India’s sleepy town of Thumba in Kerala had caught the attention of Dr Vikram Sarabai who was the father of India’s space programme. Sarabai felt the fishing village of Thumba was perfect for India’s inaugural rocket launch.
A church was located at the site of the Earth’s magnetic equator and if India wanted a glitch-free blast off it needed to secure the perfect launch site. The church’s reverend decided to help as he invited the scientists for a Sunday mass and told the villagers about India’s space dreams.
After the villagers gave their nod, the reverend handed over the church to the scientists. There were also no labs in Thumba, so cattle sheds were turned into laboratories and storage units. There were also no canteens for the scientists who had to ride to the nearest railway station for their meals.
There was also just one jeep. The payloads and rocket parts were transported on bicycles. India launched its first rocket in 1963 amid several hardships as the country began its space journey.
Within four years India built its own rocket from the experience it gathered in Thumba. The RH-75 was India’s first indigenous rocket which was launched in 1967 and by 1975, India had built its own satellite named Aryabhata after the Indian astronomer and launched it from Russia.
In Bangalore, a toilet was converted as the satellite’s data receiving centre. Indians came together to celebrate Aryabhata. The satellite’s photo was printed on Indian currencies between 1976 and 1997 as Aryabhata made ISRO a household name.
ISRO started in 1962 and was named the Indian national committee for space research, however, in 1969 it was renamed Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO).
India’s love affair with astronomy dated further back in history to the year 499 when Aryabhata began writing on space. There was no paper then, so it was written on a palm leaf. Aryabhata noted that the Earth was round and rotated on its 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 called Apple, scientists needed a metal-free mode of transport to ferry the payload and conduct an antenna test in an open field.
The payload was ready but the challenge was to find a metal-free vehicle. India’s legendary jugaad once again came to the rescue as the payload was carried on a bullock cart.
India’s space journey has many memorable milestones. In 1984, Indian Air Force pilot Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to fly to space. He was onboard the former Soviet Union’s Soyuz T-11 that went to space.
Rakesh Sharma and the other crew members held a press conference from the skies when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister. Their exchange is etched in the memory of every Indian.
In 2014, India was once again filled with pride after it became only the fourth country in the world to reach Mars. Mangalyaan also became the world’s most cost-efficient Mars mission.
The Mangalyan cost India $74 million which is less than what Hollywood spent in the making of the movie “Gravity” which had a budget of $100 million.
Now, India launches foreign satellites from its soil. India has so far launched 342 foreign satellites belonging to 34 countries. The country has also conducted 112 space missions, 82 launch missions and two re-entry missions.
India has also sent 12 student satellites to space.
Thumba is now home to the Vikram Sarabhai space centre. ISRO now has as many as 45 centres around the country with every launch, it brings space exploration closer to the heart of Indians.
Indians stayed up all night tracking Chandrayaan-2. However, the mission did not manage to safely touch down on the Moon. The teary-eyed ISRO chief made Indians more resolute than ever to let nothing come between India and its space dreams.
Dr. K Sivan, Kalpana Chawla and Rakesh Sharma are among India’s tallest idols and space now dominates India’s popular culture. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was ISRO’s top scientist who became India’s president.
India is now privatising space exploration and supporting innovation while creating newer groups to further India’s space journey and looking to build its own space stations as the country looks to create its very own fort in the space age.
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