T’PURAM: Far from the research stations and labs, India's space programme began at a church in what was once a tiny fishing village called Thumba, not far from Thiruvanathanapuram airport in Kerala.
In 1962, when the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established, father of India's nuclear programme Homi Bhabha, along with Vikram Sarabhai, evaluated a number of sites in Kerala to establish a rocket station. Finally, they zeroed in on Thumba.
But there was a hitch. Fisherfolk of the village, emotionally attached to the place, particularly the St Mary Magadelene's Church had to be convinced to give up the place. The task fell on a former bishop of Thiruvananthapuram. During a Sunday congregation, he spoke to the villagers about the advantages of a space programme. He then asked if they had any objections if the village was handed over to the space department. The villagers paused only a while, and chorused, "Amen", indicating that they were ready to give up their village.
Space experts later commented that that it was an auspicious beginning for India's space missions. The project was initiated with the blessings of the villagers who were resettled. The small place of worship became the mainstay for the team of rocket scientists, including A P J Abdul Kalam. The first drawings of some of the earliest rockets were made in this church, now a space museum.
The conditions were anything but comfortable. Scientists travelled daily from Thiruvananthapuram in rickety buses, carrying lunch bought at the railway station.
Thumba was soon turned into the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. The first sounding rocket, Nike Apache supplied by NASA, was launched in November 1963. After this, many sounding rockets, which study the atmosphere, lifted off from Thumba including those from the US, Russia, Japan, France and Germany.
Many rocket parts were carried by the scientists on bicycles from one place to another within Thumba. Even today, sounding rockets take off every week — only it is now a modern station.
Encouraged by the success of the sounding rocket programme, Sarabhai told his team that India had to develop its own satellite launch capability. For this, Sriharikota in AP was taken over by the space department from the Yanadi tribals. This too received the support and cooperation of the locals.
India hasn't quite gone cycling to the moon, but scientists and villagers will all remember the church where the space expedition began in right earnest.
6 months ago