Golden jubilee of rocket research in India

G V Joshi
On Thursday, 21, 2013 at 6.25 p.m., a Rohini (RH) 200 rocket took to the sky from the then Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) based at Thumba near Thiruvanantpuram in Kerala to mark the golden jubilee celebration of the first successful launch of a sounding rocket from Indian soil, the beginning of India’s big leap forward in space exploration which has witnessed landmarks like Chandrayaan in 2008 and Mars mission in 2013.
It was on this day in 1963, a small Americanbuilt rocket named Nike Apache was fired at 6.25 p.m. from Thumba, a fishing hamlet near Thiruvanantpuram, which was chosen by Vikram Sarabhai and his team of scientists for its proximity to the earth’s magnetic equator. RH 200, built indigenously was the 2,328th test flight.
The launch site in due course came to be known as Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS) and later became Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), a major centre of ISRO named after pioneer of Indian space programme Dr Vikram A. Sarabhai.
The Union Government took the first step in its space programme in August 1961 by entrusting the Department of Atomic Energy with the task of conducting space research and peaceful uses of outer space.
In 1962, a national committee on space research was formed under the chairmanship of Dr Vikram A. Sarabhai for carrying on the mission.
It was Sarabhai who gathered a team of young scientists and engineers for the mission and sent them to the US for hands-on training in sounding rockets. His early recruits included former President APJ Abdul Kalam.
Most of the pioneers of India’s space programme left handsome jobs in the United States at the request of Vikram Sarabhai to join Indian Space Research Organist ion (ISRO), which was then at the drawing-board stage.
In a meeting with Vikram Sarabhai, Gowarikar then in the UK, was inspired to leave the sophisticated Sommerfield Research Station in the UK, where he was working on advanced rocket components, and left for Thumba. Dr Pramod Kale moved from the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad to Thumba.
Dr Muthunayagam was working in the US when Sarabhai asked him to return to India. Dr Bhavsar, who was a teacher in the Department of Physics, University of Minnesota, could not resist Sarabhai’s invitation. Prof. Chitnis was employed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his wife in the Harvard Medical School, before shifting to Thumba.
Nobody could say ‘no’ to Sarabhai. He had such a magnetic personality.
The launch facility was prepared by shifting several fishermen families from Thumba to an adjacent coastal stretch with the then Catholic Bishop playing a vital role in persuading the villagers.
The church became the control room, the bishop’s house the office, a bicycle to ferry rockets and eyes and hand held cameras to track the smoke trail of a rocket, were the humble beginnings when India launched the US-made rocket from Thumba, in 1963.
The church has been retained as such and later converted into a space museum.
Dr Sarabhai selected Thumba as the ideal site because it is near the magnetic equator, at 8°32’N 76°52’E.
For the next several years, launches were made from this station every Wednesday night despite primitive conditions. On one occasion, the payload of the rocket was transported from the church to the launch pad on a cycle.
ISRO’s former Chairman G. Madhavan Nair was then a student of the Government Engineering College, Thiruvananthapuram, then. He saw the sky turn orange and was hooked to rocketry for good.
At a function held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the launching of the first rocket from India in 2003, Shri Nair recalled, “It was a proud moment. I was standing on the roof of the building of the Engineering College at Kolathoor. There was a trail of sodium vapour. It was a remarkable sight for youngsters like me.”
Former President of India Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was present at Thumba when the Nike Apache rocket sped into the sky. In an address to a select audience including the pioneers of the ISRO family on November 21, 2003 (40th adversary) from Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam described his profile in those days as “a payload fellow”.
It took them three years to build the first rocket. They had a large number of failures. Once a rocket took off when the warning siren was switched on, a full three minutes before the actual time for launch. Another day, a rocket took off horizontally without even being fired. Some of the rockets did not reach the required heights.
But the sounding rocket was only a stepping stone to the real thing: the satellite launch vehicle.
As Sarabhai conceived it, a Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) was to launch a 35 kg satellite to a height of 400 km above Earth.
According to Dr E.V. Chitnis, former Director, Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, India’s truly indigenous space programme began on February 22, 1969, when it launched a “pencil” rocket, weighing 10 kg, from Thumba. It carried a few kg of propellants and rose a few kilometres into the air. From then onwards, there has been no stopping ISRO.
Following an initial failure, the SLV successfully orbited three Rohini Satellites in 1980, 1981, and 1983, respectively. The first launch of the SLV took place in Sriharikota on 10 August 1979. The last launch of the SLV took place on 17 April 1983.
SLV-3 formed the basis of the next-generation launch vehicles. The Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle or Advanced Satellite Launch Vehicle, (ASLV), was created by adding two additional boosters modified from the SLV’s first stage. However, ASLV was phased out in favor of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) due to a program to deploy larger, more complex satellites that could not be launched by the ASLV.
PSLV was designed and developed at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala. The inertial systems were also developed by ISRO Inertial Systems Unit (IISU) at Thiruvananthapuram.
The liquid propulsion stages for the second and fourth stages of PSLV as well as the reaction control systems were developed by the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), also at Thiruvananthapuram.
The solid propellant rockets were developed at Satish Dhawan Space Centre Sriharikota which also carried out launch operations.
After some delays, the PSLV had its first launch on 20 September 1993. Although all main engines performed as expected, an altitude control problem was reported in the second and third stages.
After this initial setback, ISRO met complete success with the third developmental launch in 1996. PSLV can also launch small size satellites into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).
On September 9, 2012, in its hundredth successful mission, PSLV put the French SPOT-6 and the Japanese PROITERES, both earth observation satellites, into orbit.
The next milestone would be to orbit our own geo-synchronous communication satellite like GSAT with our own launch vehicle, the Geostationary satellite Launch Vehicle.
However, GSLV is not yet ready because the indigenous cryogenic engine used in the last stage is not yet ready. When two-tonne class of INSAT communication satellites and the GSLV are mated, national needs can be really met.