The Story Of TERLS

TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station) – Its genesis

One of our pastimes while at school in Kazhakootam was to go out and watch the rocket launches from nearby Thumba. The clear line of sight from the hills where the Sainik School was located in Kazhakootam allowed us to see those Sodium vapor trails and take our imagination high and sometimes beyond space. Often we would think about the people behind the launch and on weekends, we would hire cycles by the hour to ride out to frolic in the beaches close by and even cycle down to Veli and go close to Pallithua in Thumba. TERLS (later VSSC) and the many other associated organizations and their special staff buses were always around, and were a part of our growing up years. I thought it would be fun to go down that memory lane and dreg out the story of the launch station and the involvement of stalwarts like Bhaba, Sarabhai and so many others who played their parts in its development.

Some years back, I had written about the scientific importance of Travancore while musing about Swati Tirunal and his observatory. We talked about the magnetic equator and why it is important, but I will review it again. The magnetic equator if you did not know passes through N Travancore, and in the 50’s it was close to Quilon (now Kollam), but one which had been meandering a bit South or North over the years. The line joining all the points on earth where the magnetic needle remains flat or horizontal is called the magnetic equator. The magnetic equator differs significantly from the geographic equator. The magnetic equator passes close to Quilon in India, a little north of Trivandrum, Nigeria, Guinea, Brazil, parts of Malaya and Philippines and finally Peru in South America. Its strongest magnetic section lies between India and Borneo. Directly above the magnetic equator, at altitudes of around 110 km in the atmosphere, exists a system of electric currents. Known as the equatorial electro jet, this has always fascinated scientists. The closer you are to the magnetic equator, the better placed you are to study the electro jet. In the early 1960s, there were very few places in the world close to the magnetic equator with adequate infrastructure to support research in this field, Travancore was one.

You know, the Trivandrum in the 70’s was a sedate place. We could cycle out from Kazhakootam to Trivandrum without difficulty. There were not too many vehicles even on the NH 47 highway and the roads within the city were not so difficult to traverse. English movies would come to Sreekumar and Hindi at Apsara. You could walk from Palayam through the university and the stadium to Statue junction, browse at the British council library, trek down the Ayurveda college junction and bypassing the over bridge, down to Thampanur where the railway and bus stations were located. Or you could trudge straight off past the Pazhavangadi Ganapati temple, Sreekandeswaram, the E Fort, the Padmanabha swami temple and end up at the Chalai bazar. You could walk in peace, drink a bonch (lime juice) from a roadside shop or thattu kada if one got thirsty. Even though the food scene was pretty good, be it veg or non veg, the VRR and the NVRR at the railway station stood tall for the connoisseur.

The richer sect would be sipping their drinks at the clubs around Sasthamangalam or at the Mascot hotel. Outsiders would be camped at some of the star hotels in Kovalam where one could spot bikini clad madamma’s and shorts clad sayips. Meander on and you would see lads sitting on low walls, smoking a Charminar or Scissors cigarettes, eyeing lassies passing by and making unwanted comments, especially near the women’s college environs (then sans the tough Louise Ouwerkerk who was once its principal)! In general it was a clean and disciplined place, except when the red flags came out and strikes, morchas, jathas or sit downs were announced, all converging near the secretariat.

Kazhakootam was considered a faraway place by the city crowd and home only to the sainikam’s (the Sainik school cadets). I presume most people had forgotten the ‘ettuveetil pillamar’ by that time, for one of them had been the lord of Kazhakootam. This was all in the 70’s, so now try imagining the Trivandrum of the 60’s!

If one had to start at the very beginning, you should not start with Vikram Sarabhai like most people would. You would actually start with Homi Bhaba. But I will get into his story another day, suffice to state for now that fortunately for us, Bhaba’s and Sarabhai’s life stories crossed when they both returned to India and pursued their scientific interests at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.  Later, while Bhaba returned to work in his field of Nuclear physics, at Bombay, well-funded by the Tata’s at TIFR, Sarabhai went on to establish the PRL at Ahmedabad, his home town, in order to work on Cosmic rays. The high flying Bhaba quickly established close connections not only at home with Prime Minister Nehru, but also with many eminent scientists all over the globe.

Travancore’s magnetic equator was known already to researchers across the globe. You must note here that in order to study cosmic rays, India is indeed a great location and many a scientist came over just to do that, be it in the southern regions closer to the magnetic equator or the higher altitude locations closer to Kashmir. When RA Millikan, a renowned scientist came over to do some studies in the 40’s, both Bhaba and Sarabhai worked with him, sometimes even borrowing American war planes docked in Bangalore, to fly at high altitudes of 10,000 meters for those tests.  Interestingly Sarabhai had just gotten married and took Mallika along with him to Kashmir during these tests!

Their rapport grew, so also their access to the top educational and research institutions across the globe, generating tremendous goodwill from many top researchers and scientists. Above all, both these brilliant men would teach as visiting professors in elite universities for short periods, providing much exposure to young talent of Indian origin studying there.

During 1954, Sarabhai continued his tests after installing a neutron monitor in Trivandrum. And then it was sometime in 1959 that NASA opened its doors to international cooperation and it made an offer to cooperate in space research with those nations who did not already have a mature space program. In India, the NPL with Krishnan in Delhi had spearheaded India’s space interests, but Sarabhai with his vast connections in France, USA, UK and the USSR found favor with NASA, mainly by working through his friend and mentor, Homi Bhaba who incidentally had by this time become the head of the DAE or Department of Atomic energy. How all that worked out is an interesting story by itself, with a space race of sorts happening in the background between India and Pakistan.

Sarabhai took the initiative by deciding to meet NASA scientists while on a trip to the MIT in the USA. He had two proposals, the first was to create a US - Indian ‘sounding rocket’ program from a launch facility in India near the geomagnetic equator. The idea was that NASA should provide much of the equipment while India would provide the location and the manpower. The second proposal was to have NASA help India establish and operate a satellite tracking and telemetry station. The plan projected Travancore’s unique geographical position, the sounding rocket proposal to study scientific phenomenon over the geomagnetic equator and the telemetry station to ‘close’ gaps in tracking satellites. NASA countered that they would like to discuss these matters with a focused and funded space organization in India rather than Sarabhai’s PRL, a private organization. Krishnan’s NPL did exist but somewhat conveniently for Sarabhai, Krishnan died suddenly and there were only Bhaba and Sarabhai left for NAS to discuss matters with. Nehru provided direction by hinting that if space were to be a priority for India, it would have to be somehow linked to its affluent and influential atomic energy program.

Sarabhai’s PRL was quickly acquired and merged with the DAE which was already well known to the US. By then, the USA had sold 21 tons of heavy water to the DAE, donated books for a library on nuclear energy, and trained and financed over 200 Indians in various nuclear energy facilities in the United States, all through Bhaba’s DAE.

Bhaba was the next to meet up with NASA next in the fall of 1961, visiting Wallops Island. The Americans were a bit reluctant to give rockets to India, quoting a lack of military cooperation between the two countries, unlike Pakistan. Quoting Siddiqui - As a gesture of cooperation, Frutkin agreed to seriously explore the possibility of helping India set up a rocket range. The plan to set up such an organization was already in the offing when Bhabha was being shown through NASA facilities in November but came to fruition early in 1962. The so-called Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was officially set up on 10 February 1962 on the recommendation of the Prime Minister’s SACC headed by Bhabha. To lead INCOSPAR, Bhabha appointed the only logical choice, Vikram Sarabhai from PRL.

In 1961, The UN also got involved in the dissemination of space related technology with the establishment of COPUOS, then listing 28 nations including India, was given a charter which essentially centered on ‘encouragement and facilitation [of space activities] rather than operation.
Of course, behind all this there was the influence of the cold war - the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations gradually enacted a more proactive intervention into India’s efforts to create a space program, driven by the twin and intertwined fears that India would gradually move closer to the Soviet bloc if not helped by the Americans, or that India would develop an atomic bomb if not diverted into space by the Americans.

NASA had found the idea of establishing a ‘facility for launching of sounding rockets near the geomagnetic equator most desirable,’ especially to study ‘high energy neutrons emitted from the sun during periods of great solar activity and suggested launching sodium vapor payloads built by Indians, to very high altitudes. By tracking the trails of the released (and colored) sodium vapor, scientists would be able to investigate the properties of the upper atmosphere near the geomagnetic equator. NASA would provide the rockets, training for scientists, and additional personnel while INCOSPAR would provide the scientific payloads for both experiments, personnel to operate equipment, and, of course, the launch site.

With the help of American representatives, Sarabhai orchestrated the creation of a working group (one of the three) on the establishment of an international rocket launch facility near the equator. Sarabhai’s proposal of making a UN sponsored facility in India was hastily approved by the Indian government within a span of 2 months. Nehru told the Indian parliament that ‘India has agreed to have a rocket launching station on her territory under U.N auspices for international use’ but that ‘only Indian scientists would carry out the work of the station.

One can always wonder about the haste and detect quickly Pakistani activities which had progressed farther, by then. In fact, as soon as the UN sub-committee announcement for the need for an equatorial launch site was made public, Pakistan (its pioneer was Nobel laureate Abdus Salam – who ironically had failed a mechanical test required by the railway engineers to gain a commission in Indian Railways, and moreover they decided that Salam was too young to compete for the job. He later attended Cambridge with Sarabhai!) announced that it wanted to host the program basing its claim on SUPARCO’s advanced program in cooperation with NASA. They had by June 1961, already launched two Nike-Cajun sounding rockets supplied by NASA (‘Rehbar I’ and ‘Rehbar II’) successfully from Sonmiani, about 56 km northwest of Karachi. Salam also informed NASA that he planned to invite Indian scientists to attend a Space Science symposium to be held in Pakistan the following March in 1962.

A frantic project was launched to zoom in and locate potential sites for the rocket launches. In July 1962, EV Chitnis, a student of Vikram Sarabhai was deputed to make a short list of locations near the magnetic equator. After 200 odd sorties in a Dakota plane, he boiled it all down to a couple of locations.

Now if one were to ask me if Sarabhai’s wife had a hand in all these during the 40’s (they got married in 1942), I would say No! for Sarabhai knew about the magnetic equator even before he met Mallika in the 40’s. Sarabhai was so much taken into Cosmic ray studies would have known about Caldecott and his magnetic experiments during his younger days.But, I can be sure they discussed Travancore, for Mrinalini was from nearby Malabar, the sister of Lakshmi Seghal and a daughter of Calicut’s Ammu Swaminathan. 

When the decision came to choose a single locale, Sarabhai invited two NASA representatives, R.G. Bivins, Jr. and Robert T. Duffy, and Laurence J. Cahill, Jr., the cosmic ray physicist from the University of New Hampshire. Later, Duffy and Cahill personally visited a number of the potential sites in Kerala; the consensus choice was a location within a 25-km radius around the town of Quilon (now Kollam) on the coast, partly because Professor Cahill determined that the center of the equatorial electro-jet is above a point very close to Quilon in Kerala. This was the Vellana thuruthu (White Elephant sandbar) location near Karunagapalli. Thumba was the second choice, and the Americans opined that it was too far from the electrojet.

The final choice between Thumba and Karunagapalli was debated for over two months. Sarabhai affirms that the first choice locale at Vellanathuruth was axed due to its very name and the prospect of it becoming a national joke should things not pan out! PR Pisharody from Palghat who was part of the discussions, recalled - I said: "Vellanathuruthu means `the sandbar of the white elephant." ``Pisharody, why do you want to annoy me?'' asked Sarabhai. "I'll not have it here at any cost! No white elephant. The Government will not like it, the United Nations will not like it. We won't get it through. I can't. Shift it. Find another place."

Thumba (Thumba, they say, gets its name from a medicinal plant with white flowers which once grew in abundance there) was formally chosen in Nov 62 as it satisfied important criteria laid by the sponsors. An airport close by at Trivandrum, the low population density near Trivandrum (both from a safety perspective as well as relocation of people who once lived in that fishing hamlet) and the possibility of quick rescues from the sea in case of booster failures. The intent if you recall was to launch sounding rockets to study the atmosphere, for astronomical studies, metrology and ionospheric studies.

There were other important reasons discussed from the Indian perspective. At that point of time, India was facing famines and were importing food under the US PL480 scheme. Studying the monsoon and its vagaries was also high on the list. As you all know, Trivandrum is where the SW monsoon makes its onset over India. So Thumba was ideal from that aspect too. A person responsible for getting it through the government bureaucracy was Lakshmi Menon (Refer my article on her if you want to get to know her), she too encouraged and supported the setting up of the ISRO in her home state of Kerala. Pattom Thanupillai was the Chief Minister (in 1962) and his interest was to have a place of importance in his capital.

The site selected at Thumba lay between the railway line and the sea coast, covering a distance of about two and a half km and measuring about 600 acres. The three persons who did much to assuage the angst among the local population about to be displaced were the local bishop Rev Peter Bernard Pereira, the Bishop of Trivandrum Victor Vincent Dereere (a Belgian) and the district collector Madhavan Nair. Then again, the fisher folk did not want their church to become a workshop as Sarabhai had originally planned, they eventually settled on allowing its use as a library. Kalam mentions that the prayer room was his first laboratory, while the bishop's room was his design and drawing office. It is believed that the church was originally built by St Xavier after the Parava conversions, later becoming the Magdalene church after a Magdalene statue was washed ashore.

Even though the locale had been decided and construction of the infrastructure had started, things were not easy for Sarabhai. Import difficulties meant that some equipment could not be brought in from the USA. The French CNES agreed to help based on Blamont’s special relationship with Sarabhai. Federov from the Russian Hydro Meteorological Service helped with vibration tables and a helicopter. NASA would provide four Nike-Cajun and nine Nike-Apache rockets, respectively, for each experiment, plus launch trailers, cameras and so on. A number of engineers were trained in NASA, such as R. Aravamudan and D.Easwardas from the DAE’s research center at Trombay; Pramod Kale, A.S. Prakasa Rao, and B. Ramakrishna Rao, all from PRL in Ahmedabad; and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a brilliant young engineer from the Aeronautical Development Establishment in Bangalore. There was also H.G.S. Murthy who had just gotten his doctorate from the University of Minnesota where Blamont had been based. Interestingly, they were all trained together with a batch of Pakistani scientists. Eventually, they all returned to India in 1963, ready for the first rocket launch. The facility was called the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station or TERLS.

I don’t believe any of the returnees were ready for Trivandrum or the primitive facilities at Thumba, after their comfortable tenure at NASA in America. Yes, they had cultural difficulties in the US, but well, it was no different for them in Trivandrum. Perhaps Kalam adjusted quickly, but the others took a while to adjust to the Kerala food and manners. Some Americans accompanied them too, namely Reginald R. Hindle and James F. Andrews, to help with the preparations, as well as a few other NASA employees from its main office in Washington, DC.

Their stay at the Indira Bhavan lodge near the secretariat, their experiments with Kerala food at the railway restaurant - Thampanoor, their riding around in bicycles to go places and get things done, their preparations of launch vehicles and rockets with payloads on the rear carrier and so on have been gleefully recounted in many newspaper articles, especially as connected to Abdul Kalam who went on to become India’s president after a great professional career and spending many years of his life at Thumba.

Ramabhadran (Dan) explains - In the early days, before the Gulf boom, anybody wearing a pant and shirt in Trivandrum was presumed to be a ‘Rocket man’ as the locals wore only a ‘mundu’ (dhoti) and baniyan (vest),”. Kalam would occasionally saunter along to Xavier hotel for his egg roast. “The church was the only solid building. The rest were fishermen’s thatched-roof shelters. So amidst pigeons, sweltering heat, humidity, constant power failures and non-existent roads we set to work to achieve Sarabhai’s catch-phrase plan of ‘leapfrogging technologies’.”  The Europeans after a series of failures had luckily decided to abandon their plan to build an all-European Satellite Launch vehicle. They were scrapping their brand-new satellite tracking and telemetry stations in Australia when Sarabhai sent ‘Buddy’, Murthy and Dan to lay our hands on the equipment. We got them at 10 per cent of the original cost.

Geeta, his wife adds - We would go in the evenings to the Rocket Recreation Club (opposite the Raj bhavan) which Dan and Kalam and some other pioneering young men had set up in an old colonial bungalow called Ingeldine. They enthusiastically converted it into a club with two badminton courts, a table tennis table and a room for cards players. Kalam, like the rest of us, was an enthusiastic badminton player.

On 21st Nov 1963, the first sounding rocket was launched. Many others have written about the great difficulties the group faced in getting the rocket to launch, so I won’t spend too much time on it. It was a fabulous event, but regrettably it did not get too much coverage outside India, with JF Kennedy’s unfortunate assassination occurring the very next day.

On 4 January 1964, a six-member team from the United Nations, representing its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, arrived on a week-long visit at Sarabhai’s invitation to inspect whether the facilities at Thumba were suitable for official UN sponsorship. The team unanimously recommended to the UN that India’s offer be accepted. This was obviously a blow to the other nations who had been vying for this blessing, particularly, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, and especially, Pakistan. Another factor was enthusiastic support from the Americans, French, and Soviet delegations – especially the Soviets – who saw India rather than Pakistan as a more favorable spot for this kind of activity. On 21 December 1965, at the 20th Session of the UN General Assembly, the international body passed a resolution officially bestowing UN sponsorship of the Indian facility. In return, India offered to dedicate TERLS to the United Nations as a goodwill gesture.

If Thumba and TERLS was a fulfilled dream of Sarabhai, his relationship with Mrinalini suffered, a story which is a sad and complicated one. Bhaba had passed away in 1966, in a mysterious plane crash over Switzerland, Vikram had been tasked with so many more responsibilities. While things were outwardly looking up for TERLS, Sarabhai was under great stress due to a multitude of reasons, his departure from the family chemical business, the issues and rivalry at the DAE with Homi Sethna, his own relationship with Kamala Choudhry and its effects on the running of IIM-A, as well as the creation of ISRO. His special relationship with Indira Gandhi was also trending south. Unfortunately, Sarabhai passed away suddenly in a hotel at Kovalam, an event which is still discussed by those who believe it was unnatural.

After the death of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai on December 30, 1971, TERLS was renamed as VSSC or the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in his honor. The international community also named a crater on the moon after him.

Years later the Indian President Kalam hosted Geetha Aravamudan at the Rose garden in the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises at Delhi and she recounted - Those were wonderful days again when we relived our Trivandrum youth while walking in the Rose Garden or sitting next to the musical fountain sipping the “bonji” he had got specially made. He even served fried potatoes in a small dinner he hosted for us and proudly told me he had taught the cooks to make it the way he liked it.

ISRO a Personal History – Ramabhadran and Geeta Aravamudan
Vikram Sarabhai – Amrita Shah
Science, geography, and nation: the global creation of Thumba - Asif A. Siddiqi
From fishing hamlet to red planet – PV Manoranjan Rao and others
Wings of fire – APJ Abdul Kalam
Almost all the inputs for this article comes from the first three of the references below. Siddiqi’s paper covers much ground and provided many an original input.



Renjith Leen said...

Interesting read... However, I would like to point out that the local bishop mentioned in the article-Rev Dr Peter Bernard Pereira-was not a Belgian. He was the first native Bishop of the Trivandrum Latin Catholic Diocese. He hailed from a small village named Murukkumpuzha.

Maddy said...

Thanks Renjith
Thanks to your sharp eye, I saw that I had missed something in the final edit. the sentence should read - The three persons who did much to assuage the angst among the local population about to be displaced were the local bishop Rev Peter Bernard Pereira, the Bishop of Trivandrum Victor Vincent Dereere (a Belgian) and the district collector Madhavan Nair. So corrected, thank you!!

Nerambokx said...

Nice Read...
Remember reading G Madhavan nair (former ISRO chairman) reminiscence about watching the initial launch from the top of the mechanical department building of TVM Engg college

Maddy said...

Thanks Neramboks..
Those days mimicry artists used to make fun of the launches which failed...

Vijay said...

Thanks Maddy for the delightful look into the early days of the Indian space program. Your opening reference to bicycle trips to Thumba reminded me of cycling down to the village of Muthorai near Ooty, where a radio telescope was built by TIFR. I remember the wind whistling through the structure.

Maddy said...

thanks Vijay
I wonder what the people at the radio telescope station do. they would be looking at radio scan oscillograms i presume all the time...

Unknown said...

Very interesting article. I have heard that Kollam was the original choice and was not really knowing the reason for shifting the location. During the period there were lot of activity going on to develop our on solid propellant and the first propellant developed was named as "Mrinal". Quite recently ISRO celebrated the 50th year of this achievement,honoring the pioneers of solid propellant.

Maddy said...

Thanks, you have given me something to check up on!! Mrinal...

Dinesh S Nair said...

Are you a Sainik.. My goodness.. I am from 88 batch outgoing.. Prasad Srs.. Roll No 1834..

Maddy said...

Yes, Dinesh,
am a kazhak, 1974 batch, Veluthampi..
nice to meet you..virtually that is...