Isro keeps pushing the envelope on many fronts, and the list of feats that force the world to take note is growing longer.
The 100th birth anniversary of Vikram A Sarabhai, the doyen of space research in India, has just passed, and the lander in Chandrayaan-2, India’s ambitious lunar mission that puts it in the elite club of space-exploring nations, has been named Vikram, an apt tribute. But, it is indeed Isro’s success that is the most befitting tribute to the vision of the Cambridge-trained scientist who, at 28 years of age, laid the foundations of India’s space programme way back in 1947, by persuading a handful of prominent business people to fund a research institution near his home. That is how the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, the cradle of India’s space research, was born. Sarabhai, a contemporary of Homi J Bhaba, the father of India’s nuclear programme, and served as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Buoyed by the vision they shared on nation-building with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarabhai and Bhaba put India on the path to developing the technological muscle it has today. Some of India’s top institutions—the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and the Space Application Centre (under the aegis of Isro), to name two—owe their existence to Sarabhai’s vision and efforts.
The establishment of Isro, however, was his crowning achievement. Just as Nasa is inextricably linked to Wernher von Braun and the Soviet space program is to Sergei Korolev, there is no celebrating Isro without invoking Sarabhai. At a time when India had just shed its colonial shackles and was faced with daunting developmental challenges, there was not much support for the state investing in space exploration and research, a fledgling sector even in the rich nations of the time. Once, defending India’s investment in space research, Sarabhai said, “Space research is in relation to national capability, it generates self-confidence.” Decades later, Isro is living testimony of the unshakeable truth of those words. It also helped that Sarabhai, as the pioneer of the Indian space programme, made smart choices with regards to projects that a portion of the government’s scant resources was being poured into. He selected projects that had a potential to address some of the newly-independent nation’s toughest challenges—communication, meteorology, etc—and thus ensured government support continued to unfailingly. The breadth of his connections in academia, policy and business across the globe helped India collaborate with both the Americans and the Soviets. It helped that every time he spoke at global fora, he would somehow manage to spin Isro as less a competition to the rich nations than a space agency harbouring ambitions of impact on terra firma. In the real world, Sarabhai was busy seeding the creation and the launch of India’s first satellite, Aryabhatta, and the space exploration vision that Isro is giving fruition to today. From Aryabhatta to Chandrayaan, India has walked a long way in a short while, and the bulk of the credit must go to Sarabhai and the other founding fathers of independent India. That said, Sarabhai’s legacy is not just Isro, but also nurturing some of the best minds of his times to take the space programme forward, and thus fostering a lasting culture of the pursuit of excellence at the agency that has given India its Mars and Moon missions.
Isro keeps pushing the envelope on many fronts, and the list of feats that force the world to take note is growing longer. As the nation celebrates these success, it is important to remember and reflect on the fact that it all began with Sarabhai’s unwavering faith in the potential impact of a modest laboratory in Ahmedabad.