A life devoted to science (1932-2017)

One of India’s foremost space scientists Prof.Udupi Ramachandra Rao was born on 10 March 1932 at Adamaru in Karnataka. He completed his Bachelor of Science Degree from the Government Arts and Science College, Ananthpur, and his post-graduation from the Benares Hindu University. Later he obtained his doctorate (PhD) at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad under the guidance of the eminent scientist Dr. Vikram Sarabhai.

One of his first assignments was that of a Faculty Member at MIT and Assistant Professor at the University of Texas in Dallas. His brief was to carry out investigations as a prime experimenter on a number of Pioneer and Explorer spacecrafts. After a lengthy stay in the US, Prof. Rao returned to India in 1966 and took up a job at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, where he started his career as a Cosmic Ray scientist, and worked in tandem with Dr. Vikram Sarabhai.

The responsibility of establishing satellite technology in India fell on his able shoulders, and in 1972, an institute was set up. Under his guidance India launched its first satellite ‘Aryabhata’ into space in the year 1975. Since then, over 18 satellites were launched in quick succession including Bhaskara, Apple, Rohini, Insat 1 and 2, two series of multipurpose satellites, and the IRS 1 a and ISRB remote sensing satellites. Prof. Rao took over as the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1985, and was instrumental in the acceleration of the development of rocket technology in the country resulting in the successful launch of ASLV rocket in 1992 with the development of the operational PSLV launch vehicle. Rao also initiated the development of the geostationary launch vehicle, the GSLV. He was also chiefly responsible for the development of cyrogenic technology and the launch of INSAT satellites. These satellites were designed, fabricated and launched for providing communication, remote sensing and meteorological devices. The launch of the INSAT satellites gave a fillip to the communication sector in India in the 1980s and the 1990s, leading to the development of the Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) facility, which was to later play a key role in enabling India to emerge as an IT hub.

Prof. Rao was appointed as the first Chairman of the Antrix Corporation, and also served as the Chairman of the Karnataka State Science & Technology Corporation, and Chairman of the Bengaluru Association of Science Education, Chairman, Governing Council of Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, Vice Chancellor of the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, and Member of the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank of India. Prof. Rao also had the distinction of being the Chairman of the Governing Council of the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad, and the Nehru Planetairum at Bangalore, and also served as Chancellor of the Indian Institute of Space & Technology (IIST) at Trivandrum. He earned the privilege of being the first Indian scientist to be inducted into the prestigious Satellite Hall of Fame in Washington on 19 March 2013. He was again the first Indian to be inducted into the Institute of Astronautics Federation on 5 May, 2016.

In his long and distinguished career Prof. Rao also published well over 300 scientific and technological papers in national and international journals, revealing his expertise in diverse subjects like cosmic rays, high energy, astrophysics, space applications, interplanetary physics, satellite and rocket technology. He also authored books, among them, Space and Agenda 21 – Caring for Planet Earth, and Space Technology and Sustainable Development. A recipient of several national and international honours, Prof. Rao was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1976, and the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award after the Bharat Ratna, in 2017. The celebrated scientist passed away at Bengaluru on 24 July 2017, at the age of 85. Prof. Rao has left his indelible imprint with his invaluable contributions to the growth and progress of space research in the country.

– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.