Skip to navigationSkip to content

In photos: The scientists who launched India’s space programme

  • Manavi Kapur
By Manavi Kapur


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

India’s space programme is a story of gumption.

Before the televised excitement of Chandrayaan-2 and inspired movies like Mission Mangal, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was once just a pipe dream. Over five decades ago, India broke into a bastion of space programmes held by an elite clutch of countries. At the time, all it had was an idea, some support from NASA, and the extraordinary vision of space scientist Vikram Sarabhai.

In a new coffee table book titled Ever Upwards: ISRO in Images, PV Manoranjan Rao, BN Suresh, and VP Balagangadharan, veterans of the space organisation, chronicle its amazing history, humble beginnings and audacious goals.

In an age when Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy is constantly under the scanner, the authors of the book write that India’s first prime minister was Sarabhai’s first ally. His second ally was Homi Bhabha, the “czar of organised research” in India. The first two chapters of the book are dedicated to the fathers of the Indian space programme—Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan. “While many Indians may have heard about ISRO or read about the organisation, or seen some videos of rocket take offs, very few of them, if any, have any idea of the people who created ISRO and how they did it. The first two chapters in the book are about these historical personalities,” Rao told Quartz. “One ought to know one’s roots, especially in these post-truth days of fake news.”

Through black-and-white photographs, the book offers a colourful and rare insight into how India’s space research institute was set up, how everyday Indians responded to the country’s forays into space, the political leadership backing these missions, and an overall sense of nationalistic pride without today’s jingoism. In the chapter dedicated to Sarabhai, his kurta-pyjama and the bicycles in the backdrop of large rockets present a commentary on the socio-political reality of a newly independent, emerging nation state.

Here are some rare photos of the time leading up to ISRO’s formalisation in 1969.

Courtesy: TIFR Archives
Homi Bhabha (glass in one hand) showing prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (extreme left) the model of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. To Nehru’s left is SS Bhatnagar; to Bhabha’s left is Morarji Desai, who later became the prime minister of India in 1977. Between Bhabha and Desai, in the background, is MC Chagla, the eminent jurist and diplomat.
Courtesy: R Aravamudan
Some of the early recruits of Sarabhai’s were trained by NASA at its Wallops station in Virginia. In this picture, they are familiarising themselves with the operation of the Kodak K-24 aerial camera suitably modified for vapour trail photography with custom-made mountings.
NASA also supplied Nike-Apache sounding rockets (including the one for the inaugural flight) and some tracking equipment. Note the bicycle in the background; it was the only readily available mode of transport in Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, in Kerala, in the 1960s.
The very first rocket flight from Thumba was watched by boy scouts, among others.
D Bhavsar (right), the project director for the first sodium vapour cloud experiment, watching for the release of the vapour.
The very first indigenous rocket made by ISRO was known as RH-75 (RH stands for Rohini and 75 refers to the diameter of the rocket in mm). It was made from readily available extruded aluminium alloy tubes from the market. YJ Rao (with spectacles) is showing Sarabhai the RH-75.
Courtesy: TIFR Archives
Sarabhai, the newly appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, addressing employees of the Atomic Energy Establishment gathered to condole the death of Homi Bhabha, who was killed in an air crash on Mont Blanc on Jan. 24, 1966.
On Feb. 2, 1968, then prime minister Indira Gandhi dedicated Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station to the United Nations.
Courtesy: CR Sathya
This photograph of the rocket nose cone on a bicycle taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson is by now famous. On the right: engineer, CR Sathya. His assistant, Velappan Nair, is taking care of the nose cone.
Sarabhai and then prime minister Indira Gandhi with a farmer during the inauguration of Krishi Darshan, a TV programme meant exclusively for farmers. Sarabhai conceived of this programme to convince the government that TV could be used to inform farmers of the latest developments in agriculture.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.