Technology, History, and Place

Tag: rocketry

Quick thought: History and rocketry

Demo-2 rocket launch

The Demo-2 mission lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 30, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.)

Almost two months ago, SpaceX and NASA launched a rocket with two astronauts on board from Florida to the International Space Station. The mission, dubbed Demo-2 or “Launch America,” got a lot of media coverage, in a media landscape that was desperate to talk about literally anything besides the Coronavirus pandemic that had brought economic and social life to a standstill in the United States and much of the rest of the world.

Even without Coronavirus, Demo-2 likely still would have gotten plenty of attention. Not only was this the first time astronauts were launched into space from the United States since the Space Shuttle was retired nine years ago, it was also a very cool mission. The rocket was a SpaceX Falcon 9, which has a reusable first stage that lands tail-first on a barge in the ocean. (Except for the Solid Rocket Boosters of the Space Shuttle, first stages of rockets generally fall into the ocean and are never recovered.) The spacecraft that the astronauts rode in, SpaceX Dragon, has a sleek interior design that seems to have gotten aesthetic inspiration from Star Trek.

Both NASA and SpaceX had public affairs announcers that covered the mission, and they gushed about how this mission was “one for the history books,” and similar phrases. This was the first time that a private company had launched astronauts to the International Space Station (albeit with funding and lots of other support from NASA), but otherwise I’m not sure what was really historic about the mission. As David Edgerton points out in The Shock of the Old (2007), rocketry on the whole hasn’t been all that significant in human history. Just because something is visible to the public—in this case, through newspapers, broadcast television, Life magazine, National Geographic, NASA.gov, Twitter, and YouTube—doesn’t mean that it is historically significant. I would add that coolness also does not equal historical significance.

If anything, the Demo-2 mission was one for the space trivia books, not history books. I doubt that anybody but space enthusiasts will remember that this mission even happened 10 or 20 years from now.

India’s launch into space activity

On the evening of November 21, 1963, a two-stage Nike-Apache rocket shot skyward from Thumba, a spot on the Malabar Coast of southern India. The rocket carried a sodium-vapor experiment that produced a cloud as the rocket ascended. The zigzag shape of the cloud indicated the prevailing winds at different altitudes. Observers at stations as far as 250 km (155 mi) away reported spotting the cloud with the naked eye.1

It was the first launch of a research rocket in India—a nation that would go on to develop its own indigenous satellite launchers. But in 1963, India still had the better part of two decades to go before its first successful satellite launch with the SLV-3 booster. India’s first research rocket launch was a cooperative effort with the United States and France. The American space agency NASA provided the Nike-Apache rocket, which was based on the first stage of a retired surface-to-air missile. France’s CNES provided the sodium-vapor experiment. As Homi Bhabha, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, remarked after the launch, “The NASA has launched us into space activity. We hope this is the beginning of increasing and continuing cooperation between India and the US.”2

As part of the sounding rocket program, NASA brought a small team of Indian scientists and engineers to the United States for training at the agency’s Langley, Goddard, and Wallops Island facilities. One of the men on this team was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who would gain distinction from his later work on Indian space launchers and missiles, then cap off his career with a term as President of India. At NASA, the team received basic technical training for assembling imported rockets, launching, tracking, and data acquisition. Their hosts at NASA did not give them any information about building their own rockets. The Nike-Apache launch in India is a case of the transfer of a technological artifact (in this case, a rocket), but not the knowledge of how it was made. It would ultimately be the French who passed knowledge about rocket construction on to the Indian program, when they provided for the license manufacture of their Centaure rocket in India.3

The launch of a NASA rocket was an example of especially close Indo-American technical cooperation in the early independence period. That same month, the US Air Force offered training to the Indian Air Force on portable radar sets that the American government had donated to India. The Nike-Apache and its launching equipment likely came to India on one of the same cargo planes that brought supplies for Exercise Shiksha, as the joint air exercise was called. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, the United States would continue to offer technical aid to India on programs as diverse as agriculture, public health, and power generation. But except for the period around Exercise Shiksha, the United States hoped to avoid alienating its ally Pakistan by keeping its distance from any Indian programs with a clear military application. Despite Dr. Bhabha’s hopes for increasing Indo-American cooperation, rocketry had an especially obvious military application. Thus it would be the French, rather than the Americans, who would pass knowledge of rocket construction on to India.

  1. Gopal Raj, Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme (New Delhi: Viking, 2000), 16-17. []
  2. “India fires first rocket for space research,” Hindustan Times, November 22, 1963. []
  3. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, with Arun Tiwari, Wings of Fire: An Autobiography (Hyderabad: Universities Press, 1999), 37-9; Raj, Reach for the Stars, 32. Note that the license-production of French rockets was only a part of Indian rocket development. There was also a parallel program of Indian-designed sounding rockets, known as Rohini. Knowledge from Rohini as well as Centaure was applied in the SLV-3 program. []

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