I decided to go to Sriharikota the moment I learnt ISRO was planning to launch Mangalyaan, an orbiter mission to Mars, on November 5 at 14:38 IST. Only three space agencies (NASA, European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency) have successfully sent orbiters to Mars (NASA has sent four rovers too). China and Japan tried a Mars mission but they failed. Even the formerly mentioned big three agencies have had many failed attempts. Out of 51 Mars missions attempted by mankind, only 21 have come successful. Now ISRO has set its sight on Mars. Highly ambitious indeed!
Three days prior to launch, I mailed one of the Directors of ISRO to enquire if there are any arrangements made for the public to attend the launch. There was no reply. I waited for a day. Still no reply. Now it was just a day prior to launch. I called up ISRO office directly and enquired if public can attend the launch. A nice sounding lady told she could not comment on this and she directed me to ISRO's Public Relations Officer. He picked the call and for the third time on enquiring about attending the launch, he said there are no provisions for the public to come and watch as there was no "mandate" (unless you are a journalist). I realized there is no use in pushing him, I thanked him for his time and ended the call.
I then availed the help of Google Earth. I found a small island named Venadu adjacent to the launch site. This island is surrounded by Pulicat lake, the backwater of Bay of Bengal. Fortunately there is a small mud road (about 20 feet wide) that connects this island and the main road that connects Sriharikota island with the main land. I decided this is it. Me and my father started from home in Chennai at about 10:30 AM and reached via Guntur highway to Sriharikota. I decided to start early just in case there are any hiccups (as the satellite image you're seeing above was taken two years ago).
Google maps was spot on, the travel took only two hours. As we neared SHK (Sriharikota), we could see lots of police personnel patrolling the area. We took the right taking the road to the island, which said Sriharikota is 17 kilometers ahead. The lake on both sides of the road was a splendid sight. We then bumped into a checkpost where the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel halted us, prohibiting further access. They asked us to divert right. Which right? The exact right which I had intended to take! The road existed, after all. Sigh of relief!
But its existence should not be confused with its condition. Driving in that road was like riding a jogging camel. Neither was it a cement road or tar; it was a mud road. We drove for about 3 kilometers, decided enough was enough and parked the car. We could see SHK on the left.
It was more than thirteen kilometers (I urge you to think of a location 13 km from your house to appreciate the magnitude). Launchpad was NOT VISIBLE from where I was. It is good in a way, the debris from the rocket is bound to spread more than 3 kilometers. The time now was 1:20 PM. We decided to have the meal we brought from home (there is no hotel nearby, it's wise to bring your own food if you're planning to make it to a launch). We finished the meal by 1:45 PM.
(52 minutes later...)
I watched the digital clock in my mobile. I then hurriedly swept my eyes all over SHK. I watched mobile again. Swept SHK again. Within sixty seconds, a thing is going to go up the sky. Minus fifty seconds. I took the binocular and grazed the whole of horizon to see if any smoke is flaring up. Minus thirty seconds. Where is it? Where is it? Minus twenty seconds. Minus nineteen seconds. Minus eigh- THERE!!! There it is!!! It got launched already, damn my phone's clock. Up in the air, nice and steady, she soared majestically into the sky spewing dark red-yellowish flaming tail which was larger than the vehicle herself. I watched it in awe, my mouth wide open. The sight was also serene because all this happened in total silence, with just slight pleasant sounds of water jostling its shores. The sight was a mixture of brutal force and pristine gentleness. But after a few seconds, the sound that left the rocket during the launch reached us. It was a trembling sound. A sound that makes you feel your bones. A sound that makes you close your eyes alongside ears. Never have I heard such a shaking, ear-stuffing sound. I touched the bonnet of my car, the sound made the car look like it was running. The sound started with small intensity, grew exponentially to become highly intense and started to fade away. By this time, the rocket and its flaming tail was well high in the sky, leaving its trail of smoke to grow fat and start vanishing. We could see the fifth and sixth booster ignition directly. After that, the rocket became a speck in the sky.
I immediately phoned up a relative who was watching the launch live on TV, he said all was well. I was there till he confirmed the whole mission was in good health; till the orbiter was injected into Earth's orbit, which was about half an hour from the launch.