Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

Last Saturday in the wee hours of the morning one got up as if some unknown force was beckoning. After watching the preparations for the soft landing of the Chandrayan2 moon mission, one was waiting for the actual landing. It was well in time for the last one hour of the historic occasion for Vikram Rower to land in the south pole of the moon, hitherto not attempted by any nation. The Doordarshan coverage of the momentous event was on NDTV and the commentary in Hindi and English alternately by ISRO scientists was appropriate unlike the pedestrian commentary during the launching of the satellite in July 22. The NDTV anchor facilitated an average viewer’s understanding of what was happening inside ISRO’s Mission Control Room in Bangalore. The channel also interviewed some experts including a NASA scientist. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence with over 70 children seems to have an electrifying effect on the already charged up scientists. The focus soon appeared to have shifted to the Prime Minister.

As the time came close to the last fifteen minutes of the fateful event the faces of the scientists assembled in the control room picked up by the cameras said it all --- quiet confidence, a wee bit anxiety and controlled excitement. The announcements by the scientists till the Vikram Lander was almost nearing the last couple of kilometers saw some sense of relief. But suddenly one could see worried faces of the scientists when it was announced that there was no contact with the Lander which obviously meant that something had gone awry. The ISRO Chairman approached the Prime Minister and that brief conversation was indication enough to tell the world that the results were not encouraging. What exactly happened would be clarified only after the analysis of the data. It was known later in the morning that the Lander indeed had crash landed; but fortunately the Orbiter was functional. On Monday ISRO announced that Vikram Lander “is lying on the lunar surface in single piece , in a tilted position”. The rover Pragyan is housed in it. Our scientists are still hopeful and are trying to establish contact with the Lander.

The Prime Minister appeared cool and later had a brief interaction with the students witnessing the historic event and left the control room after consoling and boosting the morale of the scientists. A press conference of the Prime minister was announced for 8 AM where he addressed the ISRO scientists and the media. His accolades for the Chandrayan2 team were lavish and his words were reassuring. There was a poignant scene as the Prime Minister was rather stoic and philosophical while bidding goodbye. The PM was seen patting, consoling and hugging a distraught ISRO Chairman Dr. K. Sivan.

International scientific fraternity including NASA has lauded our efforts and have deeply appreciated the Chandrayan2 programme as a shining example of India’s space exploits. There may never be any hundred per cent success in any scientific experiment. ISRO in fact had attempted soft landing of the Lander in the south pole of the moon a destination no other nation has attempted. There are no certainties in such scientific experiments in space. All the major nations have faced failures in their attempts. The Moon Fact Sheet of the NASA says that only 61 out of 109 lunar missions during the last 60 years were successful. The entire crew of three astronauts of Apollo 1 had died in a launch pad fire. The last Israeli lunar attempt, an year back had failed. Our own Chandrayan 1, indigenously developed, was successfully placed in the lunar orbit on November 8, 2008 and after almost an year of struggling with technical snags, eventually failed on August29, 2009.

We now know that the mission was not exactly a complete success. The Orbiter is alive and kicking and can, according to ISRO scientists, send pictures of the moon, may be even for a few years . We also understand that Vikram Lander crash landed but is not broken into pieces. Frantic efforts are on for establishing communication with the Lander. The scientific community would definitely make efforts and that is the beauty of science. Continued efforts and persistence give them hope.

21st November 1963 was a day of great excitement for us in our college hostel. We had come to know from the local newspapers that, India will be launching its first rocket from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket launching Station [TERLS]. This had come up earlier in the year in Thumba, a location close to the magnetic equator in Thiruvananthapuram, not very far from our sprawling college campus . As students we were familiar with the space adventures of the USA and the USSR. Our discussions often centered round the space adventures of the two super powers during the height of the cold war then. We also knew about the Sputnik missions of the USSR and the launching of the first artificial satellite, the first human made object Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 which successfully entered the Earth’s orbit, heralding man’s arrival in the space age. It was a stunning achievement for the Soviet Union nay the whole mankind. In almost a month’s time on November 3, 1957 Sputnik 2 had a traveler, Laika, a dog, the first animal to enter the orbit. The Americans followed with their pioneering lunar mission on 17th August 1958 which was unsuccessful. Initially the Russians had stolen the thunder, but the American soon established themselves as a space super power.

We in our hostel were thrilled about the launch of our first rocket, however small that Sounding Rocket might have been compared to what the super powers had achieved. We waited on the terrace of our assembly building with bated breath and saw India’s first rocket flashing momentarily into the horizon. It was not a grand spectacle as we expected. Later we realized that this rocket launch was the first baby step of our newly established [1962] Indian National Committee for Space Research [INCOSPAR ] headed by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. The Indian Space Research Organization [ISRO] came into existence in 1969 with its headquarters in Bangalore, now Bengaluru. The rest is history!

How the government of India acquired the land for the Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thumba, is a fascinating story. We the student community in Thiruvanthapuram tried to get to know the story behind the land acquisition. There were many newspaper stories and local gossips by the inquisitive residents which also reached us as exaggerated stories. We also conjured up our own stories and discussed animatedly in our hostel.

One of the stories that gained currency was about a team of scientists who had identified the place as the ideal location because its closeness to the magnetic equator. They surveyed the area and zeroed in on a vast stretch of land which was a fishing village, for the station. We came to know from the local media in Thiruvananthapuram that it was Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam, a scientist of the INCOSPAR and its head Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who negotiated with the Latin Bishop of Thiruvananthapuram Rev. Peter Bernard Pereira who readily agreed to hand over the land housing St. Mary Magdalene church and a Bishop’s house for the space center. There was another story floating around that the Bishop had invited the scientists for a church service and asked the congregation’s consent which was readily given.

Decades later when one interviewed Dr. Kalam for his radio biography, he corroborated that the scientists had approached the Bishop who persuaded the reluctant fisher folk to give away their land for the space station. This is how Dr. Kalam has recorded the events in his book, “Ignited Minds: Unleashing The Power Within India”:-

“The Bishop told the congregation, ”My children, I have a famous scientist with me who wants our church and the place I live in 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 up God’s abode for a scientific mission?”.

It is said that there was silence for a while followed by a hearty ‘Amen’ from the congregation who gave their consent and later moved to a new village and built another church.

Some of the facilities of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station [TERLS] are still housed in the St. Mary Magdalene Church and in the old Bishop’s house . The Church was converted into a Space Museum in 1985 and the Bishop’s House, was the first office of the director of TERLS. This account in his book by Dr. Kalam may sound too far fetched and almost fictional to cynics today even as the nation and our scientific community are busy assessing the degree of the fantastic success achieved by Chandrayan 2. After all today’s pride of the nation ISRO skyrocketed from that Church in Thumba!