It was the early 1960s when India’s space research program was in its humble beginnings in the pulpit of a church in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), as we know today, was yet to be established from its parent organization, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), with Dr. Vikram Sarabhai as its head. India’s tryst with space research was limited to a few imported rockets and payloads. The prevalent geopolitical and economic situation commanded an in-house space research facility that would put India on the world map as a pioneer in space exploration. That dream, achieved today, has seen the hard work of many renowned scientists, among whom Prof. Udupi Ramachandra Rao (also known as U R Rao) was one.
Born in the small village of Adamaru near Udupi in the state of Karnataka, Prof. Rao completed his PhD at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad under the guidance of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. Soon after, he went on to work in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Texas, Dallas, where he experimented with different state-of-the-art spacecrafts to understand the solar cosmic ray phenomena and the electromagnetic state of the interplanetary space. With this experience, he was entrusted with the responsibility of developing satellite technology in India in 1972.
Prof. Rao served as the Chairman of ISRO from 1984 for ten illustrious years. He has served a number of organizations promoting science in various capabilities including Bangalore Association of Science Education (BASE) and Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium (JNP) and the Karnataka Science and Technology Academy. He was elected the Fellow of many national and international academies and was the first chairman of Prasar Bharati -- India's largest public broadcasting agency. He has also been appointed in key roles in a number of education institutes.
In recognition of Prof. Rao’s contribution to India’s space research, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan in 2017. On 24th of July 2017, Prof. Rao left for the heavenly abode leaving behind a legacy that only few can script.
Authoring the initial chapters of India’s space research
A significant landmark in India’s history of space research was the successful launch of ‘Aryabhata’, India’s first satellite launched in 1975 to conduct experiments in X-ray astronomy, aeronomics, and solar physics. Built in the sheds of Peenya in Bangalore, Aryabhata would soon be followed with 20 other satellite programs like Bhaskara, APPLE, Rohini, INSAT-1 and INSAT-2 series of multipurpose satellites and the IRS-1A and IRS-1B remote sensing satellites, all under the able leadership of Prof. Rao.
The INSAT series of satellites, whose successful launch is credited to Prof. Rao, opened up the realm of communications in India in the 1980s and 1990s. Thanks to the satellite links on ground, fixed telephone lines started to foray into Indian households. Telephone operators helping with ‘trunk calls’ were now replaced with STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing), where people could call anyone without waiting for hours to get the connection. In addition, the INSAT satellites provided direct nationwide TV, weather and disaster warning services to thousands of remote villages.
“Prof. U R Rao has tirelessly promoted the use of space technology for broadcasting, education, meteorology, remote sensing and disaster warning. The Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development (IMSD) with space image inputs was his major initiative under remote sensing programme”, remarks Dr. Partha Sarathi Roy, former Dean at the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun and former Deputy Director of the National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad.
After taking over the reins of ISRO, Prof. Rao shifted his focus towards developing rocket technology. He was responsible for the successful launch of ASLV (Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle) rockets in 1992 and the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in 1994. PSLV is still a versatile launch vehicle that has put 48 Indian satellites and 209 foreign satellites into orbits, along with Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan. Prof. Rao also initiated the development of the GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle), the largest launch vehicle developed by India, and instituted research on cryogenic technology for rocket launches.
“The most important contribution of Prof. U R Rao to India's space programme is that he clearly knew that a developing nation like ours, especially in the 1980s, could ill-afford expensive technology. His work has played a great role in answering the obvious question -- ‘Should a poor country like India indulge in space science and technology’”, says Mr. H R Madhusudhan, Senior Scientific Officer at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Bangalore.
A hallmark of India’s space programs so far has been the amazingly low cost and the use of indigenous technologies that can make seemingly expensive space missions, affordable. “Prof. Rao brought in the culture of making things indigenously at low cost. And, even to this day ISRO is continuing this culture - be it Chandrayaan-1 or Mars Orbiter Mission or launching 104 satellites in a single launch. Perhaps, this way of thinking is his contribution”, remarks Mr. Madhusudhan.
As a scientist, Prof. Rao has published over 300 papers covering the areas of cosmic rays, interplanetary physics, high energy astrophysics, space applications and satellite and rocket technology. He has also authored three books on space and technology. He has involved himself in various professional activities in the national and international arena. His love for science is imminent from his contributions to the planetarium in Bangalore.
“The planetarium was entrusted to a newly constituted body called the Bangalore Association for Science Education which was headed by Prof U R Rao”, recollects Dr. B S Shylaja, a visiting scientist at the planetarium. “He, along with Prof. Satish Dhawan, framed the objectives of this institution and picked up the right person as the Director, Prof C V Vishweshvara. Since then, the two have contributed immensely to the institution, which has acquired a unique place for its educational and popularisation programs”, she says.
With the demise of Prof. Rao, the country surely lost a great visionary who not only shaped India’s space programmes, but inspired many to contribute to this cause.