Vikram Sarabhai

(1919 -1971)
Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was a person of several talents, several achievements and several contributions, and the one thing after which he is known the most is known after him, as Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, and he is famous as the Father of India’s Space Program. He was a great visionary, and his dreams did not remain as just dreams, but he led the operations to realize them from the very front. Vikram was the one to launch India’s ambitious program for space research. And he was the one to set up India’s first rocket launching station in Trivandrum, Kerala. It does not end there. He was the one who began the country’s first satellite communication center and the designer of the first rocket fabrication center, again in Trivandrum.

A pioneering spirit who launched a famous pharmaceutical establishment in Gujarat, his mother state, and one who followed and fostered dance and music, a great humanitarian, Vikram was born (1919) in an affluent industrial family in Gujarat as the son of Ambalal Sarabhai and Saraladevi. As a young man, he had his higher studies from Cambridge, and returned to India at the outbreak of the Second World War and joined the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore and entered into research under the celebrated Dr. C. V. Raman on the cosmic rays that fell over the regions around the geographic equator. He completed his research in Cambridge, as the War came to an end and received his doctorate in 1947 for his work on Cosmic Ray investigation in Tropical Latitudes.

Vikram and Mrinalini: the scientist and the dancer
Vikram married Mrinalini, daughter of a celebrated family in Kerala and a renowned classical dancer, the wedding taking place in Madras. They had two children – Karthikeya and Mallika. Mother Mrinalini and daughter Mallika concentrated on their dance and Vikram on his craze for applied science for the society. It was this craze that made Vikram found the now-famous Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, his home town. And that marked the coming up of a series of scientific institutions of social relevance in different parts of India which sought to promote the country’s scientific, technologic and industrial development and progress.

Dawning of India’s Space Age
His greatest contribution was yet to come and it was the founding of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister and Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, his principal scientific consultant, and Vikram was able to convince both of them the significance of India entering into a space program, especially in the light of the successful launching of satellites by the then USSR and the USA. There is an off-quoted statement of Vikram on this: “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.” The first step towards this was the setting up of Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) of which Dr. Vikram was made the chairman. Then he brought up the idea of setting up of India’s first rocket launching station. Dr. Bhabha accompanied by Dr. Vikram inspected several places to locate India’s first rocket launching station and finally both of them decided to locate it at Thumpa, a coastal hamlet near Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state. The significance of the place was that the magnetic equator of the planet passed through that area, and this would facilitate atmospheric, and space studies. Thus was set up the Thumpa Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). The first rocket launching in India took place from TERLS in November 1963. It was a U.S-made rocket. But India wanted to achieve self-reliance in this field and a series of installations such as Space Science and Technology Center (SSTC), Rocket Fabrication Facility (RFF) and Propellant Fuel complex came up in Thumpa. The present Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC), ISRO’s premier and the largest unit is the combination of all these installations. The first India-made rocket, styled Rohini, was launched from a pad in Thumpa in November 1967. The credit for the founding of India’s satellite launching station at Shreeharikotta also goes to Dr. Vikram. When Dr. Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear research and development, died in an aircraft crash in 1966, Dr. Vikram was appointed chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the son of a fabulously rich family of industrialists, is responsible for the founding in 1947 of the Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association (ATIRA), which paved the way for the modernization of India’s textile industry. In 1962 he took the initiative to set up Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. After three years he set up Community Science Center in the same city. The nuclear reactor in Kalpakkam, the cyclotron project in Calcutta, the Electronic Corporation of India (ECIL) in Hyderabad, and the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) in Jaduguda, Bihar are just some of the other famous institutions Dr. Vikram gave leadership to establish.

This great son of India died of a massive cardiac arrest while in sleep in Kovalam, Kerala, on December 30, 1971.