Sarabhai’s Thumba seed has grown into ISRO banyan

Indian space research has truly come of age



“We look down on our scientists if they engage in outside consultation. We implicitly promote the ivory tower,” Vikram Sarabhai, scientist, innovator, businessman, art connoisseur who put India on the global space map, and man who established the Physical Research Laboratory, aptly said.

Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was the man who spearheaded India’s space programme. In order to promote all round development in the field of science and technology, he helped establish several institutions. The scion of the reputable and philanthropic Sarabhai family of Gujarat, he continued the tradition of giving back to the society.

Sarabhai’s family members were not present at his wedding ceremony as they were active participants of the Quit India Movement. After the Britishers left the country, Sarabhai took the onus of expanding the scientific prowess of the nation. He lobbied funds to establish the Physical Research Laboratory and also initiated the establishment of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Sarabhai along with Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha set up the first rocket launching station in the country. The Father of India’s space programme Vikram Sarabhai was also the man who brought television and cable to India.

It was at the behest of Sarabhai’s effort that India joined the club of nations that launched their own satellite and Aryabhatta, the first satellite, was built by team of scientists led by Sarabhai. It was an indigenously Indian venture.

Nobody would have ever imagined that a neglected, sleepy village of Thumba in Kerala would be in the glare of media, not only nationally but internationally also. It was Dr .Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, who took fancy to the fishing village of Thumba as ideal for India’s inaugural rocket launch.

The Indian space mission had divine blessings. A church was located at the site of the Earth’s magnetic equator as the space scientist wanted a trouble-free blast for the perfect launch site. The church’s cleric invited the scientists for a Sunday mass and even informed the rural folk about India’s space vision.

The first rockets were assembled in former St Louis High School, now a space museum. The local Bishop, Rev. Peter Bernard Periera, Bishop of Trivandrum, Vincent Victor Dereere (a Belgian) and district collector Madhavan Nair were instrumental in acquiring 600 acres of land from coastal community.The Church authorities were extremely generous. The Bishop Rev. Periera had given away the prayer hall and bishop’s room in the local church for scientific pursuits of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Then Minister of State for External Affairs, Lakshmi N. Menon helped in clearing the bureaucratic hurdles of the project  from  Delhi. H.G.S. Murthy was appointed as the first Director of Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station.

The payloads and rocket parts were transported on bullock carts and bicycles before a jeep joined the infant Indian space unit. Even with these constraints and miniscule facilities, the country commenced its space odyssey.

The mission soon gathered momentum and in four years, India built its own rocket based on the experience of the scientists and locally evolved technology at Thumba. The first RH-75 indigenous rocket was launched in 1967. And before the decade (to use John Kennedy’s prophecy on landing of man on moon,) India had built its own Aryabhata (476–550 CE) satellite named a after the Indian astronomer of antiquity launched from the Russian Space Station.

There were futile attempts to find a place for the satellite’s data receiving centre in Bengaluru. Long last, a toilet was converted as the satellite’s data receiving centre where scientists gathered to celebrate the successful launch of Aryabhata. The satellite became a national icon and got national recognition with its photo printed on Indian currencies between 1976 and 1997. This successful venture gave Aryabhata and ISRO a household name.

ISRO started as Indian National Committee for Space research before being  renamed Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1969.In this contest, it is relevant to recollect that the initial foray into astronomy in ancient India was made by Aryabhata in 499 when he started writing about space. Since paper had yet not made its way, Aryabhata wrote on a palm leaf that Earth was round and rotated on its own axis. In 598, Brahmagupt was trying to calculate the circumference of the planet. In 1981, when India was trying to launch its first communication satellite, it took a clue from Brahmgupt and aptly named it Apple.

The ISRO was confronted with a major bottleneck of a metal-free vehicle to ferry the payload and conduct an antenna test in an open field. India’s widely accepted mode jugaad (manipulative instinct) came handy as the payload was carried on common mode of rural transport a bullock cart.

India’s space voyage had a tryst with destiny with many memorable milestones. In 1984, Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to fly to space in 1984. He was onboard the Soviet Union’s Soyuz T-11 during the space voyage, Sharma’s celestial words, “Sare Jahaan se accha…” (best in the world…about India) became a household quote.

There was another landmark in the waiting when India launched Mangalyan in 2014 and joined the elite club of four countries to reach Mars. Mangalyaan also became the world’s most cost-efficient ($74 million) Mars mission while Hollywood spent $100 million in the making of the movie “Gravity”.

The Indian space programme is now on firm footing and has made foray in foreign countries as well. India has so far launched 342 foreign satellites of 34 countries. It also has 112 space missions, 82 launch missions, two re-entry missions and 12 student satellites in space to its credit.

The remote village of Thumba is now home to the Vikram Sarabhai space centre. ISRO has grown with age and has 45 centres all over the country. The space exploration is now part and parcel of the Indian psyche. The country was glued to its TV sets and heart-broken when, the mission did not manage to safely touch down on the Moon. The teary-eyed ISRO chief Dr. Kailasavadivoo Sivan made Indians more resolute than ever to let nothing come between India and its space dreams.


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