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UR Rao, the man who never stopped contributing to space science

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-07-2017 Sharan Poovanna

Bengaluru: It was sometime in the early 1980s that Udupi Ramachandra Rao, former Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chief and eminent scientist, and Roddam Narasimha, then director of National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), were waiting outside then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s office.

The two were given 20 minutes to discuss reasons for the failure of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), which failed in its first two attempts to launch. But the meeting went on for two hours.

Rao and Narasimha came out of the meeting having put the failure of the ASLV launch behind them as the interest shown by Gandhi in India’s space programme was a bigger takeaway, as Rao believed that failures would push boundaries.

Already having established satellite technology in India in 1972 and spearheading the successful launch of India’s first satellite—Aryabhata—in 1975, Rao, over the next few years, oversaw and initiated projects that would herald India’s “satellite era” in areas of providing communication, remote sensing and meteorological services.

Also Read: U.R. Rao, space pioneer and former Isro chairman, dies at 85

This included the INSAT series, operation Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and initiating the development of the geostationary launch vehicle (GSLV) and the development of the cryogenic technology in 1991—programmes that went on to cement India’s place with global superpowers of space technology. Having worked with Dr Vikram Sarabhai, Dr Homi Bhabha and Professor Satish Dhawan—the doyens of Indian space programme—Rao went on to carve a niche for himself at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), where he served as its chief for a decade (1984-1994).

“He never stopped contributing to space science,” Narasimha, a contemporary of Rao, said on Monday, adding that Rao’s passing was a big loss to the space community. Narasimha, who currently serves on the faculty of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCSAR) in Bengaluru, remembers how Rao had the ability to review programmes down to the last detail.

Rao, who lived in Indiranagar, an upscale locality in Bengaluru, was often found interacting with students at various forums and training young scientists. He was part of review committees all the time and “never really left being part of ISRO”, Narasimha says of his contemporary.

Rao also co-authored a paper with eminent scientist Dr. Arthur Clarke—who was on the Satellite Hall of Fame—on colonizing Mars, at least a decade ago.

“Manned missions are a necessity,” Rao had told Factor Daily in an interview in March, emphasising that colonising the red planet would be a natural step in our evolution and that those who control valuable resources found in space will control the world.

“Personally for me, a guiding spirit has departed,” M. Annadurai, director of the Satellite centre at Isro, said.

Rao has published over 350 scientific and technical papers covering cosmic rays, interplanetary physics, high energy astronomy, space applications and satellite and rocket technology and authored many books. He is also the recipient of D.Sc. (Hon. Causa) Degree from over 25 universities, including University of Bologna, the oldest University in Europe, according to Isro.

Rao was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan in 2017. He also became the first Indian space scientist to be inducted into the “Satellite Hall of Fame” at Washington DC, USA in 2013. He was also the first Indian space scientist to be inducted into the “IAF Hall of Fame” at Guadalajara, Mexico.

Rao’s demise brings down the curtains on one of the most glorious chapters of Indian space science.

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