Dr Yash Pal Space application pioneer and educationist
These two eminent scientists
will continue to inspire the future
by G.V. Joshi
Within 24 hours of each other, India lost two great sons of the soil in succession. The first, Dr Udipi Ramchandra Rao (UR Rao) was a scientist who guided India to launch its first satellite Aryabhata, followed by another scientist Dr Yash Pal, a Space Application pioneer and Educationist. Dr Yash Pal, who passed away in a hospital in Noida, UP used satellites for educating common men in India. He was 90.
Dr Yash Pal was born in 1926 in Jhang in the then undivided India (now in Pakistan). Few readers would be aware of the fact that he was a survivor of famous 1935 earthquake at Quetta, now in Pakistan. The massive earthquake had demolished his family home and most of Quetta.
He remembered the devastation in which not a single house was left standing. Yash and his brother were dug out from rubble of mud bricks just in time before they were lost. Dr Yash Pal obtained his Master’s degree in physics from Panjab University in 1949 and began his research career at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai founded in 1945 by Dr Homi Bhaba, who pioneered research in Cosmic Rays in India. Yashpal was a member of the ‘cosmic rays group’.
He went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in USA and obtained PhD degree in Physics in 1958 and returned to TIFR, where he remained until 1983.
After the launch of Sputnik by Russia in October 1957, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, a well-known cosmic ray physicist, recognised the potential of satellites going round the Earth. India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, also saw scientific development as an essential part of India’s future.
Nehru placed space research under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) led by Dr Homi Bhaba, who then established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with Dr Sarabhai as Chairman in 1962.
Visionaries at work
With a visionary like Dr Sarabhai at its helm, INCOSPAR set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Thiruvananthapuram for upper atmospheric research. INCOSPAR became Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1969.
Dr Sarabhai gathered a team of young scientists and engineers for the mission which included Rao, Kalam and Gowarikar.
The ISRO under Sarabhai set about building the technology and infrastructure for the Satellite Launch Vehicle, which resulted in the development of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), India’s well-established workhorse.
Simultaneously, ISRO began developing satellite building technology. Sarabhai asked Rao to design and fabricate a satellite for India. The satellite, named Aryabhata after India’s 5th century mathematician and astronomer, developed under Rao’s guidance and launched in 1975 from Kapustin Yar using a Soviet Cosmos-3M launch vehicle, was India’s first satellite.
Dr Sarabhai passed away in sleep on 30 December 1971 and Dr Satish Dhawan was appointed Chairman of ISRO in 1972 after a brief posting of Dr MGK Menon. In 1972, Dr Dhawan requested Dr Yash Pal to establish the Space Applications Centre, at Ahmedabad. Dr Yash Pal was the first Director. At the same time, he continued to be on the faculty of TIFR.
The Space Applications Centre (SAC) is an institution to develop and demonstrate applications of space technology in the field of telecommunications, remote sensing, meteorology and satellite navigation (Sat Nav). The biggest contribution of Dr Yash Pal was his role in execution of the SITE project – Satellite Instructional Television Experiment – during 1975-76.
Dr Yash Pal’s personality was a rare combination of many elements – he was a first-class physicist in his early career, became a space scientist as well as science manager in the 1970s, donned the hat of an educationist as head of the University Grants Commission in the 1980s and emerged as an iconic communicator of science in the 1990s. In each of these roles, he excelled.
Yash Pal is known for regular appearances on the science programme
Turning Point telecast on Doordarshan and for explaining scientific concepts in layman’s language. For the English daily The Tribune, published from Chandigarh, he answered readers’ science-related questions.
He held the posts of Chief Consultant, Planning Commission (1983-84) and Secretary, Department of Science and Technology (1984-1986), after which he was appointed chairman, University Grants Commission (UGC) (1986-91).
During his tenure as UGC chairman, he advocated the setting up of Inter-University Centres funded by the UGC. He was the Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (2007-2012).
He was an atheist, and opposed belief in deities, astrology and religious rituals, dismissing them as unscientific.
The list of awards received by him is very long. He has been awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Science (DSc) by a number of universities. In 1976, the Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan. It was followed by Padma Vibhushan in 2013.
He is survived by his son Rahul Pal, also a scientist.
Dr Yash Pal presenting a report on higher education to the then Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal in New Delhi in 2009.
Prof. UR Rao