‘Gee whiz wonderful rocket show!’

Nearly 56 years ago, the furious Southwest monsoon had bid goodbye to God’s Own Country and Kerala had finished its harvest festival of Onam.

Then came the thunder and lightning-filled Northeast monsoon which was slowly stepping out of the state when the father of India’s space programme Dr Vikram Sarabhai stepped in.

Taking a stroll on the pristine Thumba beach off Thiruvananthapuram (then known as Trivandrum) in November 1963,

Dr Sarabhai noticed one thing – that a church in the sleepy coconut-palm filled Thumba village was located bang on the Earth’s magnetic equator.

The magnetic equator is an imaginary line around the earth that connects all the points where a magnetic needle is horizontal when freely suspended.

It has great significance in astronomy because the magnetic equator is where the Equatorial Electrojet exists. This is a stream of electrons whizzing across the sky, about 110-120 km above the Earth’s surface.

‘Gee whiz wonderful rocket show!’

Dr Sarabhai collected a small team of fellow scientists that included a young and excited Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and went to meet the Trivandrum bishop Reverend Peter Bernard Pereira of the Mary Magdalene Church in Thumba which was sitting atop the Earth’s magnetic equator.

The bishop’s house was adjacent to the church. Surprised to see the scientists, the bishop offered them all the courtesies and asked them if they had come for some purpose.

A confident Dr Sarabhai disarmed the bishop by saying he has come to do God’s work – to find the truth. And for that he was interested in acquiring the church and the nearby land for their rocket launch into space.

Rev Pereira mulled and did not give an answer. This worried Dr Sarabhai. But the bishop told him to attend the Sunday mass that week. This surprised Dr Sarabhai further.

At the Sunday mass, Rev Pereira very nicely worded his speech saying that a group of men had come to do God’s work through science and wanted the church to start their mission. And then he sought the permission of his congregation to hand over the church to the scientists.

There was not a murmur. The bishop acted swiftly, the paperwork was done in no time and the villagers relocated to a new village with a new church in just 100 days flat.

The church was converted into a workshop and the bishop’s home became an office; the cattle sheds served as storage houses and laboratories. In his book Ignited Minds: Unleashing The Power Within India, Dr Kalam has described this particular incident beautifully.

It is from this church that the Indian scientists began their dream journey to space, assembling their first rocket. All they had was the fuel of determination burning in them and a shoestring budget.

It may sound unbelievable that parts of the first rocket were transported on bicycles and bullock carts! Finally, on November 23, 1963, as dusk started settling in, a roar rocked the sleepy Thumba village as the first rocket went up.

As Dr Sarabhai and his team looked up, the jaw-dropping moment came minutes later as a sodium vapour cloud had emerged in the sky high above painting the sky orange. India put its first signature in space.

The launch was witnessed by Dr Homi Bhabha (the father of Indian nuclear programme), Dr P R Pirashoty (the founder-director of Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology), the Governor of Kerala, the district collector and the bishop.

Those days there were no telephones nearby or emails and WhatsApp or Twitter to announce the event. An excited Dr. Sarabhai rushed to send a telegram home saying: “Gee whiz wonderful rocket show”.

Dr Kalam later remembered how on the very next day, Dr Sarabhai came beaming to congratulate the team of young and equally excited scientists. All these events have been beautifully and graphically described by Dr Kalam in his book Ignited Minds: Unleashing The Power Within India.

The first sounding rockets were meant to test and study electrons for research in the fields of physics, astronomy, and meteorology. Thumba was later converted into Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS) and later became Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC).

Soon, Dr Sarabhai was made the chairman of the national committee on space research and tasked to select young scientists and engineers to be trained in sounding rocket assembly and launching at NASA’s Wallops Island launching facility in Virginia, United States. The early recruits included Dr Kalam, veteran scientist R Aravamudan.

There were some side stories to the first launch. Thumba had no canteen and the young scientists would cycle early every morning all the way to the small railway station at Trivandrum for their breakfast and get their lunch packed. In the evening they would again cycle to the railway station for dinner.

On free weekends, the young scientists would either go to the beaches at Kovalam or Shankumukham or catch an old Hollywood film at a local theatre called Srikumar.

Today, Thumba is the hub of all space programmes. ISRO shifted the launches to Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh because Thumba had only small windows for launch due to the two monsoons.

But the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thumba has given India launch vehicles, geo-stationary satellites (used for telecommunications, television transmission and weather forecasting) and some of the finest remote sensing satellites.

As for the church from where India’s space programme began, it now houses a space museum packed with a fascinating array of rockets, satellites and other astronomical equipment.

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