My goodness.. Used to seeing satellite launches on the idiot box with a DD commentator singing lullabies, I was dumbstruck to see the entire infrastructure in person. I had this wonderful opportunity when my Dept organised a visit to the Satish Dawan Space Center at Sriharikota, the prime space port in India. It is very difficult to convey my excitement entirely, but I will try…
The SDSC is located on an island along the Bay-of-Bengal coast, near Sullurpeta (Nellore Dist, AP). It spans about 40k acres and houses extensive facilities apart from the launchpads themselves. You could probably spend a day at each of these facilities and still remain extremely puzzled about the way things work. (If you are a student of engineering, chances are that you will feel even more puzzled than a layman!) Propellant preparation, Propellant Storage, Rocket Motor assemblies, Static testing facilities, Vehicle Assembling, Launch Pads, Contol Rooms, Tracking & Telemetry Stations.. they are all there . And we saw most of them. SDSC is all about size/scale.. size of the vehicle (50 mts), size of the tower (70mts) that supports the vehicle, size of Vehicle Assembly buliding (80 mts) , scale of manpower involved (~800 per mission), sheer scale of engineering problems faced (ex. launch pad should stand a cyclone!.. this is like holding a pencil inverted on your palm with a blower near you), impossible to imagine accuracy and precision in execution of almost every aspect of the mission.
The above image shows the PSLV ready for launch from the first launch pad. The building that you see in the background is the Vehicle Assembly building for the first launch pad. It is ~80 mts tall (which is like a 7/8 storey building) tall.. and that thing actually moves. Here, you see it retracted to abt 200 mts away from the launch pad. Before the launch, this bulding would be right at the pad and will be used extensively to assemble the vehicle on the pad. If you are wondered as to how such a massive building can be moved .. here is a better one:
Here, U r seeing the PSLV (fully assembled in a bulding that is stationary) being moved to the “launch slot”(the second launch pad in this case). This is a 50 mts monster and it is moved for about a km .. No.. I am not joking..It is really moved a kilometer. The whole process takes about 2 days. Note that it is supported only at the bottom. And all this with the delicate satellite on top of the assembly, requiring temperature control inside the satellite bay etc etc. This is just a sample. There are few things abt these missions that u can’t be fascinated about.
And ya.. the mission control room did look the way it does on TV. Also, we got a look at the microphone into which the “ten.. nine.. eight..” goes. I got the seat of some technical officer in the VIP gallery while one of my friends got to be Dr.Kalam (They still had stickers with names of dignitaries on the chairs). We were given a short demo of a typical flight. They ran the data from a real flight and we saw the graphs that pop up in our TV sets. One of our department mates is an engineer at VSSC. He is part of the launch vehicle team and has seen 6 launches. It was an entertaining experience to hear him talk enthusiastically about his work. In particular, he singled out period between the failure of the gslv launch and the subsequent relaunch(a month or so later) as being particularly stressful. They had put their heart and soul into the mission .. only to see a liquid booster under-perform. Ofcourse, everyone was relieved that the software detected this and stopped the launch countdown,with no manual intervention. In the next one month, engineers at SHAR had poured their heads over replacing the faulty stage without disturbing the rest of the assembly. After many sleepless nights, GSLV did fly!
Apart from the occasional govt award and credit in peer-circles, these people get very little recognition. They don’t get paraded before the TV like the NASA engs, nor do they have a “ISRO TV” to keep talking to the public. When a scientist gets a Padma award.. who cares?? Rahul Dravid got it.. that is what matters. SRK’s filmfare award would be even more popular. In a country that cares very little about science and scientists, ISRO’s success story is an astounding achievement. Hail ISRO and its engineers!