THUMBA ROCKET LAUNCHING STATION.
India ente red the satellite age in 21 November 1963. It was only due, to our first prime minister, Shri. Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision. . He chose H J Babha, one of the greatest scientists India produced, for the satellite project. He started work immediately with all the bureaucratic difficulties. Due to his sudden death Shri. Vikram Sarabhai, (of the illustrious sarabhai family) the young scientist who has been instrumental to start the National Physical Laboratory at Ahmedabad, was to succeed him. They chose Veli a fishing village very near to Trivandrum in Kerala, in the coast of Arabian sea for locating the rocket launching station.(The village Thumba, derived its name, since the place was full of ( Thumbai flowers) This is due the proximity of Equator. Named it as Equatorial rocket launching station (TERLS). After detailed survey, research and logistics, this place was chosen. It was taken over by the atomic energy department under the Defence Ministry of Government of India.
Only the fishermen lived in the village in thatched huts. The only brick, mortar cement building was the church along with the cemetery. The government decided to construct a new village and relocate the fishermen in the new Village. But they did not want to demolish the church which was a strong building. They could not remove the cemetery, due to religious sentiments. When I read about the rocket launching station being planned, I collected more details and also visited the site. There was only a Project director (Mr. G H Rao) with a skeleton staff to organise the assembling the rocket and plan its first launch. The launch pad was on the seashore. The nearest concrete building was the block house, without any windows and only a thick glass embedded peep hole, to watch the rocket being fired. There was only a NASA telemetry van nearby with all electronic gadgets provided by NASA to track the rocket in the sky. With the primitive facilities, it was a marvel that India launched the first rocket. The scientist Mr. Dass who was to press the button to fire the rocket was also on the same plane coming from USA and was asking me about the facilities available and other facilities, near the spot, since I have visited the site more than three times. The Project Director was a nice man and was the only man to take all decisions.
For any layman in India, they had not had the experience to see or hear the launching of a rocket. One of the waiters in the hotel where I was staying asked me whether there is a mouse or rat in the rocket. After all they had only heard about the dog in the Russian rocket. So that was the ignorance of not only of the laymen but also the media men who were planning to cover the event. The First equatorial sounding rocket was to be put on orbit on Nov 21, 1963. When we approached the Director to provide us a vulnerable point from where we can shoot the launching. The director said that there isa small hill about 3/4th mile away from the launching pad wherefrom the Governor Shri. Girl will be witnessing the launch. He suggested that we move to that spot and cover the events. We had very simple cameras and not heavy powerful telescopic lenses to record the events from such far away place. We preferred to move our cameras and cover it from nearby the Telemetry van, which was a little closer to the launch. He reluctantly agreed and allowed us to station ourselves at that spot. Then came the worst part of the operations. We do not know when the firing will take place. And the countdown will not be heard by us. We requested the scientist inside the telemetry van to keep the door open and close it as soon as the countdown starts, so that we can start the cameras just 5 seconds before the actual firing... We started the cameras and felt we are doing a great job. When the actual firing started we saw the flame under the rocket followed by such a roaring thunder, which cannot be described in words and no sound that could be compared. The actual feeling was something like a big rock has been hurled at your chest. When I looked round almost all the photographers have fallen flat in the ground. Later they told me that they felt that have been hit by a mortar and fell flat on the ground. Even today I do not know haw I was glued to the viewfinder, although I also felt that impact. It was an irony, when I heard that the department could not record the event, although a high speed camera was provided and but no film to record the event. That was the day India entered the satellite age: The rocket contained metal particles (needles) and when the rocket released them at a particular height, scientists from various faraway places recorded the movement of the needles, for various scientific experiments. I was proud that I alone could record the event for posterity. This started the momentum for me to make more films on the launching station Incidentally Our great scientist President Sri Abdul Kalam was also one of the scientist in that team.
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