Rao was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1976, and Padma Vibhushan in 2017. He was inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame, Washington, on 19 March 2013 at a ceremony organised by the Society of Satellite Professionals International. With this he became the first Indian to be inducted. He was also to be inducted in International Astronautics Federation (IAF) on 15 May 2016. He was also the first Indian again to achieve such a feat.
U. R. Rao was born into a Hindu Brahmin family at Adamaru in the state of Karnataka. His parents were Lakshminarayana Acharya and Krishnaveni Amma. He had his primary education at Adamaru. He completed his secondary education from Christian High School, Udupi. He completed his B.Sc. in Government Arts and Science College, Anantpur, M.Sc. from Banaras Hindu University and Ph.D. at Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad under the guidance of Vikram Sarabhai.
After working as a faculty member at MIT and Assistant Professor at University of Texas at Dallas where he carried out investigations as a prime experimenter on a number of Pioneer and Explorer spacecraft, Rao returned to India in 1966 as a professor at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.
Rao started his career as a cosmic ray scientist and worked under Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, which he continued at MIT. In association with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory group, he was the first to establish the continuous nature of the solar wind and its effect on geomagnetism using Mariner 2 observations. Rao's experiments on a number of Pioneer and Explorer spacecraft led to a complete understanding of the solar cosmic-ray phenomena and the electromagnetic state of the interplanetary space. Convinced of the imperative need to use space technology for rapid development, Rao undertook the responsibility for the establishment of satellite technology in India in 1972. Under his guidance, beginning with the first Indian satellite "Aryabhata" in 1975, 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 were designed, fabricated and launched for providing communication, remote sensing, and meteorological services.
As Chairman of ISRO
After taking charge as Chairman, Space Commission and Secretary, Department of Space in 1985, Rao accelerated the development of rocket technology  resulting in the successful launch of ASLV rocket in 1992. He was also responsible for the development of the operational PSLV launch vehicle, which successfully launched an 850 kg. satellite into a polar orbit in 1995. Rao initiated the development of the geostationary launch vehicle GSLV and the development of cryogenic technology in 1991. He was responsible for successful launch of INSAT satellites during his stint at ISRO. The launch of INSAT satellites gave a thrust to communications in India, during the 1980s and 1990s. The successful launch of INSAT provided telecommunication links to remote corners of India. During these decades fixed telephone (called as landline) expanded throughout country due to availability of satellite links at different places in the ground. People could talk easily from anywhere by use of STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing) instead of waiting for hours to get the connection. This development played a key role in future for India to develop as an Information Technology hub. He was the first Chairman of Antrix Corporation.
He received the Padma Bhushan in 1976.
He was the first Indian Space Scientist to be allowed into the Prestigious “Satellite Hall of Fame” at Washington DC, USA in recent past on March 19, 2013.
Rao was an elected Fellow of many academies such as Indian Academy of Sciences, Indian National Science Academy, National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Electronics and Telecommunications Engineers, International Academy of Astronautics and Third World Academy of Sciences. Rao was conferred Fellowship of the World Academy of Arts & Sciences. He was the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association for 1995-96. Rao was the Vice President of International Astronautical Federation (IAF) during 1984 to 1992 and continues to be the Chairman of the Committee for Liaison with Developing Countries (CLIODN) since 1986. Rao was elected as the Chairman of United Nations - Committee On Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) in June 1997 and also Chairman of UNISPACE-III Conference. He was elected as the Chairman of the 30th International Antarctic Treaty Consultative Committee Meeting at Delhi in April 2007.
2016 Inducted into Hall of Fame by International Astronautical Federation.
People's President and distinguished scientist Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam had an effective association with Prof. U. R. Rao. While Dr. A.P. J. Abdul Kalam was President, he presented the Life Time Achievement Award constituted by ISRO and Astronautical Society of India (ASI) to Prof. Rao for his outstanding contribution to the organization.