1963: first rocket launch from Thumba
The rocket was transported to the launch site on an ox cart.
India’s space odyssey began on November 21, 1963, with the launch of the American Nike Apache sounding rocket from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram. The rocket was transported to the launch site on an ox cart; later the rockets would carry away the bicycles.
The Nike Apache weighed 715 kg and reached an altitude of 207 km with a payload of 30 kg. Cut to August 2022: India’s newest rocket, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), weighs 120 tonnes, is 34 meters long and can deliver 500kg satellites into a 500km orbit.
In the decades that followed, Indian rockets exploded, celebrating successes and learning from failures, pioneering a variety of rockets called launchers: SLV-3, ASLV, PSLV and GSLV and their variants. With these proven workhorses, no orbit – polar (700 km altitude), geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) or low Earth orbit (LEO, 250 to 500 km altitude) – is beyond the reach of the India and ISRO.
The program provides India with sustained and self-sustaining access to space, even deep space, powered by solid propellants, liquid propellants or cryogenic fluids and can place into orbit a diverse range of locally built satellites to remote sensing/earth observation, weather – forecasting, communication, cartography, navigation, education (EDUSAT), monitoring, astronomy and ocean monitoring. ISRO’s remote sensing satellites are recognized as among the best in the world, as good as the French SPOT or the American Landsat.
Another area where India has taken the world by surprise is with its forays into deep space, sending science missions to the Moon (2008) and Mars (launched in 2013). Getting the Chandryaan-1 spacecraft into orbit of the moon seemed like child’s play to ISRO engineers, but the spacecraft itself fell short of its target one-year lifespan. . That said, one of its payloads discovered water ice on the moon, and its terrain-mapping camera sent up thousands of priceless images of the lunar surface. The Mars Orbiter or Mangalyaan mission was a great success, with a flood of data received on the red planet.
If India today is a self-sufficient, world-class space nation, there is much to thank for that first launch at Thumba: the United States, for the two-stage Nike Apache rocket; France, for the sodium vapor payload; the Soviet Union, whose Mi-4 helicopter gave range clearance; and, of course, ISRO’s rocket and payload engineers.