On watching a rocket launch (Part 2)

This is the second and final part of the two part series on our trip to watch the launch of Chandrayaan-2, a mission by the Indian space agency ISRO to land a rover on the moon. Read Part 1: Getting to Sriharikota.

The minibus took us to a pandal with registration desks and security checks. First preference was given to uniformed school kids followed by those who pre-registered. The longest queue was for spot registrations and we stood in line waiting our turn. It had the signature desi style of a queue at the back, bunching up near the counter with a crowd hovering over the lone pass-issuing authority.

With under 30 minutes left, both visitors and authorities could feel the pressure. Then came some neat bureaucratic jugaad from ISRO — “We can get everyone inside in time only with your cooperation. We are now issuing passes only for groups of over 10 people”, the supervisor said. He then repeated what he said, slowly, “With your cooperation… groups of over 10… register together”. It then dawned on everyone — random people grouped together, checked each other’s identification, probably made a few new friends and registered in groups of over 10. Things were back on track.

We registered ourselves in a group of 12, us ten plus two senior folks from Chennai. Now we had to wait for the other five to turn up. While a couple of us waited, the rest took the shuttle bus to the gallery. Finally, with under 10 minutes left three of the remaining five arrived. We tried our best the find the other two but couldn’t. The shuttle had left with its last set of passengers. We now had to cover the 1 km stretch from the security check to the gallery on foot with a few minutes left. We sprinted and reached the gallery with under 3 minutes to launch. The eight of us who made it found each other and sat together.

The launch view gallery at Sriharikota

The launch view gallery at Sriharikota

It was an atmosphere of celebration even before the launch. People were excited just to be there. With under a minute left on the clock my mind turned to the two who, after having travelled for over 8 hours and 600km, were going to miss the launch. The journey back will not be easy.

As the countdown went to under 10 seconds, everyone joined in. There was an audio-visual system setup for us. The video and sound quality were poor. The images were hardly visible and the speakers were cracking at their limit. But who cares? We were there to watch the launch live! We only had to figure out where to look.

The launchpad is somewhere behind this forest cover

The launchpad is somewhere behind this forest cover

3…2…1… the rockets on the screen light up. People cheer. We all wait, looking up at the horizon. Just then a small fireball starts to rise from amidst the trees. It is surreal. Everyone yells in absolute joy, screaming their lungs out. As the fireball rises up, we can feel the weight it carries. The GSLV Mark 3 is the equivalent of a 15 storey building with a liftoff mass of 640 tonnes. The trail of fire behind it is multiple times that size. It looks like this absolute giant of a rocket is lumbering through the atmosphere, pushing everything out of its way with brute force.

As it climbs, the crowd quietens. The sound from its engines has finally travelled the six kilometre distance from the launchpad to reach us. It is magnificent! It resonates across the region, a loud low pitched roar of a gigantic beast in a tearing hurry to get to space. You can feel the vibrations in your chest. The GSLV 3 finally reaches the cloud cover and goes right through, covering the surrounding clouds in a blaze of bright orange. The sounds linger on and hold everyone’s attention. The beast is on its way to space.

We were tired, throats dry but adrenaline still pumping. To see this rocket was to see the achievements of all of India, its leadership, bureaucracy, education, industry, infrastructure, warts and all coming together in perfect harmony. The skill, will and perseverance of the scientists and technicians shone through in bright colours of blazing orange. It felt like the eagerness of mankind to explore was alive and kicking. Despite our limitations, India is willing and able to join the space explorers. Because of our limitations, India is showing the world new ways to do it.

The inspiration and happiness this event brings may be different for you and me. I work in a government setup and believe ISRO is pushing the boundaries of what government can achieve. Here in Hyderabad, it is bringing together a community of hardware enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who will shape tomorrow’s product development and manufacturing industries.

Ambitious space programs are often fuelled by nationalism. They compete for limited resources and need brave, visionary leaders backing them. Only time will tell how such programs have inspired this generation. Here’s hoping India’s space program continues to grow. In 2021–2022 ISRO plans to launch India’s first manned spaceflight, Gaganyaan. I’ll be at the registrations counters looking to join a group of over 10.

PS: The two who we thought missed the launch didn’t miss it. They got a pass fairly quickly and reached with over 5 minutes left!