India's Moon Mission: Way to the south pole landing
Could any of those good people of Thumba, who played a vital supporting role in the making of India’s first rocket, have imagined that six decades later, India would hoist its flag on the moon?
Chinese master Laozi is credited with the saying: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Chandrayaan-3’s journey ended on 23 August 2023 at 6:04 pm when its lander touched down on the lunar surface about 600 miles off the moon’s South Pole and unfurled the tricolour. For us Indians on earth, it was a moment of pure joy.
Let’s flashback to how the lunar journey began in India. The United Nations wanted to support the setting up of a rocket launching station. There were three contenders—India, Pakistan and Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known). The station had to be in an area where the magnetic needle, when freely suspended, remained horizontal.
There was one problem. The areas identified as suitable in all three countries were densely populated. Thousands of people would have to be evicted and their houses or dwelling units destroyed. It would have been a huge human rights violation. The UN did not want its image to be sullied in this manner.
Neither Pakistan nor Ceylon had a magic wand to clear areas of human habitation in their respective countries. That was when Prime Minister Nehru contacted the Kerala government to explore the possibility of setting up in a place called Thumba.
A short drive from the state capital Trivandrum, as Thiruvananthapuram was then called, it was home to a community of fisherfolk. Nehru convinced chief minister R. Shankar about the significance of the proposed Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) and how it would one day transform India’s image as a land of snake-charmers and rope-tricksters to a nation with the largest pool of scientists.
Shankar’s second-in-command was P.T. Chacko, who held both the home and revenue portfolios. In other words, he had the power to acquire the land and evict the people forcibly. But that was not what he did.
Chacko knew that close to Thumba at Pallithura there was an imposing church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Considered the ‘apostle of apostles’, Mary Magdalene is the first person to whom the resurrected Christ is said to have appeared.
Chacko also knew that the area Nehru was eyeing for the rocket project was inhabited by Latin Catholics. They had immense faith in Mary Magdalene as their lodestar, especially while fishing in deep waters. Humble people whose devotion was unwavering.
Chacko had a brainwave. He called the bishop of Trivandrum, Rt Rev Dr Vincent Dereira OCD (Order of the Discalced Carmelites), who was assisted by the auxiliary bishop, Rt Rev Dr Peter Bernard Pereira. The former was a Belgian, the latter a local.
Chacko, also a Catholic, talked to the bishop and convinced him that nothing mattered more for the church than the progress of the nation. “We should not be found wanting when the nation has called for [a] sacrifice,” he implored the ecclesiastical authorities.
Soon afterwards, Dr Vikram Sarabhai came to Trivandrum. Acting on Chacko’s advice, Sarabhai, then chairman of INCOSPAR—the Indian National Committee for Space Research, which was reconstituted as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)—called on the bishop. He was accompanied by a young recruit, who later became famous as the ‘Missile Man of India’ and, eventually, the President of India.
When Sarabhai and A.P.J Abdul Kalam met Bishop Pereira, he suggested that they attend mass on Sunday. (Did this Hindu–Muslim duo wonder if it was an attempt to convert them to Catholicism?) Come Sunday, Sarabhai and Kalam kept their word and took their seats at the Church of Mary Magdalene.
The bishop introduced the two guests to his congregation and said they were there to requisition the church and his own house for a scientific project being initiated by the government of India. “When Jesus could sacrifice his life to redeem us, why can’t we sacrifice our houses?” he asked. When he concluded his sermon with a word of prayer, the entire flock chorused, “Amen”. All were in agreement.
In his autobiography, Wings of Fire, Abdul Kalam describes how the church became ISRO’s first laboratory. The scientists stayed in the bishop’s house. The cattle shed became a wing of the laboratory. What followed was a story of faith and grit.
About 500 families were relocated to another place nearby so that they could continue earning their livelihoods. Some were given jobs at the lab. Bishop Pereira was instrumental in building as many as 220 houses for the displaced. A new church, though less impressive than the old one, was built to meet their spiritual needs.
There were political forces that tried to instigate the people against the church leadership but they did not succeed because the people’s faith in their spiritual leaders was unalloyed. Some of the people of Pallithura only got their title deeds a few years ago. Yet, they never complained. The idols of Mother Mary, Jesus and Joseph were carried away in gunny bags to make room for scientific equipment. Nobody considered it sacrilegious.
Could any of those good people of Thumba, who played a vital supporting role in the making of India’s first rocket, have imagined that six decades later, India would become the fourth country in the world to hoist its flag on the moon?
If not for a photographer who documented it for posterity, who would have believed our space programme had such a humble beginning? Historic images show rocket parts arriving in Thumba on a bullock-cart, being shifted to the assembly area on a bicycle.
On 21 November 1963, at 6.25 p.m. when India’s first rocket blasted off from Thumba beach, one of my friends, John Philipose, had the good fortune to witness it. He recalls that moment: “We were all excited. We thought something big would happen. In the end, the rocket took off into the air leaving a [trail] of smoke. To me, it seemed like a version of the firework display at the Shiva temple in Thrissur.”
Incidentally, Philipose is a museologist, who guided the government in setting up many museums, including the Parliament Museum in New Delhi. One museum, though not linked to Philipose, is pertinent here—the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSCC) Museum, located in the Mary Magdalene Church, Thumba, which showcases India’s space journey.
In any discussion on India’s space programme, let us not assume that India was ploughing a lonely furrow. There are so many to thank from that very first launch at Thumba—the US, for the two-stage Nike–Apache rocket; France, for the sodium vapour payload; the Soviet Union, whose Mi-4 helicopter provided the range clearance; and, of course, India’s rocket scientists and payload engineers.
I read with great interest ISRO chief S. Somanath quoted as saying that all the scientific principles were contained in the Vedas, which Europeans appropriated for their own scientific pursuits. I wish he had quoted at least one verse that helped him and his agency in launching Chandrayaan-3.
Nonetheless, I have great admiration for Somanath, who studied at the Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Engineering in Kollam. The founder was a Muslim with rudimentary education, who went on to become the ‘Cashew King’, employing 30,000 people across 12 cashew processing factories. Musaliar (1897–1966) used his personal wealth to set up the best engineering college east of the Suez Canal. I am happy that Somanath is the product of that vision.
Our space mission is on the right track. It has many ambitious programmes up its sleeve. One of them is the solar mission, Aditya-L1. A manned mission to the moon is also on the anvil.
The Russians have proved that they are no longer a space power, busy as they are warring against Ukraine. Their lunar mission had to be abandoned on August 19. Of course, China is far ahead of India in space technology—but we are close behind.
It is unfortunate that even as our scientists work towards taking the country forward, there are forces that would pull us back to mythical periods when esoteric plastic surgery was conducted, and people travelled in aeroplanes that moved in all four directions.
What we need to build is the scientific temperament. If the giant leap of Chandrayaan-3’s successful moon-landing makes us more scientific in our approach to life, it will be one small step towards making India truly the ‘Vishwa Guru’. Otherwise, we will remain caught up in calling each other Hindus, Muslims, Christians—forgetting that we are all Indians.
(An earlier version of this piece first appeared in indiancurrents.org)