Skip to main content

For those interested in recorded history, not 'fairy tales': INCOSPAR and birth of ISRO

Dr Vikram Sarabhai
By Mallika Sarabhai*  It is generally observed that space research in India began with the constitution of Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in February 1962. Some authors attribute the launch of the first sounding rocket (American Nike Apache) from the shores of Thumba as the mark of the beginning of the Indian space programme. But, like everywhere else in the world the seed of space research in India was sown during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), effectively coordinated across the world with 60 countries and 60,000 scientists and technicians participating in it.
Indian scientific community also efficiently participated in the IGY programmes and used the opportunity for studies of the upper atmosphere. TV Ramamurthy of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Delhi and Dr Vikram Sarbhai of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad attended the first meeting of the CSAGI in Brussels as observers. (CSAGI was the committee appointed by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) with the specific mandate of conducting IGY). At the meeting Dr Sarabhai proposed to include worldwide study of cosmic ray variations in the IGY programme, which was accepted by the committee.
It was at the second meeting of the CSAGI held in Rome in 1954, that the US suggested the use of rockets and artificial satellites for IGY experiments. The idea was well received, since in addition to the US, France, Japan, United Kingdom and Soviet Union had non orbiting rockets in their arsenal. In July1955 US announced its decision to put a satellite into orbit as a part of its contribution to IGY. The Soviet Union, a late entrant to CSAGI, also announced its satellite programme. Soviet Union went ahead to become first, heralding the space age with the orbiting of Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite.
In India, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was identified as the nodal agency for participating in IGY programme. A national IGY committee was set up in 1955 with KS Krishnan as Chairman and AP Mitra as its secretary, both representing the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Delhi.
PRL played a key role in the 18 month long IGY programme along with many other institutions, universities and departments. With their lively participation in IGY, the Indian scientific community was able to catch up with their international peers in various branches of geo and atmospheric sciences. Interestingly, some of such research domains later came to be known as Space Sciences!
The most visible examples of the new technologies used during IGY programmes were rockets and satellites. Scientists across the world and national leaders were fascinated by the new break-through development in science. Two months after the launch of Sputnik, Prime Minister Nehru was talking about bridging the gap in science with other countries indicating the emergence of the new discipline of space exploration in India. In the ensuing scientific policy resolution of 1958 the Government of India committed itself to promote and sustain the cultivation of science and scientific research. The ground was getting set.
Sounding rockets had already contributed significantly to the programmes of peaceful space exploration conducted during the International Geophysical Year and it was slated for further for the programmes of the then forthcoming International Quiet Sun Year, the World Meteorological Survey and the Indian Ocean Expedition. Hence, COSPAR Working Group-II, recognised the role of sounding rocket in atmospheric research, and proposed extensive synoptic sounding rocket programmes in meteorology, aeronomy, ionosphere, solar activity, and the Earth’s magnetic field.
The whole gamut of discipline of this fabulous adventure into space is the fallout of never before scientific expedition known as the International Geophysical Year conducted across the globe during 1 July 1957 and 31 December 1958. Even the launch of the first ever artificial satellite, Sputnik-1 was an IGY programme.
The United Nations took up the peaceful uses of outer space as one of its agenda, so that space will not emerge as a hotspot for future wars. In consonance, the US took the initiative to support space research in other countries. The US urged the UN to set up a space committee and an 18 member committee for peaceful uses of outer space was set up in December 1958. That is perhaps the beginning of space programmes across the world. Indian space programme is no exception!
The equatorial region has special scientific interest for meteorology and aeronomy. In particular, the magnetic equator is highly significant in the investigation of the Earth’s magnetic field and the ionosphere. It was therefore urged that sounding rocket launching facilities be established on the magnetic equator as soon as possible, as a first step in creation and using international sounding rocket facilities under United Nations sponsorship. A global need for equatorial rocket launching stations was emerging.
The International Council of Scientific Unions had established a Committee for Space Research (COSPAR) in October 1958 to continue space science research after IGY. It was at the second COSPAR meeting held in Hague in March 1959 that the United States made an offer to cooperate (in space research) with their European allies. NASA extended the scope of such cooperation beyond European countries in the third annual meeting of COSPAR and also included cooperation in sounding rockets, satellite tracking and data acquisition from space.
The UN committee on the peaceful uses of outer space also urged the creation of international equatorial sounding rocket launching facilities. In its Geneva meeting in June 1960 the UN set up a ten-nation working group to examine international exchange of scientific information on outer space. Another group chaired by Dr Vikram A Sarabhai was set up to examine the US proposal for establishing international rocket range near the equator.
That was the opportunity which Dr Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai grabbed. Dr Sarabhai did not waste any time in engaging NASA in a dialogue. He visited NASA during one of his annual visits to MIT as their visiting professor. Dr Sarabhai met NASA officials on 18 May 1961 at NASA headquarters and solicited support in establishing the space programme in India. At the meeting, Dr Sarabhai made two concrete proposals to NASA. The first was to create a joint sounding rocket programme by establishing a rocket launching facility in India near the geomagnetic equator. NASA would have to provide the equipment while India would provide the location and manpower. The second proposal was to establish and operate a satellite tracking and telemetry station. The tracking station was agreed upon immediately and was subsequently established at PRL, Ahmedabad. Supply of rockets was not initially agreeable to NASA since India had no military agreement with the US. However things got cleared after Dr Bhabha visited NASA.
Dr Homi Bhabha visited NASA in early November 1961. His meeting with NASA officials was included in an already planned two-week trip to the US. Given Dr Bhabha’s prominence in international scientific circles, he was given a red carpet welcome. He was shown a variety of systems, including the active sounding rocket launch site at Wallops Island. As a gesture of cooperation, Arnold Frutkin, the NASA head of international cooperation, agreed to seriously explore the possibility of helping India to set up a rocket range. He also provided necessary drawings and literature regarding how to select rocket launch sites. As a follow up to the discussion with Dr Sarabhai, in July 1961 itself, Frutkin had written that it would be desirable to deal directly with a space committee under the Government of India sponsorship. Once the cooperation was promised, India went ahead with the constitution of INCOSPAR in line with COSPAR.
By this time Dr Sarabhai had taken a lead in soliciting international cooperation for furthering Indian space agenda. PRL was made a grant-in-aid organisation of the Atomic Energy Department to give it an official cover. The subject peaceful uses of outer space were entrusted to Department of Atomic Energy in August 1961. Based on the recommendations of the scientific advisory committee to the Cabinet, Government of India through the Department of Atomic Energy constituted the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) on 16 February 1962. Vikram Sarabhai was designated as the Chairman of INCOSPAR. The committee had other key scientists as its members, many of whom had experience working on the IGY programme. The committee was to advise Government on the promotion of research in and exploration of space and its utilisation for peaceful purposes, to promote international cooperation in space research, and represent India at international scientific forum such as COSPAR and the United Nations. INCOSPAR operated out of the PRL premises in Ahmedabad and was funded by the DAE.
INCOSPAR was constituted in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) on 16 February 1962. Dr Vikram Sarabhai was the Chairman and KR Ramanathan, Prof MGK Menon and AP Mitra were members of the committee. Director General of Meteorology, Director General of Overseas Communications were also members which obviously showed our interest in communication, meteorology and science. PR Pisharoty was a member and EV Chitnis was the Secretary. When INCOSPAR was reconstituted on 1 April 1966, Prof Satish Dhawan, AS Rao, and HN Sethna became members. Finally INCOSPAR was superseded on 15 August 1969 to form the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
*Classical dancer, daughter of space scientist Dr Vikram Sarabhai. This article is compiled from published sources by Dr Padmanabh Joshi


vaghelabd said…
Hope, Mass Media also publish this highly informative article by Ms Mallika Sarabhai.


What's Bill Gates up to? Have 'irregularities' found in funding HPV vaccine trials faded?

By Colin Gonsalves*  After having read the 72nd report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on alleged irregularities in the conduct of studies using HPV vaccines by PATH in India, it was startling to see Bill Gates bobbing his head up and down and smiling ingratiatingly on prime time television while the Prime Minister lectured him in Hindi on his plans for the country. 

Muted profit margins, moderate increase in costs and sales: IIM-A survey of 1000 cos

By Our Representative  The Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad’s (IIM-A's) latest Business Inflation Expectations Survey (BIES) has said that the cost perceptions data obtained from India’s business executives suggests that there is “mild increase in cost pressures”.

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

Govt putting India's professionals, skilled, unskilled labour 'at mercy of' big business

By Thomas Franco, Dinesh Abrol*  As it is impossible to refute the report of the International Labour Organisation, Chief Economic Advisor Anantha Nageswaran recently said that the government cannot solve all social, economic problems like unemployment and social security. He blamed the youth for not acquiring enough skills to get employment. Then can’t the people ask, ‘Why do we have a government? Is it not the government’s responsibility to provide adequate employment to its citizens?’

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

IMA vs Ramdev: Why what's good or bad for goose should be good or bad for gander

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD* Baba Ramdev and his associate Balkrishna faced the wrath of the Supreme Court for their propaganda about their Ayurvedic products and belittling mainstream medicine. Baba Ramdev had to apologize in court. His apology was not accepted and he may face the contempt of court with harsher punishment. The Supreme Court acted on a public interest litigation (PIL) moved by the Indian Medical Association (IMA).

'Flawed' argument: Gandhi had minimal role, naval mutinies alone led to Independence

Counterview Desk Reacting to a Counterview  story , "Rewiring history? Bose, not Gandhi, was real Father of Nation: British PM Attlee 'cited'" (January 26, 2016), an avid reader has forwarded  reaction  in the form of a  link , which carries the article "Did Atlee say Gandhi had minimal role in Independence? #FactCheck", published in the site The article seeks to debunk the view, reported in the Counterview story, taken by retired army officer GD Bakshi in his book, “Bose: An Indian Samurai”, which claims that Gandhiji had a minimal role to play in India's freedom struggle, and that it was Netaji who played the crucial role. We reproduce the article here. Text: Nowadays it is said by many MK Gandhi critics that Clement Atlee made a statement in which he said Gandhi has ‘minimal’ role in India's independence and gave credit to naval mutinies and with this statement, they concluded the whole freedom struggle.

Youth as game changers in Lok Sabha polls? Young voter registration 'is so very low'

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*  Young voters will be the game changers in 2024. Do they realise this? Does it matter to them? If it does, what they should/must vote for? India’s population of nearly 1.3 billion has about one-fifth 19.1% as youth. With 66% of its population (808 million) below the age of 35, India has the world's largest youth population. Among them, less than 40% of those who turned 18 or 19 have registered themselves for 2024 election. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), just above 1.8 crore new voters (18-and 19-year-olds) are on the electoral rolls/registration out of the total projected 4.9 crore new voters in this age group.

Indians witnessing 'regression to Hindutva politics' under Modi ahead of elections

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*  The forthcoming general election in India, scheduled from April 19, 2024, to June 1, 2024, to elect the 543 members of the 18th Lok Sabha and the new Government of India, carries immense significance for the preservation of India's identity as a liberal, secular, and constitutional democracy.

Why am I exhorting citizens for a satyagrah to force ECI to 'at least rethink' on EVM

By Sandeep Pandey*   As election fever rises and political parties get busy with campaigning, one issue which refuses to die even after elections have been declared is that of Electronic Voting Machine and the accompanying Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail.