Vikram Sarabhai, Great Indian scientist and institution biuilder

Vikram Sarabhai: A Great Indian Scientist and Institution Builder

A Short Biography

Vikram Sarabhai was born on August 12, 1919, in Ahmedabad, Bombay Presidency, India in a family of wealthy industrialists and social workers. He was blessed at the age of seven by Rabindranath Tagore, who had predicted that this bright boy would one day become a great celebrity.

Sarabhai had an immense interest in science since his childhood days. He attended a private school and then Gujarat College, Ahmedabad. He then went to Cambridge, England where he joined St. John’s College and obtained Tripos in 1939.

When the Second World War began, he returned to India in 1940 and joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Dr. Homi Bhabha was also there at that time in IISc, Bangalore working on theories of mesons and cosmic ray physics.

In 1945 he returned to Cambridge to pursue a doctorate and wrote a thesis, “Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes,” in 1947. Vikram Sarabhai married Mrinalini Swaminathan, a classical dancer in 1942. The couple had two children.

His daughter Mallika gained prominence as an actress and activist, and his son Karthikeya too became an active person in science. Sarabhai passed away on 30 December 1971 at the age of fifty-two.

Vikram Sarabhai

What are the scientific contributions of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai?

Cosmic Rays and Geophysics

The flux of cosmic ray particles as a function of their energy. The flux for the lowest energies (yellow zone) are mainly attributed to solar cosmic rays, intermediate energies (blue) to galactic cosmic rays, and highest energies (purple) to extragalactic cosmic rays. vikram sarabhai
The flux of cosmic ray particles as a function of their energy. The flux for the lowest energies (yellow zone) is mainly attributed to solar cosmic rays, intermediate energies (blue) to galactic cosmic rays, and highest energies (purple) to extragalactic cosmic rays. Sven Lafebre/Source/CC BY-SA 3.0

Vikram Sarabhai joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore to carry out research on ‘Time variations of cosmic rays’ on the advice of C. V. Raman.

Encouraged by the institute atmosphere created by Raman and Homi Bhaba, who were working on theories of mesons and cosmic ray showers, Sarabhai built an experimental set-up with Geiger Muller counters’ to carry out systematic continuous measurements of cosmic ray intensity at Bangalore and later at Apharwat (about 4 km above sea level) in the Himalayas at Kashmir.

His first scientific paper ‘Time distribution of cosmic rays’ was published in the Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1942, two years after he started his research. He went back to Cambridge University in 1945 to continue his investigations on cosmic rays and photo fission and returned to India in 1947 after receiving his Ph.D. degree from Cambridge for his thesis on ‘Cosmic ray investigations in tropical latitudes’.

He carried out an accurate measurement of the cross-section for the photofission of U-238 by 6.2MeV gamma rays obtained from 19F (p, γ) reaction. This work also formed a part of his Ph.D. thesis. The study of small-time variation of very high-energy particles (mesons and neutrons) constituting cosmic rays, needed highly sophisticated instrumentation.

Sarabhai and his students set up the first meson telescopes for measuring vertical intensities. One of the first results they found was the clear establishment of the diurnal component of cosmic ray time variations of non-terrestrial origin.

This was a difficult task because the variation is extremely small, and the pressure of fluctuations in the atmosphere has to be very carefully corrected. This requires large amounts of data and sophisticated statistical analysis.

These investigations were extended to high-energy meson components of cosmic radiation separated out by the use of magnets as well as to nucleonic component which was measured by setting up neutron piles.

They started setting up a number of cosmic ray telescopes for continuous monitoring of cosmic ray intensity using narrow-angle Geiger Muller counter telescopes at Ahmedabad, Trivandrum, Kodaikanal, and Gulmarg, in addition to a neutron monitor at Ahmedabad for measuring neutron intensity which is not affected by the temperature variations in the atmosphere.

To avoid the ambiguities created by variations due to atmospheric changes, narrow-angle inclined telescopes, inclined to the zenith at 45° east and west were also set up at Ahmedabad in the mid-1950s.

The measurements carried out by Sarabhai using east and west pointing telescopes inclined at 45° to the zenith, both being. equally subjected to the influence of the atmosphere, unambiguously established the presence of diurnal and semi-diurnal variations in cosmic rays.

Sarabhai undertook a detailed study of the spectral characteristics of both diurnal and semidiurnal components of cosmic rays. His efforts to provide a theoretical understanding of the origin of the semidiurnal component of the cosmic rays led to postulating and estimating gradients of cosmic ray intensity perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic long before this was confirmed by space-borne equipment.

A schematic diagram depicting the magnetosphere in the near-Earth space environment. Note the southward orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field, and the reconnective process with the geomagnetic field that follows as the solar wind carries the interplanetary field past the Earth. vikram sarabhai

Sarabhai along with his students carried out extensive studies of the day-to-day changes in cosmic ray intensity, which provided an instantaneous snapshot of the highly varying electromagnetic state of interplanetary space.

Sarabhai’s work in cosmic ray time variations leads directly to the models of sources for modulation such as electric fields in the magnetosphere, structure of shock wave fronts in interplanetary space, etc.

Recognizing the importance of the changing magnetic field irregularities on the Sun and their effect on interplanetary space, Sarabhai decided to collaborate with MIT in setting up a giant meson monitor at Chacaltaya, Bolivia at a height of about 5340 meters above sea level to study very short-period variations of 1-30 cycles per hour in the cosmic ray intensity.

Sarabhai sent there a graduate student to record and study short period variations of 1-30 cycles per hour with great accuracy. This led to the discovery of micropulsations in cosmic ray intensity at the same frequencies as observed in the magnetosphere and interplanetary space by satellites.

With these observations, he and his group were able to establish a complete correspondence in spectral changes in interplanetary space, magnetosphere, and in cosmic rays measured on Earth. Sarabhai very quickly recognized that the solar winds emanating from different regions of the Sun will have different velocities, taking the cue from the highly varying intensity of green coronal line emissions, which originate in different regions of excitation in the solar corona.

He worked out the implications of the non-uniform solar wind particularly as the fast plasma overtakes the preceding solar plasma creating shock transitions and turbulent conditions.

Structure of the magnetosphere vikram sarabhai

The effect of such shock transitions on cosmic ray intensity, some of which often last for several months, led him to propose a new mechanism for explaining 27-day recurrent effects and the so-called large Forbush decreases of cosmic ray intensity observed in space and on the ground.

In the last few years, Sarabhai’s interest shifted to the study of fluctuations in the geomagnetic field and their origin. Using the data from the precise measurements of the horizontal component of the geomagnetic field (H) from several low latitude observatories across the world, he and his group studied, in great detail, the diurnal changes in H, which usually reach a maximum value around noon and a minimum during the night.

These studies led them to correctly interpret that a considerable part of the changes in H is due to the changes in the current system at the magnetopause and in the magneto-tail, induced by the changes in the interplanetary solar wind plasma.

From the studies carried out at PRL and elsewhere it became clear that practically in every part of the universe, except on the surface of the Earth, hydromagnetics clearly dominated the physical phenomena. Sarabhai and his coworkers studied the geomagnetic data from Trivandrum, Alibag, Honolulu in Hawaii, and Guam in the Pacific.

They established that a sizable part of the geomagnetic field variations must originate in the current systems at the magnetopause, as well as in the currents in the tail of the magnetosphere. They also showed that such variations are well correlated with the kinetic energy density of the interplanetary plasma and the variance of the component of the interplanetary magnetic field perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. 

These developments naturally led Sarabhai to propose the inclusion of a systematic worldwide study of cosmic ray variations with standard equipment as a part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) study, which was enthusiastically accepted.

How did the scientific leadership of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai contribute to the development of India?

Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC). vikram sarabhai
Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC).
Gazal world/Source/CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1942, when Sarabhai was working at the Meteorological Department, Poona, he planned to establish a research laboratory for studying cosmic rays and atmospheric physics and discussed plans with Dr. K. R. Ramanathan, then the Director of Poona Observatory. 

Soon after Vikram Sarabhai returned from Cambridge in 1947, he set about the task of establishing the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association (ATIRA) at Ahmedabad. Sarabhai was a Professor of cosmic rays in the laboratory and became its Director in 1965.

In 1955, the Physical Research Laboratory set up a research station at Gulmarg in Kashmir for measurements of cosmic ray intensities as well as atmospheric ozone and night airflow.  He set up out stations of PRL at Kodaikanal, Trivandrum and Gulmarg.  

Sarabhai led the Indian Delegation to the Productivity Congress held in Japan in 1956. He persuaded the textile industrialists at Ahmedabad to set up, with support from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, an institute for textile research that would help modernize the industry.

He founded the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He was the first Honorary Director of both these organizations. In 1966, he set up an institution for development called the Nehru Foundation in Ahmedabad. The first activity of this Foundation was the establishment of a Community Science Centre on the Gujarat University Campus. He was the Chairman of the Electronics Committee.

He produced an ambitious integrated plan for the development of the electronic industry. Some of the most well-known institutions established by Sarabhai are; Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvanthapuram, Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, Faster Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), Kalpakkam, Variable Energy Cyclotron Project, Kolkata, Electronic Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Hyderabad, Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar and Darpan Academy for Performing Arts, Ahmedabad which he set up with his wife.

Why is Dr. Vikram Sarabhai known as the Father of the Indian Space Program?

The first rocket (Nike Apache) launched from TERLS was prepared for launch in 1963. vikram sarabhai
The first rocket (Nike Apache) launched from TERLS was prepared for launch in 1963.
Times of India/Source

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai is considered the Father of the Indian Space Program. As direct in situ measurements in space became accessible, with the advent of the satellites and deep-space probes after the coming of the space age in 1957, Sarabhai’s interest naturally led him to initiate a dynamic space program in India, and in this process making the Physical Research Laboratory the cradle of the Indian Space Programme. Sarabhai became the Chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research.

In 1962, INCOSPAR pointed out that “The equatorial region has special scientific interest for meteorology and aeronomy. In particular, the magnetic equator is highly significant in the investigation of the Earth’s magnetic field and the ionosphere”.

Considering that the magnetic equator passes over South India and the equatorial electro-jet phenomena, confined to a narrow region over the magnetic equator, have a tremendous influence on the dynamics of the equatorial ionosphere, Sarabhai decided to establish The Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) at Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram for carrying out aeronomy and astronomy experiments.

Convinced of the need to develop indigenous competence in space technology, the immense practical benefits of which in the fields of communication, education, and management of natural resources were already clear, Sarabhai established the Space Science and Technology Centre in Thumba to begin work on rocket technology.

He was instrumental in setting up another Rocket Range at Sriharikota near Chennai on the Indian East Coast, an Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Centre at Ahmedabad, a Satellite Instruction Television Experiment Group, etc. As a result of Dr. Sarabhai’s dialogue with NASA in 1966, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was launched from July 1975 – to July 1976.

A Soviet postage stamp from 1984 depicting the Soviet Intercosmos rocket, the Indian satellites Bhaskara, Bhaskara II, and Aryabata, and the antennas of the Soviet tracking station. vikram sarabhai
A Soviet postage stamp from 1984 depicting the Soviet Intercosmos rocket, the Indian satellites Bhaskara, Bhaskara II, and Aryabata, and the antennas of the Soviet tracking station.
Post of the Soviet Union/Source

Sarabhai started the project for the fabrication and launch of an Indian Satellite. As a result, the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata was put into orbit from Baikonur, U.S.S.R. in 1975. The goals and outlines of the Indian Space Program were defined very clearly by Sarabhai in the ‘Decade Profile of the Space and the Atomic Energy’ issued in the period 1969/70.

He clearly indicated in that profile ‘SLV-3 would be followed in the period 1975–79 by satellite launch vehicles using more powerful motors and it is the objective of the Space Science and Technology Centre to develop by the end of the 1970s launch vehicle capable of putting a 1200 kg satellite into synchronous orbit at 40,000 km.

This is the type of capability which is needed to fully exploit, on our own, the vast potential arising from the practical applications of space science and technology.’He thus described the tasks for the Indian Space Program over the next ten years. In the decade profile, he also mentioned the value of placing an imaging system in a geosynchronous satellite.

What are Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s contributions to the Indian Nuclear Program?

The sudden and tragic death of Dr. Homi Bhaba in 1966 brought additional responsibilities to Sarabhai. He was made Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and was entrusted with the task of carrying forward the scientific and technological revolution in the field of nuclear energy set in motion by Dr. Bhabha.

Sarabhai’s major contributions to the nuclear energy program were the introduction of modern concepts of management and operations research and the planning of large nuclear-powered agro-industrial complexes in the country.

What are some of the awards and honors conferred upon Dr. Vikram Sarabhai?

Pragyan rover mounted on the ramp of Vikram lander of Chandrayaan 2 moon mission. vikram sarabhai
Pragyan rover mounted on the ramp of Vikram lander of Chandrayaan 2 moon mission.
Indian Space Research Organisation/Source/Government Open Data License – India (GODL)

Sarabhai was awarded the Bhatnagar Memorial Award for Physics in 1962. He won the Padma Bhushan in 1966. He was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972. He presided over the physics section of the Indian Science Congress from 1961-to 62.

He was elected Vice-President and Chairman of the UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1968. He was the President of the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held in Vienna in 1970. He was the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India from 1966-to 1971.

He was the Vice-President of the Fourth UN Conference on Peaceful uses of Atomic Energy held in 1971. The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), which is the Indian Space Research Organization’s lead facility for launch vehicle development located in Thiruvananthapuram is named after him.

Indian Postal Department released a commemorative Postal Stamp on his first death anniversary in 1972. The International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater, Bessel A, in the Sea of Serenity as Sarabhai crater in 1973. Vikram A Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC) located in Ahmedabad, Gujarat is named after him. 

A Space Museum was dedicated to him at B M Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad in 2019. Google’s Doodle for India commemorated Sarabhai’s 100th birth anniversary on 12 August 2019.

On his 100th birthday on 12 August 2019, ISRO announced an award in the name of Vikram Sarabhai called the Vikram Sarabhai Journalism award in Space Science Technology and Research which will be given to those journalists who have contributed to the fields of space science, applications, and research.

The lander on India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon, which was to land near the South Pole of the moon on Sep 20, 2019, was named Vikram in his honor.

What are some of the famous quotes by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai?

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Smt. Mrinalini Sarabhai.
Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Smt. Mrinalini Sarabhai.

“We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the explorations 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, which we find in our country”.

– At the dedication ceremony of Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), Thumba. (1968)

There is an active debate in the world today on the value of space exploration in the context of the many immediate problems of human existence. Why does man wish to go to the moon when he has sophisticated instruments including television cameras, which can be sent in spacecraft under command and can communicate information from millions of miles. It is because nothing that has been developed with the most sophisticated technology so far approaches anywhere near the capability of man who possesses the facility of receiving information simultaneously from a number of channels and to synthesise it to create an image of the environment as a whole. Let us note here that our present day computers and systems for analysis operate only serially, i.e. taking one bit of information after another. It is unlikely that man will restrain his urge to see, to feel and to listen, himself if he can possibly accomplish all these. I do not expect that the debate on the merit or otherwise of putting man into space would ever be settled. If we are to rely on historical experience, man will surely push ahead with adventures of this type backed by motives which will inevitably be mixed.”

– At the National Programme of Talks Series – ‘Exploration in space’. (1966)

“A third important scientific objective has been to view the universe, the galaxy and the solar system through a wide window. The blanket of the atmosphere under which we live eliminates all but a tiny fraction of the broad spectrum of electro-magnetic radiations and particles which impinge on the earth carrying with them information about the sources where they originated and the properties of the media through which they have traversed. Depending merely on observations made with earth bound instruments to picture the universe, and understand cosmology is like the attempt of a blindfolded man to describe an elephant by touching the trunk and the legs of the animal.”

– At the United Nations Conference on ‘Peaceful uses of outer space’, Vienna. (1968)

“One of the hardest questions to be faced in adopting a synchronous satellite for national needs, arises from the fact that many interested countries would not expect in the near future to have an independent capability for placing such a satellite in orbit. The nations advanced in space research have done much to extend the benefits of the peaceful uses of outer space to all countries, and one can reasonably count on their continued support. But the political implications of a national system dependent on foreign agencies for launching a satellite are complex. They are not negative in the present day world only in the context of the coming together of the national interest of the launcher and the user nations. As long as there is no effective mutuality or interdependence between the two, many nations left only with the ground segment would probably feel the need for some measure of redundant capability under complete national jurisdiction. There is great scope today to explore this structure of possible international systems which could provide credibility in increasing measure that the space segment could be relied upon even in the context of political and ideological differences amongst nations. Perhaps collaborative participation of nations in the construction and operation of a launching system for the peaceful uses of outer space would be realised in the long run.”

– At the United Nations Conference on ‘Peaceful uses of outer space’, Vienna. (1968)

“ … a positive approach for a way out of this predicament seems to lie in finding solutions where the particular disadvantage of developing nations, which is that they have little to build on, is made an asset rather than a liability. I suggest that it is necessary for them to develop competence in advanced technologies and to deploy them for the solution of their own particular problems, not for prestige, but based on sound technical and economic evaluation involving commitment of real resources. They would most likely discover that the traditional appraisal of planning to provide things like electric power or telecommunication services for a national infrastructure, based on projections of growth from past experience, leas to dead end. They will also discover that an alternative approach lies in creating consumption centres alongside facilities for supply; that, as in the case of large nuclear power stations serving large agro-industrial complexes, synchronous satellites could be planned in the context of a programme to be simultaneously undertaken for a direct broadcast television to the entire countryside. Indeed, they would discover that there is a totality about the process of development which involves not only advanced technology and hardware but imaginative planning of supply and consumption centres, of social organization and management, to leap-frog from a state of backwardness and poverty.”

– At the United Nations Conference on ‘Peaceful uses of outer space’, Vienna. (1968)

“We shall talk later in this Conference of the project proposed by the Indian Space Research Organisation of the Department of Atomic Energy for a national satellite for communication purposes. This is one major task which can provide, as the Apollo Project to the Moon did for the United States, a means for rallying engineers in a number of different directions to leap-frog from our state of technological and economic backwardness. It not only gives a most valuable input for national development through a powerful communication system reaching the remotest village or isolated community, but introduces us to the latest technology in space and electronics, offering employment to tens of thousands of engineers.”

– At the National Conference on Electronics. (1970)

“Through experience we know that conditions of work in India within our own specialized scientific fields rarely match the facilities available in several other countries. Some of us get frustrated striving against heavy odds. Others leave the country. But those who can apply their insights to the problems of the community and of the nation discover an exciting area of activity where effort is rewarding even while the results come slowly. What should we do to provide opportunity for such leadership? I do not expect those attitudes which segregate scientists and intellectuals from the real world to change quickly. I do not believe that in the near future we are likely to provide to scientists and educationists job opportunities and service conditions which are on par with those enjoyed by administrators. But I have a dream; a fantasy maybe; that we can provide encouragement to those who will accept responsibilities for real tasks; big and small; even while they continue to do their own work.”

– At a speech broadcast by the All India Radio on ‘Leadership in Science’. (1965)


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  13. Sarabhai (crater) – Planetary Names: Sarabhai on Moon. Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, IAU, USGS, NASA. 18 October 2010. Retrieved 22 July 2015.

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