I was on a stretch of nearly deserted beach near Trivandrum, enjoying the salty sea breeze and a cloud-speckled sky that promised rain later in the day. But I wasn’t really there for seaside R&R. A voice on the public address system announced: “Mark minus 30 seconds and counting.” Before I knew it, the countdown began: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…” About 50 feet in front of me, a white-and-orange rocket blasted off into the mid-morning sky. I heard the engines roaring to life after I saw the jets of fire spewing out of the base of the craft. Awestruck, I watched the rocket journey into the clouds, leaving a trail of grey smoke in its wake. The space nerd in me silently performed a little dance and my cheeks were frozen in a goofy I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-here grin.
I was visiting the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thumba, a fishing village about half an hour by road from Trivandrum in Kerala. The sprawling 600-acre campus, set amid towering coconut trees, lush greenery and bordered on one side by Kerala’s caramel-coloured beaches, was the first home of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), before the headquarters were moved to Bengaluru in 1972. Over the last few years, ISRO has been in the public eye for all the right reasons. It garnered global attention for the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan, entering the Red Planet’s orbit on its first attempt, something no other space agency in the world has managed to do. Mars is about 225 million kilometres away, and ISRO got there at a fraction of the cost of similar missions.
I’ve always looked up at the sky and marvelled at the wonders of this ever-expanding, staggeringly beautiful mishmash we call the universe. Every time I read about a new galactic phenomenon another level of wonderment is unlocked in my brain. For instance, I recently learnt that there are ice sheets, similar to Earth’s glaciers, that are flowing on Pluto’s surface three billion miles away. In India, ISRO equals space travel, and I’ve always wondered how we started reaching for the stars. Which is how I landed up on a deserted Kerala beach watching a rocket launch at 11.45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Apart from being a major hub for ISRO activities, the Sarabhai Space Centre also welcomes visitors for rocket launches.
The complex originally started out as the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in the early 1960s. In 1962, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, widely considered the father of India’s space programme, selected Thumba as the country’s first launch site because it is located on Earth’s magnetic equator. This isn’t the geographic equator we all learned about in school—it’s an imaginary line around the planet that connects all the points where a magnetic needle, when freely suspended, is horizontal.
Scientists are keenly interested in the air above the magnetic equator because this is where the Equatorial Electrojet exists. This is essentially a stream of electrons whizzing across the sky, about 110-120 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.
Space programmes first send out sounding rockets, to test and study these electrons and conduct research in the fields of physics, astronomy, and meteorology. Sounding rockets are often seen as baby steps before the establishment of a full-fledged space programme. The fact that the area around Thumba wasn’t very populated made it an ideal spot to start launching sounding rockets. What started out as a few scientists working out of the tiny St. Magdalene’s Church near Trivandrum and using cycles to transport rocket parts, has now become one of the world’s most active and ingenious space agencies.
Hidden deep within the ISRO campus is St. Magdalene’s Church, now a museum where visitors can learn about ISRO’s history. This is one church I won’t forget anytime soon and the phrase “altar of science” crossed my mind more than once during my visit. Which other place of worship houses a full-scale model of a rocket in its garden? Without so much as glancing at the church structure, I was drawn toward the 144-foot-long Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), like a moth to a flame. However, Mr. Vijayamohanakumar, a senior ISRO scientist, who was showing me around redirected me to the museum. Ogling the rocket would have to wait.
How exactly did a church come to be connected with ISRO, I wondered. I was hoping for a story as fascinating as the place, and I wasn’t disappointed. Once Dr. Sarabhai had zeroed in on Thumba as a potential launch site, he realised that the church was part of the proposed location. The shrine itself has an interesting history. It is said to have been built by St. Francis Xavier in 1544, starting out as a simple thatched shed with walls of dried coconut leaves. While a more permanent structure was being built in the early 20th century, local fishermen spotted a sandalwood statue of Mary Magdalene that had washed up on the beach. Eventually the statue was consecrated at the new church, which was then named after St. Mary. Over the years the church changed hands several times before becoming part of the Cochin Diocese.
During Dr. Sarabhai’s time in the 1960s, the head of the Diocese and Bishop of Trivandrum was Rt. Rev. Dr. Peter Bernard Pereira. As the story goes, one Saturday, Dr. Sarabhai and his scientists approached the bishop and sought his help to acquire the church and surrounding land to set up the TERLS facility. The bishop asked the team to attend Sunday Mass at the church where he would put the question to the parishioners. In his book Ignited Minds: Unleashing The Power Within India former Indian President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam wrote about this service: “…the Bishop told the congregation, “My children, I have a famous scientist with me who wants our church and the place I live for the work of space science and research. Science seeks truth that enriches human life. The higher level of religion is spirituality. The spiritual preachers seek the help of the Almighty to bring peace to human minds. In short, what Vikram is doing and what I am doing are the same—both science and spirituality seek the Almighty’s blessings for human prosperity in mind and body. Children, can we give them God’s abode for a scientific mission?” There was silence for a while followed by a hearty ‘Amen’ from the congregation, which made the whole church reverberate.” And apparently, that was that. Though wonderfully romantic, I must admit this description of the events is a little hard to swallow. However, once the necessary permissions were obtained, and the villagers relocated to a nearby village with a new church, ISRO’s teams moved in. It was in these unassuming settings that the agency staged its first launch—that of a Nike-Apache rocket supplied by NASA. On the evening of 21 November 1962, the first rocket blasted off into the skies above Thumba.
From the outside, the building of St. Magdalene’s Church looks like any other place of worship, but step inside and you’re transported to a world of rockets, satellites and other astronomical equipment. A sign outside asks visitors to take their shoes off to maintain a clean environment, and not, as some would imagine, as a spiritual practice. Though I was wearing fairly basic sandals, I found myself foolishly fumbling and struggling to take them off, a clear case of my brain deserting me at a moment of great excitement. I had, after all been dreaming of visiting this place for years. Sleek models and detailed exhibits describe everything I wanted to know about ISRO—from the early days of the Thumba site, its recognition as an international sounding rocket facility, to the inner components of a rocket, and logistics of the Mangalyaan mission. It was easy to forget I was inside what was once a place of worship.
One of the first exhibits I saw was about the Rohini sounding rockets, a variant of which I saw launched that morning. The cones of these rockets usually hold some sort of scientific payload, which is ejected into the atmosphere and studied. That morning’s rocket was carrying copper chaff, which, once released into the atmosphere, would be tracked via radar for meteorological research.
I learned a lot of cool things in the church museum. In the room dedicated to various satellite launch vehicles (SLV), aka the rockets that put satellites into orbit, I learnt about the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), a model of which I had spotted in the garden earlier. This is one of ISRO’s most successful rockets, and has been used in historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (which later found water on the Moon) and the Mangalyaan mission. The GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) is a powered-up version of the PSLV. It can carry heavier payloads and travel greater distances. ISRO has developed these rockets to be pretty modular—when needed, strap-on motors can be added to provide extra thrust.
Back home in Mumbai, we’re something of a family of space enthusiasts, and have a signed photo of Rakesh Sharma. In 1984, he became India’s first astronaut, and when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him how our country looked from space, he famously replied, “Saare jahan se achcha.”
My favourite part of the museum was on ISRO’s efforts to put a man in space one day. Just the thought of having more Indian astronauts and more made-for-history-book moments like that brought that goofy grin back on my face.
In its efforts to have manned space missions ISRO has developed an indigenous spacesuit. It is also working on a reusable spacecraft, along the lines of NASA’s Space Shuttles. Plus, it has been testing re-entry crafts, like the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE), which are modules that can carry astronauts back to Earth and protect them from frying to a crisp as they plummet through the planet’s atmosphere. The capsule in the exhibit reminded me of a humongous Darth Vader helmet—a bell-shaped structure covered in silica tiles that had been burnt black as this craft had re-entered the Earth’s skies before plunging into the sea.
Before I wrapped up my visit, I spent a few minutes gaping at the life-sized PSLV model in the church’s garden. I walked from one end of the 144-foot-long rocket to the other several times, to process its size and imagine the power needed to blast something that huge into space. When mounted upright, the rocket is a few feet taller than Delhi’s India Gate. Looking around at the other scaled rocket models in the garden, the church, and the swaying palm trees overhead, I took a deep breath of the crisp sea breeze, happy to be in such a wonderful place to get my first taste of India’s rocket sciences up close.
If ISRO scientists had missed the November 2013 launch date for the Mangalyaan mission, they would have had to wait until 2016 for Mars to be in the right position.
Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam had his offices in the Bishop’s house, adjacent to St. Magdalene’s Church.
After the successful rocket launch of the Nike-Apache, Dr. Sarabhai sent a telegram home saying: “Gee whiz wonderful rocket show.”
In the late 1700s, Tipu Sultan used early avatars of modern-day rockets in his battles against the British. A painting depicting one of these battles hangs at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, U.S.A.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Cosmic Connections In Kerala”.
Thiruvananthapuram, or Trivandrum, is the capital of Kerala, located on India’s southwest coast. The city often serves as a stop-off before tourists move on to the nearby beach resort of Kovalam. Thumba is a coastal village just outside the city (about 11 km/45 min away).
Trivandrum is well connected to cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi by rail, air, and bus. From here, taxis or cars can be hired to get to Thumba; renting a taxi for a day should cost you approximately ₹2,000.
How To Do
The space museum is open every day, 9.30 a.m.-4 p.m., except Sunday and declared holidays. Make online reservations for a visit at spacemuseum.vssc.gov.in. For an agency that works with high-risk materials, ISRO is surprisingly visitor-friendly. If you plan your trip right, you can view the launch of a sounding rocket, which takes place on the third Wednesday of every month at 11.45 a.m.; call 0471-2565649 for details; ISRO plans special events during the annual World Space Week (4-10 Oct) at the VSSC complex every year.
is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.
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