On 21 November, 1963, India was ready to stage its very first blast-off. Many weighty names in science and technology had gathered for the occasion. Blamont was there as were his assistants Mary Lise Channin and Michel Autier from France and observers from Brazil and Argentina. Arnold Frutkin, Robert Duffy, Ed Bissel and others were there from NASA. The Indian contingent included Bhabha and eminent scientists Dr AP Mitra, then with NPL, and Dr Pisharoty, founder director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Poona. The governor of Kerala was there along with the district collector and the Bishop.

The world was watching. The setting was one of stark beauty. The gentle waves sparkled under the sun while the trees reached darkly into a breathtakingly azure sky. And yet, for the Indians massed about the bronze sands, the moment was shot through with tension.

For so much had already gone wrong. The Nike-Apache rocket supplied by NASA had been flown to Delhi by US Military Air Transport, but the truck that was bringing it down to Cochin had broken down along the way, leaving its precious cargo stranded in the middle of nowhere. Once that wrinkle had been ironed out, it was discovered that the French payload, which was to be released in the atmosphere, could not be fitted into the American rocket. Ratilal Panchal, PRL’s expert mechanic, had to be flown down from Ahmedabad. Praful Bhavsar and Kalam supervised him as he scraped it by hand. Camera assistants had been trained to photograph the cloud that would be released by the rocket from four vantage points in Kanyakumari, Palayamkottai, Kodaikanal and Kottayam. But there was the possibility that the phone lines would fail, making communication impossible. And the sky could turn dark and make the images fuzzy.

In the circumstances it was not surprising that when the moment arrived, when the rocket rolled out on a truck to the launch pad, the sultry air was thick with tension. And almost immediately things went awry. As the rocket was being hoisted onto the launcher, the hydraulic system of the crane developed a leak. Technicians moved in to shift the rocket manually. The rocket was in position. But then the remote system to raise the launcher to the correct angle malfunctioned. The team conferred and sent a man to operate the controls on the launcher itself. That having been done, everything seemed at last, in order. An alarm sounded to clear the area around the launch pad. Vikram’s team members prayed and held their breath. Just then Pramod Kale, at the time a new student at the PRL, noticed a worker still fiddling with the launcher controls. With a shout he dashed out and dragged him away.

At 6.25 the rocket streaked away into the gathering dusk. Minutes later, a sodium vapour cloud emerged high above, tinged orange by the setting sun.

RD John recalls the moment. “We were all there in the oval canteen. We were jumping with joy. Bhabha too.” Vikram sent home a telegram: “Gee whiz wonderful rocket shot.”

Excerpted with permission from Vikram Sarabhai : A Life, Amrita Shah, Penguin India.