Vikram Sarabhai

12 Aug 1919
30 Dec 1971
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Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai (12 August 1919 – 30 December 1971) was an Indian physicist. He is considered the father of India’s space programme.

Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was born on 12 August 1919 in the city of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat state in western India. The Sarabhai family was an important and rich Jain business family. His father Ambalal Sarabhai was an affluent industrialist, owned many textiles mills in Gujarat, and devoted his life to poor people.

Vikram Sarabhai went to Sheth Chimanlal Nagindas Vidyalaya for his high school studies. Vikram Sarabhai matriculated from the Gujarat College in Ahmedabad after passing the Intermediate Science examination.

After that, he moved to England and joined the St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. He received the Tripos in Natural Sciences from Cambridge in 1940.

In September, 1942, Vikram Sarabhai married Mrinalini Sarabhai, a celebrated classical dancer. The wedding was held in Madras ( later known as Chennai) without anyone from Vikram’s side of the family attending the wedding ceremony because of the ongoing Quit India movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Vikram and Mrinalini had two children – Kartikeya and Mallika. Vikram Sarabhai had a troubled marriage as a result of his long affair with Kamala Choudhary.

His daughter Mallika Sarabhai was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour for the year 2010 and his son Kartikeya Sarabhai was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012.

Sarabhai returned to an independent India in 1947. Looking at the needs of the country, he persuaded charitable trusts controlled by his family and friends to endow a research institution near his home in Ahmedabad. This led to the creation of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad on November 11, 1947.

Sarabhai died on 30 December 1971 at Halcyon Castle, Kovalam, Kerala because of heart attack due to excessive stress. He was visiting Thiruvananthapuram to attend the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Thumba railway station being built to service the newly created Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station.

The establishment of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was one of his greatest achievements. He successfully convinced the 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 programme in his quote:

“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.”

Homi Jehangir Bhabha, widely regarded as the father of India’s nuclear science program, supported Sarabhai in setting up the first rocket launching station in India. This center was established at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram on the coast of the Arabian Sea, primarily because of its proximity to the equator. After a remarkable effort in setting up the infrastructure, personnel, communication links, and launch pads, the inaugural flight was launched on November 21, 1963 with a sodium vapour payload.

As a result of Sarabhai’s dialogue with NASA in 1966, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched during July 1975 – July 1976 (when Sarabhai was no more). 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.

Sarabhai was very interested in science education and founded a Community Science Centre at Ahmedabad in 1966. Today, the centre is called the Vikram A Sarabhai Community Science Centre.

He led the Sarabhai family’s diverse business conglomerate. His interests varied from science to sports to statistics. He set up Operations Research Group (ORG), the first market research organization in the country

Sarabhai established many institutes which are of international repute. Most notable among them are the Nehru Foundation for Development in Ahmedabad, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), which is considered a world class management institute. Also, he helped establish the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), which is doing a commendable job in R&D in physics. Sarabhai set up Ahmedabad Textiles Industrial Research Association (ATIRA), which helped the booming textiles business in Ahmedabad. He also set up the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT). Not stopping with all these, he went ahead and set up the Blind Men Association (BMA) which helps visually-challenged people with the necessary skills and support. Along with his wife Mrinalini Sarabhai, he founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. Other well-known institutions established by him include the Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) in Kalpakkam, Variable Energy Cyclotron Project in Calcutta, Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) in Hyderabad and Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jaduguda, Jharkhand.

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