January 16, 2004

ISRO rising

Print edition : February 06, 2015

November 21, 1963: The Nike Apache rocket being readied for launch. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

(From left) Y.J. Rao, then Project Director, Design Project, SLV-3, VSSC; V.N. Kumaraswamy, Engineer, Assembly and Integration, Sounding Rockets, TERLS; Vikram Sarabhai, founder of India's space programme; H.G.S. Murthy, then Range Test Director, TERLS; and N.R.U.K. Kartha, then head, Assembly and Integration, Sounding Rockets, TERLS, with a Rohini-75 sounding rocket, to be launched from Thumba. Photo: The Hindu Archives

WHEN the orange trail lit up the twilight sky over the fishing village of Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram on November 21, 1963, there was excitement in Kerala and the neighbouring districts in Tamil Nadu. The Kerala Legislative Assembly was adjourned for a few minutes so that the members could watch the glorious spectacle left behind in the western sky by the Nike Apache rocket, which was imported from the United States. The two-stage rocket, weighing 715 kg and powered by solid propellants, climbed to an altitude of 208 km, releasing sodium vapour that lit up the sky. The seeds of India’s modern rocketry programme had been sown.

At a function organised at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) at Thumba on November 21, 2003 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the launching of the first rocket from India, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman G. Madhavan Nair recalled, “It was a proud moment. I was standing on the roof of the building of the Engineering College at Kolathoor. There was a trail of sodium vapour. It was a remarkable sight for youngsters like me.”

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India and a rocket technologist, was present at Thumba when the Nike Apache rocket sped into the sky. In an address to a select audience, including the pioneers of the ISRO family, at the VSSC auditorium on November 21, 2003 from Rashtrapathi Bhavan, Kalam described his profile in those days as “a payload fellow”. ISRO pioneers including Prof. E.V. Chitnis, Prof. P.D. Bhavsar, Dr. Vasant Gowariker, Dr. P.P. Kale, Dr. A.E. Muthunayagam, Dr. S.C. Gupta and R. Aravamudan competed with one another in paying tributes to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the pragmatic dreamer who laid the foundation for India’s rocketry programme. Nostalgia overflowed.

Most of the pioneers of India’s space programme left handsome jobs in the U.S. at the instance of Vikram Sarabhai to join ISRO, which was then at the drawing-board stage. Said Muthunayagam, who was employed in Washington before Sarabhai asked him to return to India: “Nobody could say ‘no’ to Sarabhai. He had such a magnetic personality.” Bhavsar, who was a teacher in the Department of Physics, University of Minnesota, could not resist Sarabhai’s invitation. Prof. Chitnis was employed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his wife in the Harvard Medical School.

Gowariker, a chemical engineer, who was working in Britain, too joined the rest at Sarabhai’'s urging. S.C. Gupta was in the U.S. when he signed up and soon Thumba became his “karmabhoomi” and “punyabhoomi.” Aravamudan was a young electronics engineer at the Reactor Control Division (Trombay) of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1962 when word got around that Sarabhai was looking for fresh electronics engineers to establish a rocket launch pad in south Kerala, the demand for which came from international geophysicists who wanted to conduct in situ vertical soundings at the geomagnetic equator passing through Thumba.

The audience at the VSSC auditorium burst into applause when Abdul Kalam began his speech with a countdown: “Ten, nine, eight... “ Forty years, he said, had not dimmed his memory of November 21, 1963. He recalled that he was in the Wallops Island facility of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), U.S., when he received a message from India on November 19 asking him to go to Prof. Jacques Blamont’s laboratory (in the U.S.) and collect a sodium vapour payload with a mechanical timer and immediately reach Thumba. (Prof. Blamont, a French payload specialist, and former Chief Scientist and Technical Adviser to CNES, the French space agency, who became a great friend of Sarabhai, was present at Thumba on that memorable day and attended the celebrations 40 years later on November 21, 2003.

The assembling of the payload with the rocket was done in St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, Thumba, after it had been acquired by the Centre. Today, the beautiful church is a museum that showcases ISRO’s history. The launch was “a big, beautiful experience” for Kalam because India could work with three other nations. He found the sodium vapour trail in the sky “a remarkable sight”.

However, the launch was not without hiccoughs. The French payload would not fit into the American rocket. So extra welding was required. But Bhavsar, who was the Project Scientist of the flight, recalled how the Range/Test Director H.G.S. Murthy had threatened to cancel the launch because the payload was a pyrotechnique one. Welding could be a dangerous task. So Sarabhai asked Bhavsar, “How can we fit the payload?”

He came up with an idea, which Kalam liked. Kalam and another engineer would scrape the payload with a small hand tool until it could be mated with the rocket.

A week before November 21, an anxious Bhavsar started scanning the sky for rain-bearing clouds. Murthy gave him a particular angle from which the launch could take place to ensure that the rocket, which would not be guided by telemetry or radar tracking, would not fall on people or buildings if it went astray. “Luckily, the sky remained clear and we launched the Nike Apache on schedule, and we got photographs (of the sodium cloud) from all four camera stations. It was a collaboration of so many people which made it successful,” Bhavsar said.

Aravamudan, who was in Wallops Island then, recalled: “We were thrilled when an announcement came on the Wallops Island intercom that India had successfully launched its first rocket.... NASA personnel who had gone to Thumba for the launch had nice stories to tell us about the beautiful Thumba beach with coconut trees all over. They also claimed that they launched the Nike Apache, with the help of bullock carts for transportation and their own pocket knives for tools.”

The American rocket engineers were congratulating their Indian counterparts over the public address system on November 22 when there was a dramatic interruption. They were informed of the assassination of President Kennedy at Dallas. “What struck us then, as most remarkable, was that the Wallops Range and NASA continued to work as usual and no holiday was declared,” Aravamudan said.

Blamont said the technique employed in the payload was simple - it was just a box with sodium, which was ignited with a pyro. The rocket launch was the natural beginning of a full-fledged space programme and that was what India did, he said. India's truly indigenous space programme began on February 22, 1969, when it launched a “pencil” rocket, weighing 10 kg, from Thumba. It carried a few kg of propellants and rose a few kilometres into the air. From then onwards, there has been no stopping ISRO.

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