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View from India: Remembering ‘India’s Satellite Man’ UR Rao

The globally renowned Indian space scientist UR Rao has passed away at the age of 85.

A Google search on Professor UR Rao gives 580,000 results in 0.54 seconds. That’s Professor Udupi Ramachandra Rao, described as ‘India’s Satellite Man,’ a befitting title for a man who gave the country its first spacecraft. The globally renowned scientist passed away in the early hours of Monday.

History has it that the spacecraft, Aryabhata, took over two years in the making, at a rather nondescript industrial shed in Peenya in Bangalore before it saw a successful launch in the USSR in 1975.

Hailed for his expertise in inter-planetary exploration, Rao decided to use space science and technology to solve various issues, and relentlessly did so for five decades. He was clearly ahead of the curve.

He began his career as a cosmic ray scientist under Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme, and contributed significantly and spearheaded several projects from Aryabhata to the Mars Orbiter Mission, apart from researching on satellite payloads and satellite technology. Under him, over 18 satellites have been launched other than remote sensing satellites which have been designed under his guidance. 

The country and world at large acknowledges the fact that Rao paved the way for what we now know as the grandiose of the India space programme. India has several space landmarks to its credit, besides creating space history. Earlier this year, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made space history by launching 104 satellites in a single shot at Aero India 2017.

RAO served as chairman of ISRO, the primary space agency of the Indian government, from 1984-1994 and was the brain behind what science needed to be done in the Chandrayaan-1 lunar explorer and Mangalyaan Mars orbiter missions.

The Bangalore-based scientist was awarded the national honours Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan in 2017, besides serving in leading universities abroad and publishing over 350 scientific papers. For all his achievements Rao became the first Indian to be given the ‘Hall of Fame’ award by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) in May 2016. Prior to that, he was the first Indian to be inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame, Washington in March 2013 at a ceremony organised by the Society of Satellite Professionals International.

Undoubtedly his career enjoyed resounding success like the launch of Aryabhata and the success of the Ariane Passenger PayLoad Experiment (Apple). Going back in time, Apple was transported on a bullock cart in 1981. However there have been stumbling blocks, like the initial failures of the SLV series of launchers and the PSLV’s first flight. The accomplished scientist carried on, regardless. Notwithstanding that, he also encouraged juniors and students from time to time. Media reports indicate that the astrophysicist continued to keep the students’ spirits high when their experiment failed. At an event, students had prepared a small rocket which took off but as luck would have it, the parachute failed to take off. It’s anyone’s guess that the students were embarrassed and disappointed. But the gentle scientist consoled them.

While ministers, predecessors and mentors and the scientific community has condoled Rao’s demise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Saddened by demise of renowned scientist, Professor UR Rao. His remarkable contribution to India’s space programme will never be forgotten.”

The official twitter handle of CM of Karnataka: “Deeply saddened to hear about Padma Vibhushan Prof. UR Rao’s demise. My condolences to his family and friends.” It added, “India will be long grateful for his contributions in building our space programme @isro & the scientific community have lost a tall leader today.”

The starry era of pioneering space troika of Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and UR Rao has come to an end. It’s a pity that India’s maiden launch to planet Venus in the years to come will happen without him. A compulsive workaholic, he was active in his office till about a fortnight ago. He has been investigating on India’s forthcoming solar observatory or the Aditya L1 mission to study the sun. This project will be completed without his mentorship.



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