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Remembering Vikram Sarabhai: The father of Indian Space Programme

India’s achievement in the field of space science makes one inevitably think of one extraordinary figure —Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai — popularly called Vikram Sarabhai and widely known as ‘father of Indian space programme’, the man who placed India on the international map in the field of space research. Had it not been the Sarabhai’s vision and pioneering contribution, India would not have achieved the heights it did in the field of space science.

Born on August 12, 1919 in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad in a wealthy Jain business family his father Ambalal Sarabhai was a renowned businessman and owned many mills in Gujarat. Being a physicist and an astronomer he initiated space research and helped develop nuclear power in India. He was considered the Father of the Indian space program. Being a great institution builder, he helped establish many institutions in diverse fields.

He was a creative genius, a successful and forward looking industrialists, an innovator and a great institution builder. Establishment of India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was one of his greatest achievements as he was the person who convinced the Government about the significance of a space programme for a developing country like India.

However, the most important thing is that besides being all that he was a very warm human being with tremendous compassion for others. He was a man who could charm and win the hearts of all those who came in contact with him. He could instantly establish a personal rapport with those with whom he interacted. This was possible because he could convey a sense of respect and trustfulness to them and also a sense of his own trustworthiness.

He had an uncanny ability to gauge the capability of a person just by talking to him for a few minutes. In fact he used to frequently say that he could judge a person from the sparkle in his/her eyes. He believed in systematically developing people. At times he will go out of the way to give a person full opportunity of developing himself/herself. He had a pleasant personality. It is said that by his mere smile he was able to transmit a great deal of inspiration to all those who worked with him.

After completing his Intermediate Science examination from Gujrat College, he shifted to Cambridge, UK in 1937 where he obtained his Tripos in Natural Sciences in 1940. At the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to India and joined the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore where he took up research in cosmic rays under the supervision of C.V. Raman. He published his first research paper entitled “Time Distribution of Cosmic Rays” in the Proceedings of Indian Academy of Sciences.

Sarabhai’s work on cosmic rays during the period 1940-45 included the study of the time variations of cosmic rays with Geiger-Muller counters at Bangalore and at the high level station in the Kashmir Himalayas. After the war he returned to Cambridge to work for his PhD is cosmic ray physics. In 1947, he was awarded PhD by the Cambridge University for his thesis ‘Cosmic Ray investigation in Tropical Latitudes’.

After he returned from Cambridge to an independent India in 1947, he persuaded charitable trusts controlled by his family and friends to endow a research institution near his Ahmedabad home. He founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad on November 11, 1947, at the age of just 28.

After the death Homi J Bhabha in January 1966, Sarabhai was asked to assume the responsibilities of the office of the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. At that time he was deeply involved in three major areas. In his own words (what he wrote to the Prime Minister accepting the offer):

“Currently I have substantive responsibilities in three areas. Firstly, at the Physical Research Laboratory as Director and Professor of Cosmic Ray Physics, where I continue my research and the supervision of doctoral candidates. Second, as Chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research Programme as well as the project for the development of rockets and space technology. Thirdly, I have been concerned with policy making, operations, research planning and evaluation of a significant segment of the family business interests, particularly centered around chemicals and pharmaceuticals”. He had also regular association with the Laboratory of Nuclear Science of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. But all these did not deter Sarabhai from assuming the new responsibility in the interest of the country. He had to disassociate himself from the family business. He was at the helm of both atomic energy and space research programmes in India from May 1996 till his death.

Sarabhai had realised the enormous potentialities inherent in space science and technology for a wide range of social and economic development activities – communication, meterology/weather forecasting, and exploration for natural resources, to name only a few. The Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, established by Sarabhai pioneered research in space sciences and subsequently in space technology. Sarabhai also spearheaded the country’s rocket technology. He played a pioneering role in the development of satellite TV broadcasting in India.

Sarabhai was also a pioneer of the pharmaceutical industry in India. He was among the very few in the pharmaceutical industy who recognised that the highest standards of quality should be established and maintained at any cost. It was Sarabhai who first implemented Electronic Data Processing and Operations Research Techniques in the pharmaceutical industry. He played an important role in making India’s pharmaceutical industry self-reliant and self-manufacture of many drugs and equipment in the country.

Sarabhai died on 30 December 1971 at Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. In 1974, the International Astronomical Union at Sydney decided that a Moon Crater BESSEL in the Sea of Serenity will be known as the Sarabhai Crater. His body was cremated in Ahmedabad. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1966 and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972.

The various institutions established and looked after by Sarabhai benefitted from each other’s experience and techniques to their mutual advantage. Some of the most well-known institutions established by Sarabhai are:-


Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad

Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad

Community Science Centre, Ahmedabad

Darpan Academy for Performing Arts, Ahmedabad

Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram

Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad (This institution came into existence after merging six institutions/centres established by Sarabhai)

Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), Kalpakkam

Variable Energy Cyclotron Project, Calcutta

Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Hyderabad

Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar