Remembering Blamont and Sarabhai

When Vikram succeeded in creating ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), I was able to help him in various ways till the time of his unfortunate death. There was something unique between us since November 1963.

Jacques Blamont (2016)

On the eve of 15th August 1947, one could sense warmth in Durbar Hall. Autumn in India had arrived after the long summer. Nehru talked about India’s tryst with destiny, and at the stroke of the midnight hour, India was free.

A bright Indian boy at Cambridge was finishing his doctoral thesis when bells of freedom started tolling. Nehru had burdened the development of this young nation on modern-day science. The boy was motivated, and he understood the needs of the nation. Upon his arrival in India, he established Physical Research Laboratory at his residence in 1947. This was to become the place of scientific hustle very soon as he would start building the nation brick by brick. This was Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai, the man who could make the impossible happen.

Jacques Blamont and Vikram Sarabhai in Thumba in 1963 (Credit: CNES)

Sarabhai was working on cosmic rays at that time so was his friend and colleague Homi Jehangir Bhabha. In 1948, Bhabha established Atomic Energy Commission to fuel India’s nuclear program. He was a close aide of Nehru and both of them shared the vision of making India a scientific nation. The space-age began in 1957. Nehru brought Science Policy Resolution in 1958. It was serendipitous having one succeed the other. Sarabhai convinced Bhabha and Nehru for India to have its space program. A young nation was about to invest in luxury which most people thought she couldn’t afford. But, India had Sarabhai, and he was determined to realize the impossible.

The Fifth General Assembly of Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) was held in Washington, DC in 1962. Sarabhai met Jacques Blamont during the conference. Blamont was one of the pioneers in the French space program and had established CNES-Centre National d’Études Spatiales in 1962. In Washington, he explained his ideas with intoxicating enthusiasm to Blamont. He used to use the term leapfrogging. He meant that the only way for India to catch up with the developed world was to bypass the usual stages of the process by exploiting ultra-modern technology. He established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) to gather momentum in the scientific community in India.

Sarabhai observed:

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, 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. And we should note that the application of sophisticated technologies and methods of analysis to our problems is not to be confused with embarking on grandiose schemes, whose primary impact is for show rather than for progress measured in hard economic and social terms.

United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space and COSPAR consented to have a sounding rocket station on the magnetic equator. India had proposed a site for it near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established in 1963 at Thumba, a location close to the magnetic equator. It was India’s opportunity to perform leapfrogging.

India adopted the French model and started learning the ‘trade’ by launching sounding rockets. When the first rocket was being assembled at St. Louis High School, many people from the INCOSPAR wanted to launch an electronic payload, manufacturing one in India was a challenge. Blamont advised Sarabhai to begin with studying high altitude atmosphere with the creation of sodium clouds by rockets. This experiment required no onboard equipment.

The Indian Space Program was launched with the taking off of an American sounding rocket called ‘Nike Apache’ on 21 November 1963 from Thumba. Jacques Blamont personally brought the rocket-based payload from France, called the Sodium Ejector Payload was manufactured in the CNES laboratory. This was the moment of birth of the Indian Space Program. Three more rocket-based experiments followed this. They were conducted by the French Centaurus which was a two-stage solid propellant rocket provided to ISRO by CNES.

“He saw ambition as ambition for India”, said his son Kartikeya. Sarabhai made tryst with destiny to ensure that India becomes a scientific nation. Several years later Blamont wrote:

I had become a close friend of Vikram and now I regret that I could not give him much of my time. I do not remember at which time, around 1967, he took me one evening to a village, 50 kilometers from New Delhi. On the central esplanade, a television receiver placed on a scaffold was being watched by about 200 peasants trying to understand the images. Fortunately, the loudspeaker was good. An educative program was being broadcast by the national television organization in New Delhi. Coming back with Vikram in his car, we were not certain that the system had shown any efficiency, but it had obviously a great potential, as the later Indian space programs SITE, INSAT, and EDUSAT had proven. But today, of course, direct TV by satellite has become universal and carry educational programs which, though not to our expectations, have some value. When Vikram succeeded in creating ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), I was able to help him in various ways till the time of his unfortunate death. There was something unique between us since November 1963. When I was invited to the celebration of the fortieth anniversary in Trivandrum, I was reminded of the audience reaction to the first manned balloon flight in Paris on 4 November 1783. Somebody had asked, ‘What could be the use of that?’ and Benjamin Franklin replied ‘What is the use of a newborn child?’ A child was born in Thumba on 21 November 1963 and we watch its achievements with admiration.

Blamont, J. (2016). From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey. HarperCollins India.
Students watching the Sounding Rocket take off at Thumba. (Year Unknown)

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