Watching a rocket launch live!

A lot of people don’t know this, but I grew up wanting to be an astronaut. I spent hours reading about space. One day my Mom told 8-year-old me that I would need to study lots of math and science to become an astronaut. Instead of getting motivated to study hard, I decided to change my mind instead.

But although I didn’t go the Astronaut route, my fascination for all things space stayed solid. So  when I found out that Akshar put down “Watch a rocket launch live” on my bucket list, I was beyond excited. I had never thought of this as a possibility.

As soon as I read about ISRO’s Feb 15 launch – and especially that India was looking to smash a world record – we put the wheels in motion.

First step – How do we get access to ISRO?! We reached out to Twitter for this piece of the puzzle, sending messages to the official ISRO and Chandrayan accounts. For good measure, I also tweeted to anyone I could find that worked at ISRO.

To my surprise and incredible luck – Rachana replied within minutes and even offered to help us get passes to attend this historic event. We jumped on-board almost immediately and the next thing we knew Pankti, Akshar and I were booked onto flights to Chennai to attend the launch.

Cut to Feb 15.

It’s 3:30 AM and our three separate alarms are ringing throughout the room. By 5 AM we are checked-out of our hotel and into our car for the 2 hour ride to Sriharikota. We stop for breakfast around 7 AM in Sulurpet, a little town just outside of Sriharikota, where the scientists live. Steaming idli, strong filter coffee and an interesting taste of Pongal later, we’re feeling much more awake. The excitement is electric.

A 300 km x 100 km island completed dedicated to ISRO – SHAR is huge. First thing we see is model rockets (I’m guessing 1:10 scale) out in the gardens of past launch vehicles. Our host Rajashekhar – who so graciously got us visitor passes – meets us at the gate and walks us to the auditorium where we would witness the launch.

A huge crowd probably 200-300 people have gathered inside the auditorium. We watch the pre-launch formalities, mission control center and planned trajectory details on the big screens.

The launch is planned for 9:28, so at 9:10 we make our way to the terrace and prepare to watch the PSLV-37 space shuttle launch live in front our eyes.

Suddenly the man on the speaker sys “-20 seconds…. 15 seconds…. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0” and then nothing for a few seconds while the boosters fire and the rocket starts its initial ascent.

All of a sudden, there’s a collective gasp from the crowd, followed by a volley of cheers. We all spot PSVL-C37 piercing through the clouds with a bright golden jetstream in its trail. All 6 boosters (that Rajashekhar put together :)) clearly visible. Wow. In another minute or two (time froze for me honestly) its gone, soo far into the sky that you cannot see it anymore.

It’s hard to put into words what you feel witness the launch – the sound of the boosters, the entire building vibrating, collective gasps and smiles across every face you see – Absolutely exhilarating and awe-inspiring.

Stunned and in-awe – We congratulate Rajashekar and Dileep and head back down to the auditorium to watch and listen to the rest of the process. 15 minutes later – its all over. 104 satellites have found their way into orbit, the PSLV-C37 shuttle has burnt up on re-entry or landed back into the Bay of Bengal.

This was one of the coolest, most memorable days of my life. I can’t wait to come back for another launch.

We rounded out our trip with a visit to the space museum where Dileep and Rajashekhar were kind enough to answer hundreds of questions and walk us through how the entire process works.

As we head back to Chennai to grab a flight home, I still can’t fathom that we just watched a rocket take off from the earth, fly into space and now the 104 satellites it was carrying will continue orbiting the planet for many years to come. I’m absolutely awe-struck by the scale of this event. Incredibly proud of all those at ISRO for achieving this phenomenal task.

Watch out, world. India just put itself on the starry map. I’ll be back when ISRO’s ready to send a human up into space. Until then…you should find out when the next rocket launch is.

Watch it as we did live, in this video that Pankti shot:


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