Forty-five seconds to go. About 200 people shuffle around to fit themselves into the best vantage spot. The rooftop terrace above the MR Kurup Auditorium at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, is round, high-walled in and fringed by trees. It is thrown open at 9.15 am, with just minutes to go to the historic 9.28 am launch. A bomb squad spends a long five minutes scoping the open terrace before an antsy crowd is allowed in. A blaring speaker system is counting down, first every five minutes, then every five seconds. The Indian Space Research Organisation is ready to smash a world record.
The crowd had been in the auditorium below for about 40 minutes, watching snatches on a big screen from ISRO’s bustling Mission Control Room. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV-C37, will launch 104 satellites, a singular feat. No country had ever attempted a century of satellites before. The world record so far was held by Russia with 37 satellites.
Twenty-five seconds. All eyes trained upward into the mass of clouds, above the trees. Fifteen seconds. Ten, nine… the crowd joins in. Five, four… goosebumps. Three, two, one… bated breath. A few seconds of nothing. And then there is a collective gasp. At +10 seconds, a fiery jetstream cuts into the clouds, as though in slow motion, and the crowd erupts with cheers. For once, selfie sticks dangle loose, cameras are up in the air, but the spectators are peeking above their lenses, using their eyes.
The rocket zooms through our view for a total of about 30 seconds, including a dramatic encore – a theatrical gold trail, vanishing, then making an entrance again through a clearing in the clouds. The crowd stands rapt, many carrying little children in their arms. It is a sensory experience: first, the awe-inspiring visual, and then, as the speed of sound catches up, an arresting rumble of the engine, enough to make the building shake. We are watching quietly for a few minutes even after the rocket has disappeared, willing it to make another appearance.
In just 15 minutes, the rocket has cut through the atmosphere and made its way into its planned orbit. Now, the satellites start to separate. All 104 satellites in the PSLV-C37 are housed in its top section, the conical structure that measures about 60 feet. The rest of the vehicle carries fuel and other technical necessities. To jigsaw the satellites into the vehicle’s real estate, a scientist standing by tells us, was a major challenge.
Of the 104, three satellites are indigenous. The Cartosat 2D, the PSLV’s main payload, is a high-resolution Earth-observation satellite, which will help in water resource mapping, road network monitoring and land-use mapping. The other two Indian representatives are nano-satellites. A bulk of the body comes from the US, with 88 satellites. Other customers include Switzerland, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan. ISRO is particularly proud of bringing together “Israel and the Arab world” on a single platform – one satellite each is from Israel and the UAE.
ISRO hopes to recover half of the mission’s cost from the cost of foreign launches. The organisation has now taken its tally of successfully launched foreign satellites to 180.
The launches are high security affairs, and you are only allowed in if you get a space scientist to vouch for you, or can validate a professional or educational purpose.
But many in the crowd, like us, had found references to get them in, and travelled here from across the country to be part of the historic event. For instance, my husband, brother and I made the trek from Mumbai to witness the launch, even though it lasted all of two minutes. My husband had always wanted to be an astronaut, and in a bucket list of things to do before turning 30, watching a rocket launch live was top of the list. He stood there, awe-struck, matching expressions with so many others.
Starting young was 14-year-old Param Luhadiya, who travelled to Sriharikota with his family of 10 and a white NASA T-shirt. Always fascinated by space travel, Luhadiya skipped two days of school to watch the rocket take off. “I’ve watched space launches on YouTube and on TV, but watching it live was exhilarating,” he said. “I learned much more today than I would have at school.”
Malvika Kommineni, a 29-year-old homemaker, was shaken awake in the middle of the night. Her husband had a surprise planned for her, and until they got from their home in Tirupati to Sriharikota – a 2.5-hour drive – she had no idea where they were going. Kommineni has been actively tracking ISRO’s activities for more than two years, and always wanted to watch a live launch. “We could never figure out how to get access, but this time, my husband found somebody to refer us and surprised me with passes,” she said. “It was a breathtaking experience.” Her four-year-old daughter is starry-eyed beside her. “While other girls play with dolls, she plays with rockets. She wants to be an astronaut, so watching a real, live rocket has made her week.”
After watching the PSLV fly into orbit, visitors came back into the auditorium with refreshments, to watch the vehicle orbit, and the satellites separate. Once the satellites had all made it into their own orbits, a series of ISRO heads gave inspiring speeches, acknowledging the world record.
“India is 104 not out,” said one.
“India’s achievement today will be gold-lettered into the history of space science,” said another.
To experience history first-hand, Tricolour swaying around you and pride shining in hundreds of eyes, beats the somewhat forced grandeur of the Republic Day parade. Complete with a tour to the space museum on campus, where scientists patiently answer hundreds of questions, a trip to Sriharikota is a tangible hope in the idea of India.
“The whole world is watching, and India is on the map,” said Kommineni. “We achieved what even NASA couldn’t.”
California-based engineer Prudhvi Nethi, who made sure to make it to the launch during his visit home, summed it up: “Now, I can go back to the US and brag – not just that we broke a world record, but that we put so many American satellites in space.”