For many Western observers in the 1960s and ’70s, India’s fledgling space program seemed the result of wishful, even misguided thinking — a clumsy, multimillion-rupee effort to launch satellites and rockets rather than antipoverty programs or literacy campaigns.
The rockets were developed inside a leaky church on the coastline of Kerala, while the satellites — built inside a brick shed in an industrial section of Bangalore — were sometimes transported in an ox cart.
Yet when an Indian-made rocket took the satellite Rohini into space on July 18, 1980 — 11 months after a failed attempt sent a similar satellite splashing into the Bay of Bengal — India became just the seventh country in the world to take an object into orbit with its own launch vehicle.
Following on the heels of the Soviet Union, the United States, France, Japan, China and England, the country soon established itself as a capable and distinctive space power, focused more on developing satellites for civilian and scientific aims than for their military potential.
For many years, the space program’s scientific lodestar and most prominent advocate was U.R. Rao, a cosmic-ray physicist turned satellite designer who died July 24 at his home in Bangalore. He was 85.
The Indian Space Research Organization, which Rao led as chairman from 1984 to 1994, announced his death but did not disclose the cause. He was reportedly hospitalized earlier this year because of a heart ailment.
Rao was a former student of ISRO’s founder, Vikram Sarabhai, and the principal architect of its satellite program. Leading with the mantra, “If others can do, we can do better,” he oversaw the launch of a novel telecommunications satellite network and maintained an advisory role at the space program until his death, helping to shape missions to the moon in 2008 and to Mars in 2013.
“No developing country can use technology as a black box,” Rao told England’s New Scientist magazine in 1988, arguing for the importance of India’s space program. “If it does, it will not progress.”
He joined ISRO in 1972 as technical director of its satellite project in Bangalore, where he led a group of about 300 Indian engineers who, Rao later recalled, “did not know much about satellites.” Within three years, his team had developed India’s first satellite, Aryabhata.
Launched by the Soviet Union on April 19, 1975, it gathered information on the Earth’s ionosphere and studied bursts of gamma rays produced by the sun. An electrical malfunction knocked it out of commission five days after it entered orbit, but the satellite laid the groundwork for increasingly complex missions, including the launch of the Indian National Satellite System in the mid-1980s.
Known as INSAT, the satellite network was the embodiment of Rao’s belief that the space program could be used to better the lives of everyday Indians.
Its first functioning satellite, INSAT-B, was described by The New York Times as being “one-of-a-kind,” combining telecommunications tools that handled more than 100,000 phone calls each day with equipment for weather forecasting and television broadcasting.
Subsequent satellites enabled Indian officials to map the extent of forests and floods, predict and manage droughts and locate water sources near rural communities.
Rao was particularly proud of the television capabilities of the satellite system he oversaw, which streamed family-planning and health programs, among other series, to government-provided satellite TVs.
“There are very remote areas in Orissa,” he told Sky & Telescope magazine in 1985, referring to an eastern state in India, “ . . . where people went to magicians instead of doctors. But we found that after seeing the programs, they were going to the doctors as well as the magicians. We made a step forward.”
Udupi Ramachandra Rao was born on March 10, 1932, to a lower-class family in Adamaru, a village near the western city of Udupi. His father was a cook.
Rao graduated from the University of Madras in 1951 and received a master’s degree two years later from Banaras Hindu University. After receiving a doctorate from Gujarat University in 1960, he traveled to the United States to work as a professor and a researcher on NASA space probes, including the Venus flyby craft Mariner 2.
He returned to India in 1966 as a professor at the Physical Research Laboratory, a government-run center that is sometimes known as India’s “cradle of space sciences.” Rao later chaired its governing council, holding that position until his death while also working as chancellor of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, a university in Thiruvananthapuram. He published more than 360 scientific papers.
According to the Indian newspaper the Hindu, survivors include his wife, Yashoda, and two children, Madan and Mala.
Rao received two of India’s highest civilian honors, the Padma Bhushan in 1976 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2017, and was inducted into the halls of fame of the Society of Satellite Professionals International and the International Astronautical Federation.
“We started modestly and built step by step,” he told the Times in 1986, recalling the space program’s early years. “There was a lot of criticism along the way. But today everyone is convinced that this is the best way to meet the country’s needs.”