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.