Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union, which originally sought scientific advances in space exploration for military purposes, India looked to the stars on a quest for self-sufficiency.
Professor Rao worked alongside Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, the first leaders of the Indian Space Research Organization, the country’s equivalent of NASA, to establish a complex in Bangalore and secure a budget from the Indian government. By the time he took over as chairman in 1984, he was overseeing 14,000 employees.
But critics in other countries would ask why, with all its problems of poverty and overpopulation, of malnutrition and poor health and illiteracy, India should be spending millions of rupees to go into space.
The question would send Professor Rao into a passionate discourse about the practical benefits of space satellites to ordinary villagers. He told The New York Times in 1983 that satellites would bring television signals to even the most rural parts of India. Meteorological data about weather and floods would help farmers manage their crops. Long-distance calls from one Indian city to another would take seconds instead of (with poor connections) hours.
The economy would grow, he said. Communication would be better. It would “change the face of rural India.”
In 1975, Professor Rao led the team that built India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, named for an ancient Indian astronomer and mathematician. The satellite, launched in the Soviet Union aboard a Soviet-made rocket, conducted experiments to detect low-energy X‐rays, gamma rays and ultraviolet rays in the ionosphere.
Professor Rao was credited with sending 20 more satellites into space, including some of the first to combine communication and meteorological capabilities. Other satellites took crop inventories and looked for signs of underground water reserves. Soil erosion and snow runoff were monitored to help forecast floods.
He was also present in March 1984 when India’s first astronaut was launched into space. The mission: to practice yoga.
The astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, 35, was tasked with seeing if yoga exercises could help astronauts tolerate motion sickness and muscle fatigue, problems that come with weightlessness.
The cosmonauts he traveled with, aboard a Soviet Soyuz T-10 spacecraft, were amused with his plan — to practice three yoga exercises several times a day for five days over the eight-day journey. The results were inconclusive.
There was a lot for India to learn. But Professor Rao was known as a methodical visionary who was realistic about India’s constraints. He found himself having to navigate a tricky path between the competing interests of the United States and the Soviet Union as India looked to both countries for help.
“It was a delicate balance between the two,” Rudrapatna Ramnath, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who knew Professor Rao during his fellowship there, said in an interview. “He navigated this troublesome tide quite skillfully.”
Udupi Ramachandra Rao was born on March 10, 1932, to Laxhminarayana Rao and his wife, Krishnaveni Amma, in a small village near Udupi, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
He received his education in India: a bachelor’s from Madras University in 1951, a master’s from Banaras Hindu University in 1953 and a Ph.D. from Gujarat University in 1960.
He was director of Indian Space Research Organization’s satellite program from 1972 to 1984 and chairman of the organization from 1984 until 1994.
Professor Rao helped India develop its rocket technology, including the first Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which is still used today to send its own equipment into space. In February, India launched 104 satellites from a single rocket, breaking Russia’s record of 37, set in 2014.
In 2014, India sent a spacecraft to Mars for $74 million to prove that the country could succeed in such a highly technical endeavor. The mission cost a fraction of the $671 million the United States spent on a Mars mission that year, but it showed up a regional rival, China, whose own Mars mission failed in 2012.
Professor Rao published 360 scientific papers on cosmic rays, space physics, and satellite and rocket technology. He was the recipient of prestigious civilian awards given by India in 1976 and earlier this year.
He was elected chairman of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1997 and served three years. He was inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame in Washington and the International Astronautical Federation’s Hall of Fame in Paris.
His survivors include his wife, Yashoda, and a son, Madan.
Throughout his career, Professor Rao encouraged international collaboration among space scientists, a relatively new phenomenon.
“In the late ′60s and ’70s, collaborations were really hard to do unless you gathered up all your papers, put them in your briefcase and took them to another place,” said Professor Roderick Heelis, who works in the physics department at the University of Texas at Dallas, where Professor Rao worked as an assistant visiting professor in the 1960s.
At the Indian space organization, he was known for instituting a culture of respect and optimism among young scientists. As a tribute on the organization’s website noted, He would tell them, “If others can do, we can do better.”
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