“Vikram Sarabhai never behaved like a boss and treated everyone as equals, so much so that even a peon could walk into his cabin with grievances,” recalls Prof Eknath Chitnis (94), who worked closely with Sarabhai from 1952 till he died in 1971.
Sarabhai, Chitnis and many other scientists went on to lay the unshakable foundation of India’s space programme and eventually set up the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that is now eyeing the Moon, Mars and even the Sun.
It’s nearly 67 years ago, but Chitnis vividly remembers his first interaction with Sarabhai in October 1952, during the former’s interview for a post at the Textile Research Association in Ahmedabad. “I wanted to work as a researcher at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and to do so, I needed the job. It was during the final round of interview, for which Sarabhai was also present, I asked him whether he was Vikram Sarabhai. To which, he responded, ‘I am Vikram’,” recalls Chitnis.
Chitnis had to work as a lecturer at a college in Anand till Sarabhai and Ramanathan, the first student of Nobel Laureate C V Raman, managed to find him a scholarship. He finally joined Team Sarabhai on March 16, 1953 and the association grew stronger as India’s space sciences was getting conceived.
Sarabhai kept Chitnis busy for the next two years on a cosmic ray project, carried out in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at Kodaikanal. Impressed with his work, MIT offered Chitnis a researcher’s job but he didn’t accept the offer. Surprised, MIT then contacted Sarabhai, who insisted the young Chitnis take up the MIT offer.
“There was a lot of data which was analysed at MIT and remarkable work was later published. It took three months for the Indo-China war news to trickle to 20 per cent of India’s population. That was when Sarabhai decided to initiate the space programme in India, with a vision for laying the country’s satellite communication and use it effectively to improve education, meteorology, environment and agriculture,” says Chitnis.
In July 1961, Sarabhai called back Chitnis to join the space programme that had by now a definite roadmap drawn. While India had no prior experience of making rockets or propellants till then, Sarabhai tasked Chitnis on a location hunt for a suitable rocket launching site. It was in November 1962 that Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram was finalised as ISRO’s first rocket launching site.
Chitnis shares an interesting story of one of his visits. “Since there was no official car owned by PRL, I decided to take a bus and then an auto-rickshaw to reach Ahmedabad airport. Little before I set out, Sarabhai rang me up enquiring about the journey. Upon learning my plans to get to the airport, he asked to stay back and drove me to the airport. Many at the airport saw me being driven by Sarabhai and thereafter, every time I travelled from Ahmedabad airport, I was given a celebrity treatment,” remembers Chitnis.
Despite limited budgets allotted to the Department of Atomic Energy, the ISRO scientists, under Sarabhai, worked day in and day out. Sarabhai was also efficient in making smart choices of relevant projects with a potential to address some of India’s grave problems. Chitnis recalls how Sarabhai would work in areas having potential to be expanded enough to gain government support.
Collaborations with the Americans, French and Russians were bearing fruits. India collaborated with NASA for the first of its kind rural development project called Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) project led by Chitnis in 1975.
“Sarabhai was an excellent negotiator with foreign delegates. He would checkmate the foreign delegations and seal the best deals for India. As young scientists, his negotiation powers were worth learning,” the 94-year-old says.
Having worked alongside Homi Bhabha and Sarabhai, Chitnis says Bhabha was easy to work with in certain situations.
He says, “Once facts were presented, Bhabha would swiftly announce his decision. Whereas, it was hard to convince Sarabhai and he would take longer to arrive at a decision, especially on matters that affected people directly. He was a very sensitive man.”
With all eyes now on Chandrayaan-2 and a lander dedicated to Vikram Sarabhai out in space, Chitnis feels that institutions established by Sarabhai and Bhabha have excelled and put India in a lead position.
Along with being the ISRO chief, Sarabhai assumed charge as chairman of DAE after Bhabha’s demise and the key job at hand was completing the project of developing the atom bomb.
In his final days, Sarabhai even managed to convince the Indian Railways and set up a railway station at Veli, located ahead of Thiruvananthapuram for facilitating scientists visiting the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC).
“Having taken early lessons at Shantiniketan, being a Gandhian and a peace lover, heading a group making bombs would not have been easy. He may have probably been under some burden along with tremendous pressures from government to deliver,” says Chitnis.
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