To a space enthusiast, going to watch a rocket launch feels quite like making a pilgrimage. The experiences have interesting similarities. You prepare for your journey with a deep sense of expectation, you plan your travel so that you arrive at the perfect moment, so that you don’t miss out on that moment of truth. Finally, the reward for your journey is that magnificent view, and the emotions stirred within at that awe-inspiring moment. For a space-geek, June 5 was one of those days, when India made history.
I’m also a big fan of spreading the word on how space can be useful to the common man, and the launch made for an opportunity to take some friends who didn’t work in the space sector along and show them how things worked in Sriharikota. A week after I put the word out, we were 20 of us on the road.
Although I have no experience building or being involved in technicalities of designing rockets, I have had the chance to visit and follow launches from various launch locations around the world. Having been involved in the international space sector for almost a decade (mostly through the private sector), it is always fascinating to see how a space agency like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has arisen as one of the world’s leaders in reliable launches. I can only imagine how trying it must have been for Team ISRO as it went from reverse engineering the Russian cryogenic engines to ultimately creating a completely indigenous design. We should all be very proud of the efforts the scientists, engineers and technicians at ISRO who have put in over five decades of capacity-building efforts, through thousands of man-hours, to be able to launch the Mk III.
First-time launches have always been jinxed for India. The SLV, PSLV and GSLV Mk II all failed on the first try. Although ISRO had tested the GSLV’s solid motor on a previous mission, June 5 was the first time the launch vehicle was being flown with an upgraded cryogenic engine. I had my fingers crossed for a successful launch and hoped that everything would go well – not least because more than Rs 500 crore of taxpayers’ money was riding on this mission.
When the countdown sequence hit T-minus-zero and the vehicle lifted off, it was as though the Sun had bounded over the horizon and stopped right in front of our eyes. I have witnessed a couple PSLV launches before and this time I could tell the difference just by the view: the Mk III was generating way more thrust. It really made the PSLV seem like it was a fancy sounding rocket.
For a few seconds the vehicle just majestically lifted up, up, up from the launch pad. Everyone around me was simply amazed to by the sight. And for a brief moment, there was so much silence around, as though they were all confused about how this huge cloud of fire billowing below such a large vehicle could make no sound. It only hit us after about 15 seconds, the music of the engines washing over us, going on so strongly that we could feel the acoustic chills in our bodies.
And then came the loud cheers! It had been such a tremendous vision, with the blue skies above and only a few clouds, even though it had drizzled earlier in the day. As the launch vehicle faded out of sight, some of us still just looking at the smoke plume and absorbing that moment, others wanted to know how ISRO would keep track of the rocket, what happens to the engines and the rocket’s remains, and how a satellite as big as the one the rocket was carrying would into spot in orbit that had been reserved for it. The questions and childlike curiosity made it doubly great for me to have been there.
While I answered them, we were all also keen to know the mission status. We quickly switched to using a mobile phone to turn on the live-feed from Doordarshan, and gathered in a huddle around the speaker on the Pulicat Lake bridge. We listened carefully to every word of the commentary accompanying the launch, looked at the rocket’s trajectory being flashed onscreen, and felt relieved that everything was going well. As we waited and waited, the cryogenic engine was switched on, worked perfectly, then switched off, and the satellite was released.
At that moment, I remembered a conversation that I’d had with Jacques Blamont, a pioneer in the space sector, one of the founding members of the French Space Agency (CNES) and possibly one of the earliest collaborators with Vikram Sarabhai in getting the sounding rocket programme up in Thumba, Kerala. Blamont had mentioned how the French had supplied India with the payload for the sounding rocket but that it wasn’t fitting properly in the rocket. Then, a young engineer named Abdul Kalam stayed up almost an entire night to file the nose cone until the payload could fit and so that the launch wasn’t delayed. Blamont said he’d never imagined the shores of Thumba, with their fishing boats and nets, would become the cradle of Indian rocket science – nor that Kalam would become India’s president 50 years later.
Yesterday, we witnessed history being made, and we became more proud about our technological prowess. But I believe this is just the beginning. I hope the Government of India doubles ISRO’s budget and gives them the impetus to work on full-scale reusable launch vehicles to keep up with the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin. These companies have already demonstrated such capabilities. There are so many New-Space-based services that India can venture into, like tracking ships, aircrafts, providing in-flight internet connectivity, improving rural connectivity, innovate in internet-of-things, provide navigation services (using NAVIC), and work on satellite-data-based big-data analytics for sectors like agriculture, meteorology, etc.
Most people don’t realise that satellites play a crucial role in empowering the common woman, enriching her life with technology; most people take such things for granted. For example, most ATMs in India today depend on satellite terminals to connect them with one-another and the banks. Without such a provision, India wouldn’t have as many ATMs as it does. Similarly, navigation services have empowered the likes of Ola to build on space infrastructure to create increasingly important transit services.
I’m also confused at times about ISRO’s remaining a humble organisation and in not going for a big PR drive, to reach out to the citizens of the country. Perhaps the scientists feel that they just need to focus on their work, and that outreach is something the people should figure out for themselves using other sources. It’s definitely time that people think of space not as fancy rockets and then complain about how they don’t benefit the quality of our lives. It’s time the people realise that every technology built in the country for space exploration and allied applications has a social, economic and even a cultural link to the progress being made at the bottom of the pyramid.
So, kudos to ISRO for putting up a great show again. Although it’s still quite difficult to get passes to get into the Sriharikota high-altitude range to view launches without the support of an ISRO employee, there is nothing that stops folks from standing near the beautiful Pulicat Lake, just a few hundred meters from the entrance to the enclosure. It’s a great view from there. Don’t keep waiting; start planning your visit to Sriharikota for the next launch.