Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai believed that creating the capability to design, build and launch satellites will contribute to India’s technological development and economic progress.
On November 21, 1963, as the sun slid into the Arabian Sea, a small American-built rocket was fired from a newly established launching station near Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram).
Reaching a height of almost 200 km, it released a cloud of sodium vapour that glowed in the rays of the setting sun and was visible from places far afield.
Although few who watched from the ground would have believed it at the time, the rocket’s flight heralded the beginning of a long and difficult journey that would establish India as a space power.
Today, the country has been able to embark on its first interplanetary voyage with the launch of the Mars Orbiter probe.
Fifty years ago, however, a small rocket being fired from southern Kerala was an insignificant event. Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, had gone into orbit just six years previously.
The first human went into space four years later, setting off a race to the moon by arch Cold War adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union.
Although the space age was still in its infancy, Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai, scion of a wealthy, well-connected business family and an accomplished scientist himself, quickly perceived how satellites and the services they provide could benefit a poor country.
It was a vision he shared with his close friend and mentor Homi J. Bhabha, who initiated the country’s nuclear programme.
The early efforts in space had Bhabha’s backing and were carried out under the protective umbrella of the Department of Atomic Energy.
Launching sounding rockets was just the first step. Although Sarabhai did not live to see it, an Indian-built launch vehicle, SLV-3, put a satellite into orbit for the first time in July 1980. India now makes its own satellites in the three application areas identified by him – weather, earth observation and communication.
The idea of establishing a rocket launching station in Kerala came about because scientists in India and abroad wished to explore phenomena that occur high up in the atmosphere above the magnetic equator.
Data about it could be gathered by using sounding rockets that carried instruments for making various measurements during the ascent. (The word ‘sounding’ is a nautical term to denote taking measurements from a vessel.)
The magnetic equator passes through southern Kerala. The choice of where to have the launch station narrowed to two places – one near Kollam and the other a short distance from Trivandrum.
Sarabhai was much struck by the beauty of the former location. But there was a problem – its name. ‘Vellana Thuruthu’ would translate into English as ‘white elephant island,’ a colleague explained to him. “We steered clear of it for fear of it becoming a national joke,” he later remarked.
On January 21, 1963, Lakshmi N. Menon, a Minister of State in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, replying on his behalf to a question in Parliament, announced that India would be locating its first rocket-launching facility at Thumba, a fishing village close to Trivandrum.
Sarabhai, with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in international scientific circles, was able to get help from the United States, France, and the Soviet Union in establishing the new station.
In February 1968, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dedicated the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) to the United Nations. Initially, the Thumba facility launched foreign sounding rockets.
The first Indian sounding rocket flew in November 1967.
The Rohini 75 (RH-75) was only about a metre long and weighed less than 7 kg.
The indigenous rockets grew bigger, more powerful and became more sophisticated. Experience with those sounding rockets set the stage for the next step that Sarabhai envisaged – making launch vehicles that could put satellites into orbit.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle that carried the Mars Orbiter into space stood 44 metres high on the launch pad and weighed 320 tonnes. The Indian space programme has come a long way.