Kya log te woh, diwane!!

Sarabhai and team had identified Sriharikota as India’s spaceport. Trivandrum had TERLS. What vision to see a sliver of an Island, 17 kms from mainland, inhabited only by Adivasis as the place from where India would start a journey to Mars and who knows where else. Mars? What Mars? The most important person in the Sriharikota camp those days was probably the person who spoke the local dialect of Telugu the best.

Department of Space DOS. Indian Space Research Organization ISRO. My first sighting was as a six year old when Dad took up a job in ISRO and moved to Sriharikota. Mom continued to work in Pune. We move to Mumbai and Dad joins us for a few months as a part of the STEP (Satellite Television Experimental Program?). The acronym that began Satellite telecast in India.

Mom has had enough. Quits and we move to Sriharikota. Base camp of sorts 17 km away at Sullurpet. Church building converted to a club. Cutlets that I can still taste. White Tennis balls and wooden racquets. Picture of a rocket being carried on a cycle. Must have been in Thumba were cycle borne rockets were being test fired with gay abandon. Good fun and fodder for local comics. Mom joins ISRO. My family now had two members in the civil engineering division that, I claim, built most of what one sees in ISRO. My first memory of what I saw was the precarious looking, 17 km road through the backwaters. And second was of sandbags on rooftops to prevent the roofs from being blown away during the seasonal cyclones.

Rockets come and rockets go. Actually ours didn’t go too far. Aryabhata placed in the sky. Bhaskara too. The Soviets did the heavy lifting and at school we had a special feeling for the math problems formulated by the originals. APPLE landed (if I may say so) in the sky courtesy the European space folks. A solar panel acted up but the single winged wonder soldiered on.

APPLE, INSAT, make, buy or borrow but satellite telecast began on a regular basis. Doordarshan, Chitrahar, Nukad, Test matches, Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Richards, Wimbledon, Borg, McEnroe, Chris, Martina, the miraculous Aussie mom. What Magic.

Meaningful weather forecast was in the future. Cyclones hitting our spaceport were annual surprises. Boats on roads and helicopter drops. No school.

Roads, temp housing facilities, launch pads, control rooms, civil works for massive antennae, permanent housing, hospitals, clubs, more housing, libraries, museums, fencing, acres of labs, huge test facilities, hostels, guest houses, monitoring stations across the globe and, after all this, the civil engineers continued operating from their original sheds. My parents never understood how I could be bored at work.

Sriharikota witnessed rockets going up and then coming down. The first SLV went up and then down with Rohini beeping from the sea. Second SLV launch. High drama and anxiety. NTR arrives to witness. Helicopter pilot clueless. Sees the school playground and lands. We love it. What times and what fun. Indira Gandhi’s pilot better prepared. Rocket goes all wrong. Even we children could see that the plume should not make that sickening ellipse in the sky. Colony in mourning. Guess the mourning was much more widespread. After all, Trivandrum mothered the rocket. A few months later, four of my buddies drown. Raw pain.

Spacelab de-orbited. American space shuttle’s maiden success. Chemistry teacher calls it an achievement for humanity. Home grown SLV takes a tumble. Reports that the American press headlined “Indian spy satellite launch fails”. The adolescent version of me wondered “wherefrom the insecure adjective?”.

Satellites launched on hitched rides. Many of my class mates and I move out of Sriharikota for our studies. New place, hostel and in the land of rocket jokes.

YES! SLV-3 places India in orbit. That is how it felt but what really went zipping around the earth was 40 kilos of Rohini.

The failures didn’t seem too bad now. Kalam off to DRDO. ASLV and the heavier, Stretched Rohini the new focus. The baptisers probably needed a whack. ASLV does its trick after its small quota of failures. ISRO seems to forget its successes so easily. Must be something about Space.

PSLV. Big one. Failure. Failure. Failure. Suspect design. Confidence lost. Maybe candidate for abandonment. Money better spent on GSLV, the next big one. Failure. Questions. Money. Poor country. Hounded.

And then PSLV gets it right. Never failed since then. Lost count of the number of successes and the myriad satellites it has lined up to be space debris. That is debris in space and not on the ocean floor.

Pokharan. New sanctions added to old.

GSLV, Cryogenic engine. Cryo test facility at Mahendragiri. Visited it when the Civil Engineers were in charge. Interesting tiger cages, strategically located. Lock yourself in the cage if you see a tiger. Space age technology.

Indian in space, explosive growth in communication, neither rockets nor weather forecast a joke any longer.

Chandrayaan. Moon mission. Been there, did that. PSLV doing all the heavy lifting with nary a complaint.

Nearly a decade after mom retired, PSLV set out on India’s mission to check out Mars. Mom unwell but came to the TV to watch the News. She said maybe ISRO would give them another HMT watch if Mangalyaan finds its slot. 300+ days seemed like a very long time.

In a few hours, we will know whether it is going to be a Martian orbit, a Martian flyby or an unplanned Martian landing. No matter what, Sarabhai’s team sure has come a long way and we continue to stand in awe and cheer.


p.s. This was written a few hours before Mangalyan was to be released into orbit. Since then, we know that the maneuver went off well and the spacecraft has performed exceptionally well too.