India’s spaceward odyssey began on November 21, 1963, with the launch of the US Nike Apache sounding rocket from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram. The rocket was taken to the launch site on a bullock cart; later rockets would take bicycles.
The Nike Apache weighed 715 kg and reached an altitude of 207 km with a 30-kg payload. Cut to August 2022: India’s newest rocket, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), weighs 120 tonnes, is 34 metres long, and can put 500-kg satellites into a 500 km orbit.
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In the decades in between, Indian rocketry blazed forth, celebrating successes and learning from failures, pioneering a variety of rockets aka launch vehicles: SLV-3s, ASLVs, and PSLVs and GSLVs and their variants. With these tried and tested workhorses, no orbit—polar (altitude 700 km), geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) or low earth orbit (LEO, 250 to 500 km altitude)—is beyond India’s and ISRO’s reach.
The programme provides India with a sustained, self-reliant access to space, even deep space, fuelled by solid propellants, liquid propellants or cryogenic fluids and can place in orbit a diverse range of locally built satellites for remote-sensing/earth observation, weather-forecasting, communication, cartography, navigation, education (EDUSAT), surveillance, astronomy and ocean-monitoring. ISRO’s remote-sensing satellites are acknowledged as among the best in the world—as good as the French SPOT or the American Landsat.
One other area where India took the world by surprise is with its forays into deep space, sending science missions to the moon (2008) and Mars (launched in 2013). Putting the Chandryaan-1 spacecraft into the moon’s orbit seemed like a piece of cake for ISRO’s engineers, but the spacecraft itself did not live up to its targeted life of one year. That said, one of its payloads discovered water ice on the moon and its terrain mapping camera has sent thousands of invaluable pictures of the lunar surface. The Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan has been an unalloyed success, with a flood of data received about the Red Planet.
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If today India is a self-reliant and world-class space faring nation, there are many to thank from that first launch at Thumba: the US, for the two-stage Nike Apache rocket; France, for the sodium vapour payload; the Soviet Union, whose Mi-4 helicopter gave the range clearance; and, of course, ISRO’s rocket and payload engineers.