India's first rocket launch became possible quite literally after divine intervention. The land which now houses India's famed Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, from where, in 1963, Indians watched their first rocket head for space, was originally a Catholic church.
So, how did a church become a space centre?
In the early 1960s, Dr Vikram Sarabhai selected a small fishing village called Thumba in Trivandrum as the ideal location for a rocket launching station. And the spot he had zeroed in as a potential launch site housed a church.
St Mary Magdalene Church was located on Earth's magnetic equator, an imaginary line where the Equatorial Electrojet (a narrow ribbon of current flowing eastward in the day time equatorial region of the ionosphere) exists. This had stirred Dr Sarabhai's interest.
So, one fine day, Dr Sarabhai and his colleagues went to speak to the then-bishop of Trivandrum, Rev Dr Peter Bernard Pereira, about acquiring the church.
That must have been an awkward conversation. It also culminated in a cliff-hanger. Instead of giving them a definite answer, Reverend Pereira, asked the scientist to attend the Sunday mass that week.
Among this group of scientists was Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, and he wrote about this particular Sunday mass in his book Ignited Minds: Unleashing The Power Within India.
This is what he writes the bishop told the congregation: "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?"
Kalam then writes that there "was silence for a while followed by a hearty 'Amen' from the congregation, which made the whole church reverberate."
The necessary permissions were fetched, due paperwork done, and the villagers shifted to a different village that had its own brand new church. And on the garden before St Mary Magdalene Church, our first rocket launcher was build.
From St Francis's church to Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre
According to National Geographic, St Francis Xavier built a humble thatched-roofed building in 1544, which went on to become a concrete St Mary Magdalene Church by the 20th century.
History has it that the church got its name after some fishermen found a sandalwood statue of Mary Magdalene that had washed ashore.
Then, in the 1960s, St Mary Magdalene Church became Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. In his book, Kalam wrote that the prayer room became his first laboratory, and the bishop's room his drawing office.
It is said that the church's cattle shed was converted into the laboratory where the scientists worked. The main church building, of which nothing seems to have been demolished,went on to become a space museum.
In time to come, TERLS became Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). In fact, the roots of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in a way, lie in this church too.
Rocket on a bicycle, launch-pad in a church
India's proud history of rocket science took its baby steps on a bicycle and a bullock cart. In order to be brought to the launch pad, parts of the NASA-made rocket, Nike-Apache, were carried on these vehicles, as shown below:
After much labour, on the eve of November, 21, 1963, Nike-Apache blasted off into space from the garden facing St Mary Magdalene Church.
The building, which bears church-like beauty of towers and bells, now houses a space museum, where you cannot walk in with your shoes on.
Once you're inside, you don't encounter an altar. Instead, you are faced with a fascinating array of rockets, satellites, and details of how church became a space centre.