Story of Vikram Sarabhai – The Founder of ISRO


Aashkaa Nair

Mental Health Writer

Who was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai?

Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai (12th August 1919 - 30th December 1971) was an Indian physicist and astronomer who initiated Indian space exploration and helped establish nuclear power in India. He was a man of great determination and focus; aiming to do everything he could for the nation.

Early life of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai came from India's famous Sarabhai family, who were successful industrialists committed to the Indian independence movement. He attended Ahmedabad's Gujarat College, but later moved to Cambridge University, England, where, in 1940, he took his tripos (the final honours examination for a BA degree at Cambridge University) in natural sciences.

In 1942, Vikram Sarabhai was married to the classical dancer Mrinalini. They had two kids. (Over time, as an actress and activist, his daughter Mallika has gained popularity, and his son Kartikeya is one of the world's leading environmental educators.) He practiced Jainism in his lifetime.

He returned to Cambridge in 1945 to pursue a PhD and published a thesis in 1947 titled 'Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes.'

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai's career

Vikram Sarabhai founded the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in 1947. PRL had a modest start with research on cosmic rays at his home, the 'RETREAT'.

The institute was formally set up at the M.G. Science Institute, Ahmedabad, with the sponsorship of the Karmkshetra Educational Foundation and the Ahmedabad Education Society, on 11 November 1947. The first Director of the institute was Prof. Kalpathi Ramakrishna Ramanathan.

Study on cosmic rays and the properties of the upper atmosphere was the initial objective at PRL. The research areas were later extended to include theoretical physics and radio physics with grants from the Atomic Energy Commission. He also headed the business empire owned by the Sarabhai family. From science to athletics to statistics, his interests varied.

Vikram Sarabhai founded the Operations Research Group (ORG), the country's first group for market research. The Nehru Foundation for Growth in Ahmedabad, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association (ATIRA) and Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) are among the most notable of the many institutes he helped set up. He also founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts with his wife, Mrinalini Sarabhai.

The Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) in Kalpakkam, the Variable Energy Cyclotron Project in Calcutta, the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) in Hyderabad and the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jaduguda, Jharkhand are also projects and institutions initiated by him.

Coming to the field of space technology, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai began a project to build and launch an Indian satellite. As a direct result, in 1975, a Russian cosmodrome put the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, into orbit.

He was the founder of the Indian Space Research Organization, one of the most successful space agencies in the world today.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai's work at Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

The entire focus of the physics world turned towards space sciences after the former USSR's Sputnik satellite was launched in 1957. Many countries accelerated their space programs. In India, Sarabhai and his colleagues wrote to the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to launch a space programme known as the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam (who later became the President of India) was amongst the initial team of rocket engineers forming the INCOSPAR.

Sarabhai worked with Dr. Homi Bhabha at INCOSPAR to set up India's first rocket station, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, in Thumba. On 21 November 1963, India's first sounding rocket was launched.

In 1969, INCOSPAR was redesigned and rechristened as ISRO. Here, Sarabhai was involved in the creation of Aryabhata, India's first satellite, which was launched in 1975, four years after his death.

Sarabhai frequently worked with international space agencies to make information on space more available to Indians and to create the Indian space program. In the 1970s, he entered into an agreement with NASA to use their satellites to deliver educational programs to over 5,000 Indian villages.

The legacy of Sarabhai lives strong today and continues, in the Indian space program and the nuclear program, both of which concentrate on indigenous development.

The Chandrayaan-2 lander of India, Vikram, was named after him, and so was the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the rocket production facility of ISRO in Thiruvananthapuram.

Impact of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai's work

Vikram Sarabhai's contributions have taken India to new heights. Founding ISRO was a big step for him and our country. He did this at a time where India was not very familiar with space technology. He made an effort to make Indians understand space better. Not only this, but he also helped establish institutes like CEPT and IIMA that are renowned for their educational programmes and cultural festivals.

Today, India is at par with global space powers like USA and Russia. ISRO has upheld its mission throughout the years to utilize space technology in the service of the common man, in the service of the nation. It has, in the process, become one of the world's six largest space agencies.

ISRO maintains one of the largest fleets of satellites for communication satellites (INSAT) and remote sensing (IRS) to meet the ever-increasing demand for fast and reliable communication satellites and observation of the earth.

Legacy of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai was awarded in 1966 with the Padma Bhushan and in 1972 with the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously). He is known globally as the Father of the Indian Space Program. He died of unknown causes on 30 December 1971 in Kerala.

With his death, India lost a great soul. He continues to be an inspiration for youth to reach for the stars.

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Discussion Board

What did you learn from Vikram Sarabhai's story?

Rohit Chopra
Despite being born in a wealthy family, Dr. Sarabhai worked hard and built institutions that are taking India forward today. We need to learn to create impact through our work and take the nation forward. 🤩🙏