, Poona, and the Himalayas. In 1945, however, he returned to Cambridge, England to complete his Ph.D. Two years later, Vikram came home to a newly-independent India, with a doctorate for his thesis entitled Cosmic Ray Investigation in Tropical Latitudes.

PRL and TERLS

In November of 1947, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad and became its first director. There, the 28-year old Sarabhai researched the time variations of cosmic rays. PRL - a few rooms at the M.G. Science Institute - later received financial support from two prominent national organizations: India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

Vikram Sarabhai's work at PRL continued during the 1950s, a decade marked by the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. As the superpowers ran their Space Race, Dr. Sarabhai was named the chair of the Indian National Committee for Space Research. The rocket launching station (TERLS) that he established at Thumba sent its first sodium vapor payload into space on November 21, 1963. Two years later, the U.N. General Assembly recognized TERLS as an international facility.

INSAT and Aryabhata

In 1966, Vikram Sarabhai met with NASA about the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), a satellite communications project that would provide television programming to over 2500 Indian villages during the 1970s. Sarabhai's involvement in the SITE project also spurred the development of India's own satellite program, INSAT, which launched the nation's first satellite from a Soviet Cosmodrome in 1975. Named "Aryabhata" in honor of the first of many great Indian mathematician-astronomers, the satellite was a triumph for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

During the final years of his career, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was named head of India's atomic energy commission. He later served as president of the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and vice-president of the fourth U.N. conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy. Sarabhai's death on December 31, 1971 preceded the launch of India's Aryabhata satellite, but did not diminish the physicist's place in history. Today, the ISRO's lead facility for launch vehicle development, the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), is named in his honor.

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vikram_Sarabhai

http://www.iloveindia.com/indian-heroes/vikram-sarabhai.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jain

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_Instructional_Television_Experiment

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aryabhata

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#1

Re: Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai: Father of the Indian Space Program

01/01/2010 12:50 AM

Moose. Thank you for Good information.

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#2

Re: Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai: Father of the Indian Space Program

01/01/2010 2:53 AM

Dear Moose, We appreciate your highlighting the genius of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. ISRO the Indian space organization is remarkably progressive, setting an example of greatness achievable against almost impossible odds, by one great man who dared to dream. Dr. Sarabhai in his genius managed to channel brilliance indigenous talent taking advantage of international denial regime of launch vehicle/ space technology. Paradoxically the very lack of international embargo in aviation technology related fields retarded India in the field of aviation. Evidentially, India could not tap the potential for development of aviation technology mainly due to the lack of challenge. Wishing all CR4 forum members a very happy and prosperous new year.

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Guru

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai: Father of the Indian Space Program

01/01/2010 5:26 AM

Thanks Moose for enlightment on Dr.Sarabhai, a noble man went away at young age of 52 years.He has set example for rich sons for devotion to nation and mankind in general.

Suresh Sharma.

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#4

Re: Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai: Father of the Indian Space Program

01/03/2010 10:56 AM

Moose,

Your post and write about Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai was really informative and inspirational. Great souls are born every where. A life of challenges, successful foundations and implementations. With limited technical and human resources he had paved the way for remarkable growth of space and nuclear technology developments in INDIA. The pain is great people are short lived.

Once again thanking CR4 for the timely post.

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#5

Re: Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai: Father of the Indian Space Program

01/04/2010 9:12 AM

Thank you, all, for your comments and compliments. I enjoyed researching the life of Dr. Sarabhai and hope to write some additional biographies of Indian scientists in 2010.

Best,

Moose

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