Commenting on the gumption of Vikram Sarabhai in launching the nation’s space programme in 1903 with no infrastructure and with only a handful of scientists and engineers with no exposure to space technology, EV Chitnis, a veteran of ISRO said: “When you want to do something entirely new you should not start with writing a project report that would soon become very limiting…. We don’t know at the start what we will be able to do. And then the project develops and things develop and objectives develop as you go. You don’t start with objectives to fulfil; you start and then create new objectives which are in the spirit of what you wanted to do. This is a wonderful thing. Such things don’t happen nowadays!”. This quote captures the spirit of how Sarabhai did what he did.

Two allies

Sarabhai had two powerful allies in his mission of bringing the fruits of space technology to India: Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, and Homi Bhabha, the czar of organised research in India in those days. All three of them shared a common creed: that modern science and technology are indispensable to the development of the country. Nehru declared: “Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”

In 1958, that is, within a year of the launch of Sputnik-1, Nehru passed a scientific policy resolution in parliament which committed his government to “offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position, by associating scientists with the formulation of policies....” In August 1961, Nehru’s government entrusted the responsibility of looking after space research and peaceful uses of outer space to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), whose Secretary was Bhabha.

The very next year, Bhabha constituted the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), with Sarabhai as its Chairman. And, as they say, the rest is history. (INCOSPAR is the national counterpart of the global COSPAR, formed in the wake of Sputnik-1.)

Homi Bhabha (right) and Vikram Sarabhai in discussion at a conference in Jaipur, December 1963| Image courtesy: TIFR Arhives

Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station

For untold centuries, Thumba, near Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) had been an obscure fishing village, on the west coast of India. Little did the fisherfolk realise that their sleepy village “possessed” a unique geophysical treasure. Thumba lay close to the magnetic equator – a happenstance that Sarabhai was quick to exploit.

There are some geophysical phenomena unique to the magnetic equator. One of them is the equatorial electrojet, an electric current system at heights of around 110 km directly over the magnetic equator. It would be convenient, Sarabhai argued, for the world’s scientific community to explore the electrojet and its associated processes if a sounding rocket range could be established in Thumba. Earlier, COSPAR too had urged the international community to establish sounding rocket stations close to the magnetic equator.

On 21 November 1963, a sounding rocket took off from the shores of Thumba, ending its anonymity. Thus was born the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS).The birth of TERLS was the result of international cooperation. The sounding rocket (Nike-Apache) and some tracking equipment came from the US while the sodium vapour payload came from France. The Soviet Union chipped in with the MINSK computer, a vibration table, a helicopter and a boat. TERLS was a tribute to the charisma of Sarabhai, who could persuade the bitter enemies of the Cold War to come together in the service of science.

In 1968, TERLS was dedicated to the United Nations by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sarabhai was resolutely clear about why India should pursue space: “... we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society which we find in our country.” He also emphasised that the progress achieved through the application of space technology must be “measured in hard economic and social terms.”

An assembled Nike-Apache sounding rocket at Thumba.

Looking at the stars

The situation in India when Sarabhai launched his space initiative in the early 1960s was bleak: No one had any experience in any branch of space technology. The only infrastructure available in Thumba was an old church, known as St Mary Magdalene Church.·No institutional framework for space research had been created. People and policy makers were yet to be convinced of the benefits of space technology. The general mood of the people was one of despair caused partly by the humiliating border clash with a neighbour in the north and large scale dependence on import of food.

The Indian space programme has the unique distinction of being born in a place of worship: the St Mary Magdalene Church.

The situation could be best described by what Oscar Wilde once wrote: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” Yes, Nehru, Bhabha and Sarabhai were looking at the stars so that after over five decades, ISRO could reach literally for the stars through the now famous Mars Orbiter Mission (also known as Mangalyaan).

Sarabhai, with a band of greenhorns waiting to do his bidding, moved fast. He consulted whomsoever he could, sent his engineers wherever he could for training, for attending conferences or just to meet experts in the field. Thus, during 1965-67, Hideo Itokawa, the space pioneer of Japan, was a constant companion of Sarabhai. In 1962, even before TERLS formally came into existence, Sarabhai had sent a small band of newly recruited engineers to NASA for training that included Kalam.

In 1964, the Tokyo Olympic Games were transmitted live across the Pacific by the American satellite, Syncom 3. Nothing could be more convincing than this demonstration of the power of satellite communication. Sarabhai hurriedly assembled a team of engineers to set up what is known as the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES) in Ahmedabad. This was done with assistance from UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and ITU International Telecommunication Union).

The 14-meter dish antenna was set up with equipment from NEC Japan. ESCES became operational in 1967 and was used to train over 200 engineers both from India and from other developing countries in satellite and other associated technologies. In the same year, an arrangement was concluded with a French firm to manufacture under licence, a two-stage sounding rocket called Centaur. Over a period, this arrangement lead to the creation of the Rocket Propellant Plant (RPP) and Rocket Fabrication Facility (RFF) in Thumba.

In 1963, Sarabhai set up the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) near Thumba, on what is called Veli Hills, which commands a beautiful view of the Arabian Sea. (He had an inner urge to be surrounded by scenic beauty). The mandate for SSTC was to conduct R&D on rocket systems and components. The most important task for SSTC, made explicit by Sarabhai, was to develop indigenous satellite launch capability. Thus were sown the seeds for the future PSLVs and GSLVS of ISRO.

Displaying full trust in people working under Sarabhai gave them complete freedom to do what they wanted to do in their domain. The result was: several groups were working on sounding rocket designs; at least two groups were working on the development of solid propellants; others on fibre-reinforced plastics, pyro-systems and so on. For example, there was a surfeit of at least 15 different types of sounding rocket designs on which people were working. From this “technological melting pot” grew a set of professionals who are now considered veterans of ISRO. In time, they delivered the goods, redeeming the faith that Sarabbai had reposed in them.

Vikram Sarabhai speaks. Among those sitting are JRD Tata (extreme left), EMS Namboodiripad, Chief Minister of Kerala (extreme right), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, (second from right),and Kerala Governor V Viswanathan (third from right).

Legacy of Sarabhai

Sarabhai created ISRO on 15 August 1969, which marked the 22nd anniversary of India’s independence. He flagged off the development of India’s first satellite launch vehicle; completed all the formalities for an agreement with the Soviet Union for the launch of India’s first satellite (Aryabhata); started building a launch complex on the east coast of India (Sriharikota); saw the launch of India’s first sounding rocket (a tiny thing that weighed less than 7 kg); took over the reins of the Atomic Energy Commission following the death of Bhabha in a plane crash; signed an MOU with NASA for the conduct of a joint instructional television experiment using NASA’s ATS-F satellite (later known as ATS-6); drew the road map for ISRO to be followed during the decade 1970-80 and then died in his sleep on December 30, 1971. He was just 52. He bequeathed the space programme to the nation.

Vikram Sarabhai and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the latter’s visit to the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station in Ahmedabad.
Ever Upwards ISRO in Images

Excerpted with permission from Ever Upwards: ISRO in Images, VP Balagangadharan, BN Suresh, PV Manoranjan Rao, Orient Blackswan.