India’s space odessy - church to Chandrayaan

October 20th, 2008 - 11:41 am ICT by IANS  

Thiruvananthapuram, Oct 20 (IANS) A church as control room, the bishop’s house as office, a humble bicycle as ferry and eyes to track the smoke trail of a rocket - these were the humble beginnings when India launched a US-made rocket from Thumba, near here, in 1963. Nearly 45 years later, the country is set to launch its first lunar probe Oct 22.The launch of a US-made Nike-Apache Sounding Rocket from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, on Nov 21, 1963, marked the beginning of India’s space odyssey that has now reached a stage when the country launches the satellites of other countries as a commercial proposition.

Recalling the incident, R. Aravamudan, who has been associated with the Indian space programme from the very beginning, says: “There were no buildings yet in the range (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station -TERLS). Our first office was in the bishop’s house and the St. Mary Magdalene church building there.”

The church has since become a space museum.

“Once the rocket was launched, there was no telemetry or radar tracking, only photography from three stations of the vapour cloud. The orange vapour trail was visible from all over Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. This created great excitement. Since the common public had never seen such a sight before, it also gave rise to some hilarious newspaper reports.”

“In fact, the Kerala assembly, which was in session then, apparently adjourned temporarily to take a good view of the bright vapour trail in the western sky!,” Aravamudan recalled on Nov 21, 2003, during the 40th anniversary of the first sounding rocket launch.

“We had to make use of public transport as there were no official vehicles yet and no canteen. So, our day began with a quick breakfast of idli sambar at the Railway Station Canteen, which was the only place where we could get food to our taste. We would then pack some snacks and lunch from the same canteen and go to the bus stand to catch a mofussil bus to Kazhakkutam. We would get down at the bus stand there and walk about a kilometre or so to the range. The whole trip took about an hour.

“The range (TERLS) was quite large in area and the only means of transport within the range was by bicycle. Those like (A.P.J. Abdul) Kalam, who could not cycle, had to hitch rides with others.” Aravamudan said in a speech, which was later published in the Oct-Dec 2003 ISRO newsletter ‘SPACE india’. Aravamudan retired as director of ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore, and later served as honorary advisor to ISRO.

Recalling the Nov 21, 1963, incident, K. Narayana Kurup, then a first-time member of the Kerala assembly, told IANS that he had some recollection of how the proceedings of the house were stopped in order to view the blastoff of the Apache rocket from Thumba.

“I am turning 81 on Oct 23, and I do recall that the proceedings of the assembly were stopped,” said the veteran former minister and deputy speaker, who retired from electoral politics in 2006.

The TERLS formally came into existence in 1962. It was renamed the Indian Space Research Organisation and after the death of Vikram Sarabhai, considered the father of India’s space programme, it became the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC).

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