This is Part 1 in a two part series on our trip to watch the launch of Chandrayaan-2, the Indian space agency’s mission to land a rover on the moon. Read Part 2: Getting to the launch view gallery
I’ve never seen a live rocket launch before. I’m guessing very few have. According to ISRO, 7500 people witnessed the Chandrayaan-2 launch from the launch view gallery. Compare this with the tens of thousands for sporting events, concerts and political rallies. It is said that the Apollo 11 mission to the moon inspired a whole generation to pursue their dreams. ISRO launched Chandrayaan-2 on July 22, 2019, almost exactly 50 years after Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped on the moon on July 21, 1969.
When ten from Hyderabad decided to go for the launch, none knew how to get there. Eventually, we witnessed India’s most powerful launch vehicle, the GSLV Mark III, lift off with its payload from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre’s Second Launch Pad. We heard and felt the engines roar and saw it propel the payload into and beyond the clouds.
The idea of going to Sriharikota for the launch was seeded on July 14, a day before the original launch date. The discussion started on a WhatsApp group with people sharing whatever they knew about getting to the launch site. This helped immensely. Although we would not make it for the launch initially scheduled for July 15, we had just enough information to plan a trip for the next launch.
It turned out that the July 15 launch was called off less than an hour before scheduled time. Reports suggested it was a leak in the cryogenic stage, a technology mastered by only five other countries. ISRO was now working on a new launch date and there was speculation that if not July, the launch would be postponed to as far as September.
As observed in The Wire, ISRO seemed to want to try and make the July 31 deadline. The space agency had a fresh note-to-airmen(NOTAM, an alert issued before the launch) effective on July 17 between 2:30 am and 3:30 am, and for July 18 to 31 between 2 pm and 3:30 pm. ISRO was keeping its options open.
On July 18, the new launch date and time was announced — July 22, 2.43PM.
Sriharikota is 600–700 km from Hyderabad, depending on where you start from and which route you take. The closest town to Sriharikota is a place 16km away called Sullurupeta. Two days before launch, we put out a form and booked two vehicles for the first ten who registered. Getting a minibus would’ve been cheaper, but we were late applying for an inter-state permit. We left at 11pm on Sunday and reached Sullurpeta at around 8am the next day. We had breakfast with filter coffee at the popular Komala Vilas and checked into three rooms at a nearby inn.
Five of the ten left for the site at 12.30pm, two hours before launch. The plan was to find a suitable viewing spot and pass on the information to the others. We took a rickshaw because the drivers needed all the rest they could get.
As we moved along the sole road over Pulicat Lake towards Sriharikota, the others left for the site from the inn. We would send them the location once we figured it out ourselves. Problem was, network and data don’t work inside Sriharikota.
The five of us reached the main entrance to the island guarded by CISF and other security personnel. One of the guards was asking people to take the road to the right for the launch view gallery.
ISRO opens registrations for the gallery three days before every launch. By the time we knew about this, the seats were all booked and registrations closed. The alternative was to watch it from the lakebed. We travelled a long way for this, we had to push our luck. We followed the crowd who had registered and boarded a shuttle bus. Just then, one CISF guard boarded and addressed everyone: “Yahaan sab register kiye hain na?” (Has everyone here registered?”). This would’ve been the end of the road for us had he not followed it up with “Nahin kiye ho to jaake kar lena” (Register on the spot if you haven’t). The joy! I would’ve kissed the guard if he didn’t have the gun. We were going to the launch view gallery.