Article: Recollection on the Birth of India’s First Rocket Launching Station

Its 21th November 1963. A beautiful day with clear skies. History is about to be created at the small coastal village of Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram. A bicycle carrying a cone-shaped device trundles onto the sandy beach.

A small team of budding scientists soon gets down to business. Among them a frail young man with long hair.  A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who later went on to achieve great distinction and become the President of India.

Another local boy watches the launch several kilometres away from the terrace of the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram.  The future ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair and advisor to various strategic projects.

These two eminent persoanlities are one amongst the many who has graced Thiruvananthapuram with their presence and erudition, while working in the esoteric field of rocket science.  Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) evolved into the sprawling, world-class national science facility called Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the biggest research and design center of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).  Since then it has been a successful 49 years of hard-work and perseverance against all sorts of odds by the scientists to become one of the worlds leading Space research agency.

Thumba, a sea-side suburb of the city is situated near the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport,  is  very close to the magnetic equator of the Earth, making it an ideal location for scientists to conduct low-altitude, upper atmosphere and ionosphere studies.

The genesis of the saga was back in 1962, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established. Dr Homi Bhabha, then the chief of India’s nuclear program, along with Dr Vikram Sarabhai, took into consideration number of sites situated in Kerala to construct a rocket station.  After long discussion they both finalized Thumba as the appropriate place.

But there were others too, less famous, but equally responsible for choosing Thumba as the site for TERLS. Prominent among them are E. V. Chitnis and P. R. Pisharody. E. V. Chitnis retired as the Director of the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, in 1985.  P. R. Pisharody born on February 10, 1909, at Kollengode in Kerala, took his doctorate from the University of California. A meteorologist of international repute, Pisharody is widely acknowledged as the one who introduced remote sensing in India.

Thumba was chosen as a launch station because of the term referred to as ‘geomagnetism’. It refers to the fact that earth behaves like a magnet.  That is why a compass needle (itself a tiny magnet) always points towards `north’.  In the northern hemisphere, the north-seeking end of a compass needle when freely suspended in the middle, would, in general, dip down. The angle by which the needle dips depends upon the latitude of the place. Similarly, in the southern hemisphere, the south-seeking end dips down. In between is a region where the needle does not dip at all.  It remains strictly horizontal signifying that the dip is zero. The line joining all such points on earth where the dip is zero is called the magnetic equator. The magnetic equator differs significantly from the geographic equator.

Directly above the magnetic equator, at altitudes of around 110 km in the atmosphere, a system of electric currents exists. Known as the equatorial electrojet, this has always fascinated scientists. The closer you are to the magnetic equator, the better placed you are to study the electrojet. In the early 1960s, there were very few places in the world close to the magnetic equator with adequate infrastructure to support research in this field.  There was talk of finding a suitable place in south India for establishing a U.N sponsored station.

The newly built rocket launching pad was set on the beach, a clearing in the midst of coconut groves. A local Catholic church, the St Mary Magadelene’s Church served as the main office for the scientists.  The small place of worship became the mainstay for the team of rocket scientists, including A P J Abdul Kalam. The first drawings of some of the earliest rockets were made in this church, now a space museum.  The bishop’s house was converted into a workshop.  A cattle shed became the laboratory in which the young Indian scientists worked on the first sounding rockets.

Scientists travelled daily from Thiruvananthapuram in buses, carrying lunch bought at the railway station.  Many rocket parts were carried by the scientists on bicycles from one place to another within the sprawling range of Thumba.

Thumba was soon termed Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. The first sounding rocket, Nike Apache supplied by NASA, was launched on November 21st 1963. After this, many sounding rockets, which study the atmosphere, lifted off from Thumba including those from the US, Russia, Japan, France and Germany.  Upon launching the first sounding rocket Nike-Apache on 21 Nov 1963, Prof. Sarabhai shared with his team his dream of an Indian Satellite Launch Vehicle.  After the death of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai on December 30, 1971, the whole space establishment at Thiruvananthapuram was renamed as Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in his honor. Over the last four decades VSSC has matured into a centre of excellence in launch vehicle technology.

As the team for India’s first astronauts is being formed by the Air Force, the vehicle that will be taking them up into space with a growl will be the one that is designed by VSSC.  God speed to the brave men and VSSC

Article based on sources from The Hindu, TOI and Wikipedia.

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One Response to Article: Recollection on the Birth of India’s First Rocket Launching Station

  1. Gurbir Singh says:

    Hello,

    Thanks for this interesting post. I am currently researching and writing about the Indian space program. I would like to reuse the images in this post (the black and white one from Thumba 1963. Who’s consent do I need and how can I find out the correct attribution?

    Thanks Gurbir (www.astrotalkuk.org)

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