Musings on ISRO and Christian Charity
Abracadabra By K. B. Ganapathy, Columns, Top Stories

Musings on ISRO and Christian Charity

August 29, 2023

Mahan Bharat has made it from Bhooloka to Chandraloka. A glorious moment for Bharat, that is India.

It is an emotional and proud moment for all Indians, specially for those who are in the know of mythology, religion, astronomy and tales relating to the moon and also the politics that led to the establishment of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to recall and share anecdotes, episodes and individual contributions in establishing ISRO that made this mission possible.

I have received a few WhatsApp messages of this kind soon after this successful moon mission. Here is one that recounts the national sentiment and support of the Christian community of Kerala when ISRO wanted a particular spot of land for its Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS):

On one fine Saturday morning in early 1960s, Rev. Dr. Peter Bernard Pereira — the then Bishop of Trivandrum — had a strange guest who had come to his house with a stranger request. The Reverend listened to him patiently but did not respond immediately. Instead, he invited the man to join the Mass  the next day.

At the end of the Sunday Mass, the Bishop spoke to the assembled crowd, “My children, I have a famous scientist with me who wants our church and the place I live for the work of space science and research. Science seeks truth that enriches human life. The higher level of religion is spirituality. The spiritual preachers seek the help of the Almighty to bring peace to human minds. In short, what Vikram is doing and what I am doing are the same — both science and spirituality seek the Almighty’s blessings for human prosperity in mind and body. Children, can we give them God’s abode for a scientific mission?”

As narrated by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in his book ‘Ignited Minds: Unleashing The Power Within India’, the Bishop’s question was greeted by an unsettling silence, and as Dr. Vikram Sarabhai waited eagerly, the church finally reverberated with a loud and hearty ‘Amen’ from all present!

A grateful Dr. Sarabhai and team promptly swung into action. The entire village of fisherfolks was relocated nearby, and a new Church was built for the faithful in 100 days flat. The erstwhile St. Mary Magdalene Church and Rev. Pereira’s living quarters — located strategically on the magnetic equator and blessed with a narrow ribbon of very strong electrojet current (therefore making it ideal for studying the ionosphere) — thus became the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station where the first seeds of Indian space research were sown amidst infrastructural constraints unthinkable by rocket scientists anywhere else in the world.

As the eponymous lander ‘Vikram’ touched down near the lunar South Pole today with its aptly named rover ‘Pragyan’ (wisdom), here’s remembering that distant weekend when two leaders, at two seemingly opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, converged on the same grand vision of the future so that one day the sky could no longer be the limit for India!

Another WhatsApp I received was about how ISRO came to Bengaluru and the connection between Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) and ISRO:

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Did you know how or why ISRO came to Bangalore and the connection between the Indian Institute of   Science and ISRO?

Lest we forget the historical forces that forge our present, it is essential to remember the past events and people behind the present.

We, the people of Karnataka, have our own share of credit for Chandrayaan and ISRO.

It is thanks to the two conditions put forward by Dr. Satish Dhawan, who was the Director of IISc, Bangalore, when Indira Gandhi invited him to head ISRO.

1. ISRO headquarters should be established in Bangalore

2. He (Dhawan) is allowed to continue as Director of IISc.

Indira Gandhi agreed to these two conditions and the rest is history.

Thus, Satish Dhawan and IISc brought ISRO to Namma Bengaluru. As the famous saying of Isaac Newton goes, “If I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders  of giants.

Be that as it may, what I perceive from these positive responses from the people who had the power to contribute to the establishment of an important scientific space centre for the good of our country, nay the humanity itself, is their sense of generosity, their commitment to a greater cause of the country and their belief ‘India first,’ rest are naught.

Reflect a while about the response of the then Bishop of Trivandrum  (now Thiruvananthapuram) Rev. Dr. Peter Bernard Pereira and that of the Christian congregation that in a spirit of an offer to God gave the ‘God’s abode’, the land of the Church, for a scientific mission.

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Similarly reflect also about Dr. Satish Dhawan, who was the Director of IISc., Bengaluru, when he was invited by no less a Prime Minister than Indira Gandhi to head ISRO.

As I write this, I am reminded of another touching incident, not related to ISRO, where again a Kerala Catholic Christian Bishop helps a poorly paid Kerala Catholic Christian lecturer who gets a Fulbright scholarship of USA but has not got Rs. 10,000 he was to carry with him (in dollars) to US. It was in 1969.

The lecturer, Joseph Matchanickal, approached a well-known businessman, father of a student he had taught in high school. But his request was turned down. Joseph thought it was the end of his dream as all his attempts to raise the money failed and the last day to depart was only a few days away. Then, as by divine intervention, his friend Alian asked Joseph to approach the Bishop of the Catholic Church, Calicut, 80- year-old Italian by name Patronio. And the miracle happened. Where man had abandoned Joseph, God had uplifted him.

The Bishop listened to him patiently and asked a  few questions. Without much ado, the Bishop called his Treasurer, a priest and asked him to take Joseph to the Bank and transfer the money. Joseph’s life was made.

I guess, God or “the law of nature” (as Stephen Hawking, the renowned Physicist, describes God) never gives up on those who are brilliant, persevering and noble in their thoughts and deeds. The above example might suffice for now.

Om Sat Chit Anand

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