Referred to as the Father of the Indian Space Program, Vikram Sarabhai was an astronomer and physicist who pioneered India’s space research.
Not only a renowned scientist, Sarabhai was an industrialist, an institution builder, a social reformer and visionary whose fierce commitment to Indian independence fuelled his work to sky-rocket India into the 20th century.
From India to England, the stars and beyond, here’s the story of Vikram Sarabhai.
An industrious beginning
Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was born on 12 August 1919 into the well-known Sarabhai family. The Sarabhai’s were major industrialists committed to securing India’s independence from British colonial rule, encouraging Vikram to study science at Gujarat College in Ahmedabad.
Sarabhai’s study then took him to the University of Cambridge in England, where he sat his final exams in natural sciences in 1940. By this time, war had engulfed Europe, Britain and its colonies, including India. Sarabhai returned to his homeland where he began researching cosmic rays.
With the end of war in 1945, Sarabhai returned to Cambridge to complete a doctorate, writing the thesis ‘Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes’ in 1947.
Father of the Indian Space Program
Back in India again, Sarabhai founded the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad. The lab came to be known as the ‘cradle of space sciences’ in India, and initially focused its research on cosmic rays and the upper atmosphere. This research soon expanded to include theoretical and radio physics, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission.
He established the Indian National Committee for Space Research in 1962 (renamed the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO), as well as the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. Both institutions remain in operation today.
What else should Sarabhai be remembered for?
Sarabhai’s interests were not limited to space. He was committed to developing industry, business and other socio-economic issues India faced.
Alongside managing his family’s business group, Sarabhai founded numerous non-profit organisations such as the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association, which he managed between 1947 and 1956. From this experience, he saw the need for professional management education in India.
Under British colonial rule, management positions had commonly been assumed by British colonists. Sarabhai therefore played a large role in setting up the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad in 1962.
Sarabhai had married Mrinalini Sarabhai, a classical Indian dancer from a prominent family committed to Indian independence in 1940. Despite a troublesome marriage, together they founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts to promote traditional Indian crafts culture in Ahmedabad.
After the death of India’s leading physicist Homi Bhabha in 1966, Sarabhai was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India. He avidly continued Bhabha’s work in nuclear research, establishing India’s nuclear power plants and even taking the first steps towards India’s development of nuclear defence technology in the uncertain Cold War climate.
He devised programs to take education to remote villages using satellite communication and called for satellites to be used in searching for natural resources.
Ultimately, Sarabhai passionately believed all aspects of science and technology, especially anything related to space, were “levers of development”. Through science, Sarabhai would propel a decolonising India into a new age.
What was Vikram Sarabhai’s legacy?
One evening in December 1971, Sarabhai was reviewing a design while getting ready to head to Bombay that night. After a brief conversation with fellow space researcher Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (who would later be President of India), Sarabhai died of a heart attack aged 52.
For his service to independent India, Sarabhai was awarded two of the country’s highest honours: the Padma Bhushan in 1966, and the Padma Vibhushan, awarded posthumously in 1972.
His contribution to science has been recognised in the years since his death in a variety of ways: one of the Indian Space Research Organisations buildings was named after him; the Vikram Sarabhai Journalism award was created in his name; and the Indian Postal Department released a commemorative stamp on the first anniversary of his death.
Undoubtedly, Sarabhai’s legacy remains the huge leaps made by Indian space and nuclear science in the years following independence, earning India a place among the world’s leading space-faring countries and Sarabhai international renown as Father of the Indian Space Program.