By Aniket Raja
Dr Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was a multi-faceted personality, a distinguished cosmic ray and space scientist, an institution builder, an industrialist, a management expert, an educationist, a connoisseur of arts and above all, a great human being. Born on August 12, 1919 in Ahmedabad, Dr Sarabhai is considered as pioneer of the Indian Space Research Programme. He was the son of the famous industrialist, Ambalal Sarabhai.
Right from childhood he was very creative and full of curiosity. Highly inclined towards mathematics and science, Vikram would often question his teachers and try to unravel Nature. Renowned personalities who often visited his father used to appreciate the extraordinary brilliance of the child. Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, after talking with young Vikram, had envisioned that Vikram would grow up to be a beacon of hope.
Had Vikram wished, he could have become an industrialist like his father but his interests lay in mathematics and physics. After spending two years at Gujarat College in Ahmedabad and clearing his inter-science examination from Bombay University with distinction, he left for England to join Cambridge University for further studies. In 1940 he took his Tripos in natural sciences. The outbreak of World War II necessitated his return to India where he took up cosmic ray research under the guidance of Nobel laureate, Sir C.V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Meanwhile, Dr Homi Bhabha too had returned from England and joined the institute. These two scientists forged a strong affinity.
In 1947, Vikram was awarded a doctorate by Cambridge University for his thesis entitled ‘Cosmic Ray Investigation in Tropical Latitudes’.
Vikram set up the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in his residential bungalow at Ahmedabad. In 1955, a branch of PRL was opened in Gulmarg, Kashmir, to study the activity of cosmic rays. In 1963 the Government of India developed this institute as an independent laboratory. Today it is known as the High Altitude Research Laboratory.
To help the textile industry of Ahmedabad, Vikram set up the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association (ATIRA), which he directed until 1956.
To train able administrators he established the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). For school students to perform and understand experiments on their own, the Community Scie-nce Centre (CSC) was set up which was later renamed as the Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC).
In 1962, he took over the responsibility of organising space research in India as Chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research. He also directed the setting up of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station and initiated a programme to fabricate sounding rockets in India. In 1966 he was appointed Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission.
Dr Sarabhai drew up plans to take education to remote villages through Satellite Instructional Television Experiments (SITE). In 1965 he established the Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad to popularise science among children.
His deep cultural interest led him, along with his wife Mrinalini Sarabhai (a renounced Bharatnatyam dancer) to establish the Darpana Academy, an institution devoted to performing arts and propagation of the ancient culture of India.
It was because of Dr Sarabhai’s perception that National Committee for the Space Research Programme was founded which was later on renamed as Indian Space Organisation (ISRO).
Dr Sarabhai received many national and international honours. In 1962, he was awarded Dr Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Memorial Award for his scientific services in the field of physics.
In 1966 the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan. Thereafter, he was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan. The International Astronomical Union has honoured him by renaming a crater in Sea of Serenity on the Moon, after him.
Dr Sarabhai’s death came all of a sudden. He had gone to Thumba for some experiments regarding rockets. He died in his sleep due to heart failure in the early hours of December 30, 1971. He was just 52-years old at that time.