doi:10.1038/nindia.2017.91 Published online 24 July 2017
Udupi Ramachandra Rao, considered a living legend of India's space programme, died in Bengaluru today (July 24, 2017) plunging the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), of which he was one of the chief architects, into grief. He was 85.
Rao recieved high civilian honours of India, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, for his contribution to Indian space technology. He was the fourth chairman of ISRO during its critical formative years between 1984 and 1994.
Known as U. R. Rao, he built a robust space programme for India. He was acclaimed by Space News magazine in 2004 as one of the top 10 international personalities and was the first Indian to be inducted into the prestigious Satellite Hall of Fame in Washington.
Rao's long career of 50 years with ISRO, almost from the Sputnik era (1957), did not end even after he retired as its chairman in 1994. "Till a month ago he used to come to his office at ISRO headquarters at 8:30 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m.," says R. Aravamudhan, former ISRO director and author of "ISRO — Personal History." After his continued involvement in India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in 2013, Rao was busy finalising the selection of sensors for inclusion in the proposed Aditya mission to Sun.
Born on 10 March 1932, Rao started his career as a cosmic ray scientist, and worked under Vikram Sarabhai, who was his PhD guide. While working as a post-doc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA in 1961, Rao conducted experiments on NASA's Pioneer and Explorer spacecraft. On his return to India he was given the responsibility for the establishment of satellite technology in India in 1972.
The very first Indian satellite 'Aryabhata' which his team hurriedly assembled in a shed in Peenya, Bangalore, was launched in 1975 from the Russian cosmodrome. It was the fore-runner of over 18 satellites including Bhaskara, APPLE, Rohini, INSAT-1 and INSAT-2 series of multipurpose satellites and the IRS-1A and IRS-1B remote sensing satellites designed and launched during his term for providing communication, remote sensing and meteorological services..
"The realisation of Aryabhata, with an enthusiastic dynamic young team with no practical experience on any spacecraft system was really a challenge. Rao accomplished this miracle with flying colours, "says V. Jayaraman, Rao's former PhD student and now an adviser at ISRO.
During his term as chairman, ISRO created headlines with the successful launch of ASLV rocket in 1992 and operational PSLV in 1995. Rao initiated the development of the geostationary launch vehicle GSLV and cryogenic technology in 1991. ISRO successfully launched the home-made INSAT communications satellites under him. Rao was also the first Chairman of Antrix Corporation.