The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) will hold a slew of programmes on November 25 to mark the 60th anniversary of the launch of the first sounding rocket from Thumba on November 21, 1963, which, for many, ushered in the space age for India.
On November 21, 1963, an American-made Nike-Apache rocket with a French payload lifted off from what was then a little-known village in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, carrying aloft the dreams and ambitions of a young nation not yet two decades into independence.
In a fitting tribute to that first launch, a two-stage Rohini series RH200 sounding rocket will lift off from Thumba on November 25. The celebrations will be formally inaugurated by Minister of State for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman S. Somanath, senior ISRO officials and veterans will be present.
“From that first launch ISRO has come a long way in six decades; from sounding rockets to LVM3 (ISRO’s heftiest launch vehicle in operation), and from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Mars, and missions to study the moon, Mars and the sun,” VSSC director S. Unnikrishnan Nair told The Hindu. ISRO has also expanded, establishing facilities including the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (Sriharikota) and the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology,” he said.
At this juncture, it is pertinent to recall the words of Vikram Sarabhai who said, “if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the comity of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, which we find in our country.’‘ Dr. Unnikrishnan Nair feels that ISRO has realised the vision of Dr. Sarabhai admirably, even venturing beyond it in its quest to explore space in greater detail.
Important decisions and events preceded the first rocket launch from Thumba. Notable are the July 1957-December 1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY) observance and the formation of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in February 1962 - the latter event is considered by many as the true starting point of space research in India.
The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established as a United Nations (UN)-sponsored range for scientific studies of the upper atmosphere. Thumba was, in fact, one of eight sites identified by revenue officials in Kerala. The prime criterion was proximity to the geomagnetic equator. The list was shortened to Thumba and Vellanathuruthu near Karunagapally, and Thumba was chosen. The rest is all part of ISRO lore, how the church and the local community surrendered the St. Mary Magdalene Church - now a space museum - and adjoining land for establishing the facility.
It is also part of that lore how the Kerala Assembly adjourned so that the members could view the launch. The minutes of the Assembly for November 21, 1963, recorded it thus: ‘Shri Joseph Chazhikkattu: Sir, I have something to say. The first rocket from Kerala is about to be launched. I request you to allow us the facility to view it.
Mr. Speaker: Yes. The House will now adjourn and meet again at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
The House adjourned at 6.20 p.m. to meet again at 8 a.m. on Friday, the 22nd November, 1963.’