Vikram Sarabhai - The founder

One of India's most admired scientists, Vikram Sarabhai was born on August 12, 1919. Son of Sheth Ambalal Sarabhai and Sarla Devi, he came from the famous Sarabhai family of Ahmedabad, who were progressive industrialists committed to the Indian independence movement. He was one of the eight children of Ambalal. Some of the great personalities like Gurudev Rabindranath, J Krishna Murthi, Motilal Nehru, VS Shrinivasa Shastri, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, CF Andrews, C V Raman et al used to stay with the Sarabhai family when they visited Ahmedabad. Mahatma Gandhi also once stayed at their house while recovering from an illness. Visits by such great personalities greatly influenced Vikram Sarabhai.

He had his early education in a private school, ‘Retreat’, run by his parents on Montessori lines. After his matriculation, Vikram Sarabhai proceeded to Cambridge for his college education and took the tripos (Honours degree) in Natural Sciences from St. John's College in 1940. With the beginning of World War II, he returned home and joined as a research scholar under Sir CV Raman at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. His interest in solar physics and cosmic ray led him to set up many observation stations around the country. He built the necessary equipment and took measurements at Bangalore, Pune and the Himalayas. He returned to Cambridge in 1945 and completed his PhD in 1947.

Sarabhai was instrumental in forming India's future in astronomy and setting up the country's space research facilities. He is widely regarded as the father of the Indian space programme. In fact he was a rare combination of a scientist, an innovator, industrialist and a visionary.

The decade following independence in 1947 was witness to a surge of innovative ideas to build a fledgling independent nation into a model democratic state committed to growth with equity in the development of its people. The establishment of Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) was the outcome of one such innovative initiative.

Led by Vikram Sarabhai, Shri. Kasturbhai Lalbhai and supported by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Jivraj Mehta, a group of individuals set up Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. This group ably wove together a coalition of five factors — the governments at the centre and the state, the local industrialists, the Ford Foundation and the Harvard Business School, in a public private partnership to establish the Institute. Today IIMA is a globally renowned management institute with a long legacy of alumni who have changed the paradigm in the areas of economics, business and social enterprises.

The year 1957-1958 was designated as International Geo-physical year (IGY). The Indian programme for the IGY had been one of the most significant ventures of Sarabhai. This gave him exposure to new vistas of space science with the launching of Sputnik-I in 1957.

Knowing the unique feature of Thumba on account of its proximity to the geomagnetic equator, Vikram Sarabhai chose this fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram on the Arabian Coast to set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching station (TERLS), the first rocket launching station in the country. In this venture he got active support from Homi Bhabha, widely regarded as the father of India's nuclear science program, who was then the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The first rocket with sodium vapour payload was launched on November 21, 1963. Sarabhai started a project for the fabrication and launch of an Indian satellite. As a result, the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata was put in orbit in 1975 from a Russian Cosmodrome. In 1965, the UN General Assembly gave recognition to TERLS as an international facility.

The establishment of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was one of his greatest achievements. He convinced the Indian government of the importance of a space programme for a developing country like India after the Russian Sputnik launch. Sarabhai emphasized the importance of a space program as follows:

"There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."

After the sudden demise of Homi Bhabha in an air crash, Vikram Sarabhai took over as Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission in May 1966. He always longed that the practical application of science should reach the common man. He worked towards acquiring competence in advance technology for the solution of country’s problems based on technical and economic evaluation of its real resources. He initiated India’s space programme, which today is renowned all over the world.

As a result of Sarabhai's dialogue with NASA in 1966, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched during July 1975 - July 1976 (after Sarabhai's death).

Vikram Sarabhai married the classical dancer Mrinalini in 1942. The couple had two children. His daughter Mallika gained prominence as an actress and activist, and his son Kartikeya became an active person in science and social activism.

Dr Vikram Sarabhai received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Medal in 1962. The nation honoured him awarding Padma Bhushan in 1966 and Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972.

Vikram Sarabhai passed away in his sleep on December 31, 1971.


Some of other organisations he built during his lifetime were

· PRL - The Physical Research Laboratory founded in 1947, which has come to be regarded as the cradle of space sciences in India. PRL had a modest beginning at his residence, the RETREAT, with research on cosmic rays. The institute was formally established at the M.G. Science Institute, Ahmedabad, on 11 November 1947[12] with support from the Karmkshetra Educational Foundation and the Ahmedabad Education Society. Today PRL is actively involved in research, related to five major fields of science. PRL is also instrumental in the PLANEX planetary science and exploration programme.

· VASCSC - The Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre, established in the 1960s by Sarabhai, worked towards popularizing science and mathematics education among students, teachers and the laypublic. Its mandate is to stimulate interest, encourage and expose the principles of science and scientific method and also to improve and find innovative methods of science education.

· ORG - Operations Research Group, the first market research organization in the country

· Nehru Foundation for Development, Ahmedabad

· ATIRA - The Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association

· CEPT - Centre for Environment PLanning & Technology

· FBTR - Faster Breeder Test Reactor in Kalpakkam

· VECP - Variable Energy Cyclotron Project in Calcutta

· ECIL - Electronics Corporation of India Limited in Hyderabad

· UCIL - Uranium Corporation of India Limited in Jaduguda, Jharkhan

· He also set up the Blind Men Association (BMA) which helps visually-challenged people.

His thoughts -

· I would like to emphasize that security can be endangered not only from outside but also from within. If you do not maintain the rate of progress of the economic development of the nation. I would suggest that you would have the most serious crisis, something that would disintegrate India as we know it.

· So the real problem in this whole question relates to utilization of national resources for productive and social welfare against the burden of defense expenditure which a country can bear at any particular time. - On the issue of priority to internal development vis-a-vis external defence.

· He who can listen to the music in the midst of noise can achieve great things.

· Our national goals involve leap-frogging from a state of economic backwardness and social disabilities attempting to achieve in a few decades a change which has incidentally taken centuries in other countries and in other lands. This involves innovative approach at all levels.

· A national programme which would provide television to about 80% of India’s population during the next ten years would be of great significance to national integration, for implementing schemes of economic and social development and for the stimulation and promotion of electronic industry. It is of particular significance for population living in isolated rural countries

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