ISRO ex-chief who was behind India’s first satellite dies

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According to his profile on the ISRO website, Rao published more than 350 scientific and technical papers. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award, earlier this year.

Last month, shortly after the successful launch of GSLV-MkIII, former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair was in Bengaluru when he received a message from one of his predecessors and mentor, U R Rao, to come and see him in his hospital bed.

“I had not met him for two years and had heard about his illness. So I wanted to meet him. Considering his health, I was advised by the hospital not to engage him in a long conversation. But it turned out to be more than an hour-long discussion, with mostly professor Rao doing the talking. It was mainly about the future of India’s space programme, and what ISRO should do next,” Nair told The Indian Express.

The launch of GSLV-MkIII with indigenously developed cryogenic engine, a culmination of nearly three decades of efforts by ISRO, was still being discussed everywhere, but Nair said Rao, who had been instrumental in starting the programme in the 1980s, was not very excited. “He thought that this (successful development of cryogenic engine) would have happened in any case. He also believed that we should have done it much earlier. He was much more concerned about the future. He said he would like ISRO to do something completely new, something dramatic. He talked about the possibilities of manned missions, mining of minerals and harnessing energy from other planetary bodies, scientific explorations to far-away galaxies, development of new propulsion systems to bring down the costs of space missions… He was once again unveiling his vision of ISRO. He was always a very impatient man, and wanted everything done yesterday,” Nair said.

Rao, ISRO chairman between 1984 and 1994, died in Bengaluru Monday morning. He was 85. Along with Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, Rao was part of the original group of inspirational leaders who built up ISRO from humble beginnings in the 1960s and 1970s. The architect of India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975, he oversaw the launches of the first batch remote sensing and communication satellites that have become so common now.

The development of the two rockets that ISRO uses for its launches, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) and GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle), began during his stewardship of ISRO. Rao had put in a lot of ISRO energies on the PSLV. When its first flight in 1993 ended in failure, he is said to have collapsed on the sofa in his office. Today, PSLV is the most reliable rocket in ISRO’s arsenal. It has already put 48 Indian satellites and 209 satellites from foreign countries into space, besides carrying Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions.

According to his profile on the ISRO website, Rao published more than 350 scientific and technical papers. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award, earlier this year.

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