The most important achievement of India’s 50-year space programme is the establishment of R&D facilities

On November 21, 1963, a small foreign rocket took off from Thumba, an obscure fishing hamlet near Trivandrum. This marked the birth of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) and of the Indian space programme.

The two scientists who launched the space programme were Vikram A. Sarabhai and Homi J. Bhabha. Both were scions of rich and cultured families, cosmic ray physicists, and determined to do their bit for emerging India. Bhabha brought atomic energy to India and Sarabhai, space. In this they were supported by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and later, by Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

The Sarabhai decade

Thumba was chosen because it is close to the magnetic equator. At heights around 110 km above the magnetic equator, certain processes occur that fascinate scientists. These regions are most conveniently studied using sounding rockets which, after carrying a scientific payload to a specified altitude, fall back to the ground.

For Bhabha and Sarabhai, TERLS was the first step in acquiring rocket technology: first sounding rockets and then bigger and more complex rockets, known as launch vehicles, capable of orbiting satellites.

Sarabhai was a man in a hurry. He got U.N. sponsorship for TERLS; created the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) close to TERLS; established the Experimental Satellite Communications Earth Station in Ahmedabad; saw the first indigenous sounding rocket take off from Thumba; created the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO); sowed the seeds of remote sensing and satellite communications; completed formalities for an agreement with the Soviet Union to launch India’s first satellite (Aryabhata); signed an agreement with NASA for joint conduct of the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment; obtained a licence to produce the French sounding rocket, Centaure, in India; got Sriharikota island on the east coast for establishing a rocket launching range; flagged off the development of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, SLV-3; drew the road map that ISRO followed for the next four decades and then died in his sleep on December 30, 1971. He was just 52.

Dhawan era

In an inspired move, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose Satish Dhawan, then Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, to succeed Sarabhai. Dhawan took his time to plan an organisational structure for the space programme which we still see in operation today. With support from Indira Gandhi, he created the Space Commission and the Department of Space (DOS) in June 1972. Then in August 1972, he obtained a broad national consensus on the main objectives of the space programme through a national seminar held in Ahmedabad. He took charge of ISRO only in September 1972.

Now, Dhawan was Chairman of the Space Commission, Secretary of DOS and Chairman of ISRO — all three rolled into one. Borrowed from the Atomic Energy programme, this concept was crucial to the success of the space programme. This arrangement which ensures perfect harmony between nation’s space policies (the commission), the R&D programmes (ISRO) and the budgetary provisions (DOS) still holds today.

Dhawan chose the hierarchically junior A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to lead the SLV-3 project that made India a space faring nation. Prior to this, Kalam was just one of a dozen engineers managing the SLV-3 project. “I was puzzled when I got the offer in my hand,” Kalam wrote later. “On the one side there were many experienced senior people in the organisation and on other side, I had to tap talents of thousands of engineers both from ISRO and academic institutions.”

In November 1963, when the first sounding rocket was launched from TERLS, virtually everything came from abroad. Fifty years later, in November 2013, when ISRO launched its Mars Orbiter, virtually everything was indigenous! Today, over 20 Indian satellites provide operational services to the nation in telecommunications, TV broadcasting, meteorology, disaster warning, and remote sensing. All Indian remote sensing satellites are now launched by ISRO’s own Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

But, perhaps the most important achievement of our space programme is the establishment of a string of R&D laboratories and facilities that enable our scientists and engineers to work at the forefront of space technology.

During the pioneering days under Sarabhai and Dhawan, people in ISRO felt that they were working collectively for a vital national enterprise in which each individual’s contribution was of paramount importance. By nurturing that spirit of individual commitment, India’s space efforts scaled greater heights.

(Dr. P.V. Manoranjan Rao retired as group director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.)


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