Indian Space Program: Reminiscences

Space technology is most essential for the all-round economic development of India.

Vikram Sarabhai

As we go back to the 1950s, the legend is that Jawahar Lal Nehru inspired the Scientific Policy Resolution. He saw science as a liberating force. Scientists and thinkers expounded upon the idea of India as a scientific nation, a nation that experiences her second liberation through the gateways of modern science . This resolution of 1958 led to several endeavors and in that incubating ecosystem, the Indian Space Program was born.

APPLE satellite being carried on a Bullock Cart for testing.

The veteran space scientist P.V. Manoranjan Rao fondly writes about the birth of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), then known as the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). INCOSPAR was set up as a part of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 1962 by Vikram Sarabhai. Under Homi Bhabha’s leadership, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was flourishing and space research was previously handled by this department.

INCOSPAR was a young and enthusiastic entity and reflected the curiosity of its leader Vikram Sarabhai. Prof. Yash Pal once told me, “When we started, we didn’t know much about necessary skills required to run such a program. So, we learned to cooperate with other nations and provide them with a launch site for their rockets and in exchange started to learn all kinds of things which we did not know earlier.”

Space and India, Directed by Vijay B. Chandra, 1971, Films Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

P.V. Manoranjan Rao euphorically wrote, “In those early days, Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) itself was like an outgrown village, described by Arthur Koestler as ‘the charming tropical suburb to a non-existent town’. And in the land acquired, Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established through active collaboration with France, USA, and USSR. The leader of the Indian space program (Sarabhai) had comprehended the full implications of the challenge and had not balked at taking it on. The only ‘decent building’ available was a church: the St Mary Magdalene Church. Our space program was literally born in this church. ‘The church was our workshop and the bishop’s house was our office,’ wrote Shri D. Easwaradas, one of the early recruits of Sarabhai. Development of many of the technologies needed for rocketry was initiated in this church”.

The renowned agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan reminisced his conversation with Sarabhai about the coconut crop disease he was struggling to locate geo-spatially. This conversation led to acquiring images of the affected area from space and eventually the hazard was mitigated. This entire episode was the precursor of what we now call the earth observation program.

Sarabhai’s enthusiasm was intoxicating. It won’t be wrong to say that he was the source of inspiration to everyone in the organization. He always emphasized that “we must do first-rate science. We must be second to none in applications. And whatever technology is required for that, we must pay for it or develop it”.

It is quite interesting to see that science in the early history of independent India was extravagantly full of life. Space scientist E.V. Chitnis went to the US and worked with experts at NASA and several experts from NASA came to India in turn. He went to France and the UK for collaborations. ISRO (then INCOSPAR) got internationalized quickly. France gave them radar, that was upgraded in India. He wrote, “then we had the Chaff experiment for winds and sodium vapor experiment. Germans came with barium payloads, and then the Japanese came with X-ray astronomy payloads”.

At a seminar in 1963, Bhabha had said, “..this is now the beginning of 1963. In 1957 the space era started and India as a country should go in for applications and build the technology of rockets and satellites. Even communication satellites had not become operational. But we should get into this field and do experiments, learn before it becomes operational…” He indicated that India was going into communication satellites as well.

Cosmic ray physicists doing space technology, agriculture scientists enabling satellite imaging for societal applications, and, as Prof. Yash Pal used to say, “…we had several engineers and social scientists working together at SAC (Space Application Centre) without killing each other…”. This interdisciplinarity is at the core of science. Every branch amalgamates into one and the Indian Space Program is an illustrious example.

One interesting fact that I stumbled upon was about testing the successful functioning of the transponder of the APPLE satellite that was launched in 1981 from Kourou, French Guiana. A live dance program was beamed to and received from the satellite. The calculated time delay for about 80,000 km was about 270 milliseconds. Prof. M.G.K. Menon jokingly said in a private conversation, “It was so fascinating that APPLE transponder also transmitted Tagore’s dance drama Chitrangada. We were doing great science, but we also managed (while testing the end-to-end performance of APPLE) to blend east and west…a space enabled cultural connection…”

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