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Vikram Sarabhai (1919-1971): Architect of Indian space programme


VIKRAM AMBALAL Sarabhai was born at Ahmedabad in an affluent family of progressive industrialists. He had his early education in a private school, `Retreat' run by his parents on Montessori lines. This atmosphere injected into the young boy the seeds of scientific curiosity, ingenuity and creativity.

From this school he proceeded to Cambridge for his college education and took the tripods degree from St. John's college in 1940.

When World War II began, he returned home and joined as a research scholar under Sir C. V. Raman at the IISc, Bangalore. He started his work on cosmic rays and built the necessary equipment with which he took measurements at Bangalore, Poona and the Himalayas. He returned to Cambridge in 1945. In 1947 he was awarded the Ph.D degree

Setting-up of PRL

The Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) was established in November 1947 in a few rooms in M.G. Science Institute of the Ahmedabad Education Society, which was founded by his parents. Subsequently, it got support from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Atomic Energy.

The Scientific activities covered two lines — one under Sarabhai dealing with the time variations of comic rays and the other under the veteran meteorologist K. R. Ramanathan covering the areas of ionosphere and upper atmospheric physics.

Sarabhai established a permanent recording station at Ahmedabad, and subsequently two more, at Kodaikanal (1951) and Trivandrum (1955)

Effect of solar activity on

cosmic rays

By collecting and analysing his own observations as well as those of other scientists, Sarabhai's team concluded that meteorological effects could not entirely affect the observed daily variations of cosmic rays; further, the residual variations were wide and global and these were related to variations in solar activity.

In the observed cosmic ray anisotropies were to be regarded as modulation effect to the solar wind, then Sarabhai could visualize a new field of research opening up in solar and interplanetary Physics.

The first opportunity came in 1957-58 during the International Geo-physical year (IGY). The Indian program for the IGY had been one of the most significant ventures of Sarabhai. It exposed him to the new vistas of space science with the launching in 1957 of Sputnik-I. Subsequently, the Indian National Committee for Space Research was created, of which Sarabhai became Chairman.

A great achievement

With active support from Homi Bhabha (1906-1966) Sarabhai set up the first Rocket Launching station (TERLS) in the country at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram on the Arabian Coast, as Thumba is very close to the Equator.

The first rocket with sodium vapour payload was launched on November 21, 1963. It involved tremendous work such as recruitment of personnel, setting up of roads and buildings, communication links, and launch pads. After the inaugural flight, range facilities were expanded.

To implement the space programme, Sarabhai took the following steps during 1961-1966. Expanding PRL and making it the Headquarters for Space activities. Setting up the Space Science and Technology Center at Thumba for creating fabrication, testing and other auxiliary facilities. Establishing an Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station at Ahmedabad.

In 1965, the UN General Assembly gave recognition to TERLS as an international facility. With the sudden death of Homi Bhabha in an air crash, Sarabhai was appointed Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission in May 1966.

Like Bhabha, Sarabhai wanted the practical application of science to reach the common man. Thus he saw a golden opportunity to harness space science to the development of the country in the fields of communication, meteorology, remote sensing and education.

Sarabhai saw the traditional approach of planning in areas like power systems, or telecommunications based on projection of growth from past experience leads to a dead end.

So he decided on following a hazardous route for developing countries to acquire competence in advance technology for the solution of their particular problems based on technical and economic evaluation of their real resources.

Sarabhai launched during July 1975 -July 1976 the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which was the result of negotiation between Sarabhai and NASA of U.S.A.

Sarabhai next initiated boldly the space project — and now a reality, with the undertaking of fabrication and launching of an Indian Satellite.

Thus Aryabhata I was put in orbit in 1975 from a Russian Cosmodrome. This development furthers the indigenous capability for satellite launching from low-orbiting to synchronous levels.

Sarabhai received many awards: Bhatnagar Medal (1962), Padma Bhushan (1966), he was President of the Physics section of the Indian Science Congress (1962), President of the General Conference of the I.A.E.A., Verina (1970), Vice-President, Fourth U.N. Conference on `Peaceful uses of Atomic Energy' (1971).

Sarabhai passed away in his sleep on December 31,1971. He was truly a rare combination of an innovator, industrialist and visionary. (Source: Biographical Memoirs, I.N.S.A., New Delhi).

R.Parthasarathy

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