Dr Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai
FONDLY referred to as the ‘Father of the Indian space programme’, Vikram Sarabhi was born in Ahmedabad on August 12, 1919 to an affluent family. It was his early years at a private school that shaped his scientific bent of mind. After studying at the Gujarat College in his home town, in 1937 he left for England to study Physics at St John’s College Cambridge. There, Sarabhai earned an under graduate tripods degree. That was the year 1940 and the world was fighting the Second World War. So, Sarabhai returned to India and became a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore where he studied the effects of cosmic rays.
It was at Bangalore, under the direct guidance of Nobel laureate, Dr CV Raman, that he started setting up observatories in Bangalore, Pune and the Himalayas. Soon after the war was over, he returned to UK for a little while. Sarabhai received a Ph.D from Cambridge University for his path-breaking work.
His real work began in 1947 along with meteorologist, KR Ramanathan, who helped him establish the Physical Research Laboratory. Initially, it consisted of rooms at the Science Institute of the Ahmedabad Education Society. Analysing and studying cosmic rays and atmospheric physics, the scientists set up two dedicated teams at the site. Sarabhai’s team realised that evaluating the weather was not enough to comprehend variations in the cosmic rays; they had to relate it to variations in solar activity. This led them to pioneer solar physics.
With such a big breakthrough in hand Sarabhai soon received financial support from the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Department of Atomic Energy. And the support did not just end there. He was asked to organise the Indian programme for the International Geophysical Year of 1957. Around this time, the erstwhile Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1. India, not too far behind, decided to set-up the Indian National Committee for Space Research chaired by Dr Sarabhai.
The visionary scientist set up India’s first rocket launching station, TERLS in Thumba on the coast of the Arabian Sea on November 21, 1963 with the support of Homi Bhabha from the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1966, Sarabhai was appointed Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission following Bhabha’s untimely demise. Sarabhai’s greatest achievement was the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He died in his sleep at the age of 52 on December 31, 1971.
The pioneering work on space science and research done by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai earned him Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar medal in 1962 and Padma Bhushan in 1966.