Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 13 August 2023

The story of ISRO’s origins

Source: By The Indian Express

Chandrayaan-3, the mission that aims to achieve the feat of conducting a “soft” landing on the Moon’s southern pole, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Andhra Pradesh on 14 July 2023.

It will now take approximately 42 days to reach the Moon. Should it conduct a successful landing, India will become only the fourth country – after the United States, Russia, and China – to have done so.

While a successful launch is only the first step towards a long journey for the spacecraft, Isro’s role in carrying it through has seen great appreciation, and it has become a symbol of national pride for many. That has been the case for long, such as in 2014, when the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was inserted into the Martian orbit. The low cost of the mission was also highlighted as an achievement.

Since its inception in 1969, the country’s space agency Isro has carried out altogether 89 launch missions carrying satellites into space. How did the agency chart this course? We take a look.

Early beginnings of a space agency, from a church in Kerala

The history of space activities in India reflects how little by little, institutions centred around space exploration and research were set up and expanded. Indian scientist EV Chitnis recounted in the book From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey, a compilation of essays from those involved in this journey, that the first such organisation was the Physical Research Laboratory set up in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Along with Vikram Sarabhai, a few scientists worked here but lacked adequate funds. Chitnis recalls putting together two boxes and an asbestos sheet as his work table.

However, Sarabhai was able to secure some resources from both the USSR and the US, even during the period of the Cold War rivalry. His efforts paid off, and on 21 November 1963, a small American sounding rocket, known as Nike Apache, took off from Thumba, a fishing hamlet near Trivandrum, Kerala. This place was chosen for meeting certain geography and physics-related criteria, such as being at the magnetic equator, which eased the process of the rocket’s launch.

Sounding rockets are one or two-stage solid propellant rockets used for probing the upper atmospheric regions and for space research. They also serve as easily affordable platforms to test or prove prototypes of new components intended for use in launch vehicles and satellites. “With the establishment of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in 1963 at Thumba, a location close to the magnetic equator, there was a quantum jump in the scope for aeronomy and atmospheric sciences in India,” Isro’s website notes.

Chitnis further adds that in the land acquired, the only “decent building” available was one St Magdalene Church. One of Sarabhai’s early recruits, D Easwaradas, is quoted as saying “The church was our workshop and the bishop’s house was our office.”

The building was later converted into the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre Space Museum in 1985. “It was in this church the first rocket systems were assembled and integrated. The building assumed multifaceted roles in the beginning of ISRO by acting as the first lab and as the main office for scientists in the early days,” the VSSC website notes.


In 1962Nehru and Sarabhai established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) as an autonomous body that was a part of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), then headed by the pioneering Indian scientist Homi J Bhabha.

The ICONOSPAR grew to become the Indian Space Research Organisation in 1969. With the establishment of the ISRO and further with the government of India forming a dedicated Department of Space (DOS) in 1972, research and execution of space-related enterprises got a boost. ISRO was also brought under the DOS.

ISRO now has its headquarters in Bengaluru. Its activities are spread across various centres and units. Launch Vehicles are built at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram; satellites are designed and developed at U R Rao Satellite Centre (URSC), Bengaluru; integration and launching of satellites and launch vehicles are carried out from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), and so on.

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