Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) is the lead Centre of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) under the Department of Space (DOS), Government of India. The Centre is named in fond memory of Dr Vikram A Sarabhai, the great visionary and the father of Indian Space Programme. VSSC pioneers in rocket research and launch vehicle projects of ISRO. The Centre also pursues research and development activities in associated areas like propellants, solid propulsion technology, aerodynamics, aero structural and aero thermal fields, avionics, polymers and composites, guidance, control & simulation, computer and information, mechanical engineering, aerospace mechanisms, vehicle integration and testing, space ordnance, chemicals and materials. Systems reliability and quality assurance of all aspects of engineering and operations are studied and evaluated to the levels of perfection required in each field. Programme planning and evaluation, technology transfer and industrial coordination, indigenisation, human resources development, safety and personnel and general administration groups support the Centre for all its activities.
The Space Physics Laboratory (SPL) at VSSC carries out research and studies in atmospheric science and other related space science activities. Ammonium Perchlorate Experimental Plant (APEP) at Aluva in Kerala and the ISRO Inertial Systems Unit (IISU) at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala also form part of VSSC.
The ongoing programmes at VSSC include launch vehicle projects like Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), Rohini Sounding Rockets and Space-capsule Recovery Experiments. The next generation launcher GSLV MkIII (also known as LVM3) has successfully undergone an experimental flight with passive cryo stage and proved the atmospheric regime. LVM3 flight with an active cryo stage, Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) and Air Breathing Propulsion for Advanced Reusable Launch Vehicle, Human Spaceflight Project etc are on the anvil.
VSSC had a small beginning at Thumba, a coastal village at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala on the south west coast of India, in 1962.
In the early 1960s, the Indian National Committee on Space Research (INCOSPAR), the Indian counterpart of the Committee for Space Research (COSPAR) of the United Nations, was formed under the leadership of Dr Vikram A Sarabhai. INCOSPAR pioneered studies on the phenomenon of equatorial electrojet, which is a narrow belt of electrons moving from west to east above the magnetic equator. The height at which this current flows, is beyond the reach of instrumented balloons and too low for satellites. The best way to study the phenomenon is to launch instrumented rockets (sounding rockets) into this region to make in-situ measurements. Thumba was a unique choice because of its proximity to the geomagnetic equator. The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS) was established in 1962 for this purpose under UN sponsorship.
In the beginning, the ancient St. Mary's Magdalene Church, graciously dedicated by the local inhabitants at the altar of science, served as the office and the laboratories. The ‘Bishop's House’ forming part of the Church, was once used as the office of Director, TERLS. The Church was later converted into a Space Museum which now attracts regular crowds including students and the public. On November 21, 1963, a two stage sounding rocket, 'Nike-Apache', was launched from TERLS marking the beginning of Space exploration in India.
Recognising the special value of this unique facility slightly off the magnetic equator, Indira Gandhi, then Indian Prime Minister, dedicated TERLS to the United Nations on February 02, 1968. With his, there was a quantum jump in the scope for research in aeronomy and atmospheric sciences in India. In due course US, USSR, Japan, France and Germany started launching sounding rockets from TERLS. While the initial sounding rockets were imported, India went on to establish indigenous capability in manufacturing and launching sounding rockets under the Rohini Sounding Rockets Programme (RSR). Gaining confidence from the RSR programme, the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC), established in 1965 on Veli hills, initiated research on the development of systems and components for launch vehicles. Rocket Propellant Plant (RPP) was commissioned in 1969 by the Chemical Engineering Division of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) for the production of solid propellant blocks. With increase in the number of rockets fabricated, another facility called the Rocket Fabrication Facility (RFF) was commissioned in 1971, for undertaking production of rockets and hardware developed in SSTC. In 1969, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was formed under the Department of Atomic Energy to coordinate and conduct space research in the country. In 1970, the Hydrometeorological Services of the USSR signed an agreement with ISRO to launch their meteorological sounding rockets, M-100, every week, from TERLS. This programme continued uninterruptedly till 1993. Besides these, we launched a series of our own sounding rockets named Rohini from TERLS.
In due course, TERLS was unable to support the increasing frequency of rocket launches. On account of the insufficient space in Thumba and the limitations of space imposed by range safety considerations, a second rocket launching station was established on the east coast of India at Sriharikota Island, situated north of Pulikat in Andhrapradesh. This station, named SHAR (or the Shriharikota Range) is now the space port of India.
In July 1972, TERLS, SSTC, RPP, RFF, Propellent Fuel Complex (PFC) and the Indian Scientific Satellite Project (ISSP), Bangalore came under the umbrella of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) with Prof Brahm Prakash as its Director. (The ISSP at Bangalore was reconstituted as ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in November 1976). In 1972, Government of India constituted Department of Space (DOS) and Space Commission and brought ISRO under DOS.