Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was born on 12 August 1919 in Ahmedabad, India & died on 31 December 1971 in Halcyon Castle, Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, was an Indian physicist. He is considered to be the father of the Indian space program; legendary Homi Bhabha’s successor as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; and was as at home in the world of the arts as in his favourite laboratory. His interests were vast and varied. He married a classical dancer, Mrinalini (Swaminathan).
The Sarabhai family was an important and rich Jain business family. His father Ambalal Sarabhai was an affluent industrialist and owned many mills in Gujarat. Vikram Sarabhai was one of the eight children of Ambalal and Sarla Devi.
To educate her eight children, Sarla Devi established a private school on the lines of the Montessori method which was gaining fame at the time. Since the Sarabhai family was involved in the Indian freedom struggle, many leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru used to frequent the Sarabhai house.
Sarabhai matriculated from Gujarat College in Ahmedabad after passing the Intermediate Science examination. After that he moved to England and joined St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. He received the Tripos in Natural Sciences from Cambridge in 1940. With the escalation of the Second World War, Sarabhai returned to India and joined the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and began research in cosmic rays under the guidance of Nobel Laureate C. V. Raman. He returned to Cambridge after the war in 1945 and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1947, for his thesis titled Cosmic Ray Investigation in Tropical Latitudes.
In September, 1942, Vikram Sarabhai married Mrinalini Sarabhai, a celebrated classical dancer of India. The wedding was held in 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 allowed considerable freedom to Mrinalini to develop her own potential. Reportedly, they had a troubled marriage relationship. According to biographer Amrita Shah, Vikram Sarabhai had void in his personal life he sought to fill it by dedicating himself to applying science for social good.
His daughter Mallika Sarabhai was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honor for the year 2010.
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 home in Ahmedabad. This led to the creation of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad on November 11, 1947.
Sarabhai died on 31 December 1971 at Halcyon Castle, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. 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. Dr. 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.”
Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, widely regarded as the father of India’s nuclear science program, supported Dr. 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 Dr. Sarabhai’s dialogue with NASA in 1966, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched during July 1975 – July 1976 (when Dr.Sarabhai was no more).
Dr. 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.
Dr. 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 family’s ‘Sarabhai’ diversified business group.
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 Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) which are considered world class for their management studies. Also he helped establish Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), which is doing 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 Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT). Not stopping with all these he went ahead and set up Blind Men Association (BMA) which helps visually challenged people with necessary skills and support.