Isro PSLV-C37 record breaking mission run up: A history of rockets and launch vehicles in India

The history of rockets in India goes back to 1780, when the army of Tipu Sultan successfully used weaponised rockets against invading British forces.


The history of rockets in India goes back to 1780, when the army of Tipu Sultan successfully used weaponised rockets against invading British forces in the Battle of Pollilur.

Known as Mysore Rockets, it was the first time ever that the propellant was enclosed in iron tubes, which enabled higher bursting pressure in the combustion chamber, which generated more thrust, and allowed the rockets to travel longer.

The rockets had a range of over 2 kilometers, and were mounted with swords. The rockets were inaccurate and likely to cause chaos, and were soon forgotten because of improvements in other weapons. Rockets would not make a comeback in India till the start of the Indian Space Program in the 1960s.

Isro PSLV-C37 record breaking mission run up: A history of rockets and launch vehicles in India

Image: Nasa.

With the live transmission of the 1960 Tokyo Olympic games by an American communications satellite, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program, realised the potential of communication satellites. Sarabhai convened a meeting at Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmadabad, of scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and communication experts to kick start the Indian space program. The Physical Research Laboratory was then a precursor to Isro, and is now a part of the Indian Department of Space.

St Mary Magdalene Church, the site of the first rocket launch in India

St Mary Magdalene Church, the site of the first rocket launch in India. Image: Isro.

St Mary Magdalene Church, in a fishing village called Thumba, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram was chosen as a base for indigenous rocket launches because of its proximity to the magnetic equator. The Church is considered a mecca for rocket scientists in India and Isro still uses the facility for launching sounding rockets. There is a space museum housed within the Church.

The first sounding rocket launched from the Thumba base in 1963 kickstarted the Indian Space Program. The rockets used were imported Russian M-100 and French Centaur models. The first rocket launched by India was transported to the Thumba base on the carrier of a bicycle.

Image: Tkayala

Image: Tkayala

The experience gained from sounding rocket launches was instrumental in the development of Isro. From 1975 onwards, all sounding rocket launches were consolidated under the Rohini Sounding Rocket (RSR) programme.

On 10 August, 1979, there was an unsuccessful maiden attempt at a Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) spaceflight. The second SLV-3 spaceflight managed to put into orbit a Rohini satellite. The rocket was launched from the Sriharikota base, and India became the sixth nation to join the exclusive club of space-faring nations.

The successful SLV launch paved the way for more advanced launch vehicles such as the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), the hugely successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

The PSLV-C2 mission in preparation. Image: Isro.

The PSLV-C2 mission in preparation. Image: Isro.

The first flight of a PSLV took place on 20 September, 1993. The IRS-1E Satellite on board could not be deployed into orbit. This is the only failure of the PSLV so far. The first operational flight, PSLV-G on 27 September 1997 saw the fourth stage underperform, but the satellite used its own propellant to enter the correct orbit. The PSLV has had a flawless record since then.

The PSLV-C2 mission on 26 May, 1999 was the first time a PSLV rocket was used to place into orbit multiple satellites in a single flight. This was an important step in boosting launch capacity and reducing the cost of launching a single satellite. The Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS-P4) was the primary payload, with the Korean KitSat-3 and the German DLR-TubSat as co-passengers.

The PSLV-C5 launch earned the PSLV the title of Isro's

The PSLV-C5 launch earned the PSLV the title of Isro's "workhorse". ImagE: Isro.

The PSLV-C5 launch on 17 October, 2003 saw six consecutive PSLV flights that were successful in their missions. The launch cemented the position of PSLV as the "workhorse" launch vehicle of the Indian space program. On board was the Indian remote sensing satellite, ResourceSat-1. On 28 April, 2008, the PSLV-C9 mission was launched with ten satellites on board.

The PSLV has been used to launch the historic Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan missions. For over 20 years, the PSLV has been one of the world's most reliable launch vehicles. Over that period, the PSLV has launched over 40 satellites for 19 countries.

Image: ISRO

The payload configuration of 20 satellites on board the PSLV-C34. Image: ISRO

On 23 June, 2016, the PSLV-C34 mission placed 20 satellites in orbit with a single flight. This is the record for the most number of satellites put into orbit by an Isro mission so far. Isro is poised to break its own record, as well as records of all launch vehicles worldwide, with the launch of 104 satellites on a single mission. The PSLV-C37 launch is scheduled for 15 February, 2017.

GSLV-F05 taking off from Shriharikota. Image: Isro.

GSLV-F05 taking off from Shriharikota. Image: Isro.

Isro's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle is designed to place satellites in Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The first GLSV mission launched on 18 April, 2001. There have been 10 launches so far, and India is in the testing phase of its own cryogenic engine for the upper stage of the GSLV.

In March 2017, the GSLV MKII is expected to launch the GSAT-9, commonly known as the SAARC Satellite. The satellite is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pet project, and a gift from India to other South Asian nations.

The RLV-TD, is a first step in developing India's Space Shuttle

The RLV-TD, is a first step in developing India's Space Shuttle

2016 saw a number of exciting developments at Isro, including the test flights of two experimental launch vehicles that are years or decades away from practical realisation and operational spaceflight.

On 28 August, 2016, Isro successfully tested a Scramjet engine, which is a more fuel efficient air breathing engine. The air breathing engines were successfully ignited at supersonic speeds.

On 23 May 2016, Isro launched the Reusable Launch Vehicle - Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD). The RLV-TD is the first step, a demonstration, towards reusable launch vehicles, which has the potential to further decrease the cost of satellite launches. India already offers one of the cheapest satellite launch rates in the world, but the practical application of Indian reusable launch vehicles is still at least a decade away.

isro-pslv-c37-launch-banner

This story is a part of a series on the world record launch of 104 satellites on a single mission by Isro. The stories in the series are: 

Find our entire collection of stories, in-depth analysis, live updates, videos & more on Chandrayaan 2 Moon Mission on our dedicated #Chandrayaan2TheMoon domain.