As Google Monday dedicated a doodle to mark the 100th birth anniversary of award-winning innovator and ISRO scientist Vikram Sarabhai, Ahmedabad – the city where he was born and spent the most part of his life – celebrated the day by organising a number of events. Former colleagues from space and atomic energy, his family and current heads of the institutions he built, reminisced about how the visionary leader, scientist and institution builder propelled the country through innovation.
A video message by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also played at the event where he said that lesson from Dr Sarabhai’s life was “that the capabilities and skills we possess is incomplete unless we use it to improve our society and country”. He hailed the fact that the centennial anniversary has come at a time when “the ‘Vikram’ lander will mark itself on the Moon (as part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission) and is a fitting tribute to Dr Sarabhai from 130 crore citizens of this country”.
“Be it space or nuclear technology, it is used for the Indian citizens’ benefit… The rocket that he launched from Thumba, today has taken different forms and is headed towards the moon now…The world is looking with astonishment. Dr Sarabhai was not only an exceptional scientist but a great person and was an educationist by heart,” Modi said.
K Kasturirangan, former chairman of ISRO, recalled how Sarabhai perceived failures as not setbacks but as a learning experience. He cited an instance when he and his colleagues were up at 4 am to fly a balloon (experiments to obtain data on configuration of magnetic field), and just when they got their instruments ready, there was trouble. “Sarabhai walked in at 4.30 am. You can imagine, he had a very hectic day the previous night and he had got up early just to understand what we were up to…we had difficulties and we were very nervous, getting the instruments ready. By the end of it, he said, ‘See, if the flight had gone successfully, you wouldn’t have learned even half of what you learnt after that initial problem that you faced. Always remember that none of the setbacks are setbacks for you, but a process to learn,” said Kasturirangan.
M R Srinivasan, former chairman of DAE, said, “He would conduct frequent reviews. One principle he focused on was correcting mistakes. There are many lessons one can learn from his life… one is to build strong interdisciplinary teams to address present day problems.”
“You know you could ask Dr Sarabhai uncomfortable questions and he would not consider it to be offensive… One of the aspect was the budget that would be given to ISRO and there were some discussions about it. It was reaching a level of some Rs 3-4 crore. So somebody asked him, ‘Why are you spending this kind of taxpayers’ money?’ and he said, ‘whose money? It’s not my money? I pay more than Rs 4 crore as income tax.’ He was a person who had full conviction in whatever he wanted to do, so that is the kind of character he imbibed in many of us,” said Kasturirangan.
While the initial years of ISRO saw a varied number of collaborations with international organisations, for developing systems and projects but at the same time Dr Sarabhai also believed in building indigenous capabilities, which has been key to keeping the Indian space programme not only kicking and alive but thriving.
“He also knew that these (collaborations) can be stopped because these are strategic items and therefore he believed in indigenisation… he believed our access to space through technology cannot be dependent on others and thus SLV-3 was developed… contributing to the sustainibility of India’s space programme,” Kasturirangan said. SLV-3 was successfully launched on July 18, 1980 from Sriharikota Range (SHAR), when Rohini satellite, RS-1, was placed in orbit, thereby making India the sixth member of an exclusive club of space-faring nations.
“The vision that we have today was primarily based on the fact that those discussions took place in those initial years, giving proper direction… and were carried forward by subsequent leaders like Satish Dhawan and others..,” Kasturirangan added.
Referring to Dr Sarabhai as the ‘true son of India,’ present chairman of ISRO, K Sivan also described him Sarabhai as a great institution builder. Sivan went on to introduce each one present on the dais and their association with Sarabhai. While highlighting ISRO and the Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) shared lineage as INCOSPAR was established under DAE in 1962 which later became ISRO, Sivan also said, “Dr Sarabhai understood that technology alone is not enough and that a committed management cadre is necessary for national growth.”
Pramod Kale, Former director of the ISRO-SAC, illuminated on how Dr Sarabhai was convinced that television should not be merely used for entertainment but also as an educational tool. The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), an experimental satellite communications project that changed how rural India consumed TV for information, Kale remarked on Dr Sarabhai’s foresightedness at a time when, “Many asked us why DAE was getting involved in managing TV.”
Further exemplifying Dr Sarabhai’s visionary ways, Kale hailed his idea of chalking a decade profile for space and nuclear programme for 1970-80. “…As he said, we must be second to none in application of science and technology, to solve real-life problems,” said Kale.
M R Srinivasan, nuclear scientist and former chairman of DAE, said, “Dr Sarabhai was enthusiastic for setting up agro-industrial complexes through nuclear power to support agrochemical industries and for irrigation pumping.”
Former ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan, was among those present in the audience, while A S Kiran Kumar, another former ISRO chairman, was unable to come.
During the inaugural programme, an album on the life story of Dr Sarabhai, a coffee table book on ISRO and commemorative coin from the Department of Atomic Energy were released. ‘Space on Wheels’ an exhibition inside a bus was also inaugurated on the occasion.
The yearlong centenary programme will see various events being organised across 100 selected cities across India commencing Monday and concluding on August 12, 2020 with the valedictory function at Thiruvananthapuram.