Photo-1 shows senior DRDO officials inside the Block Office ahead of the A2P launch. In Photo-2, Project Director Tessy Thomas at the launch site on the eve of the launch. These photos were taken on December 9, 2010.
My first day at Wheeler Island was special in many ways. After passing all the security tests, I was allotted a room to be shared with two gentlemen, whom I haven’t met or known before. I didn’t have much activity on the first day after reaching the island – the home of India’s Launch Complex (LC-4). I was asked to ‘take rest’ after a 12-hour marathon journey from Bangalore by air, road and sea.
There were 3 individual beds each being separated by small 2-feet tables. The room was facing the sea and I could make out that my room-mates had occupied may be 4-5 days ahead of me. This was evident from the number of clothes being put for drying at every possible nail, string and corner available. Battling odd weather due to low-depression, DRDO scientists from its Missile Complex were all set for the maiden experimental launch of Agni-II Prime. I ventured out in the verandah to check if I could meet someone. All rooms were empty and the room boy said that none locks the room.
My room-mates didn’t get back till 1.30 pm in the night and I decided to call it a day, hoping to catch-up with them in the morning. Next day morning I woke up at sharp 6.00 am to my surprise, I saw the room empty. But there were signs of someone having entered the room. I could see wet towels and fragrance of after-shave. With electricity to the entire island being generated through generators, one could see small leaflets pasted inside the bathroom, next to washbasin, on the main door and near switches ‘to turn off power, if it is not needed.’
So, my day-2 at the Island began on a solo-note. I walked around hoping to get some sidelights ahead of the launch and managed to meet the non-scientific fraternity at the island. The included the lone shop-keeper, security staff, drivers and the like. My visit to the launch site and interactions were scheduled by sundown. When I was as taken to LC-4, for a moment it resembled like a well-lit stadium. There were around 100-150 people completely engrossed in work. Nobody talked or rather even if someone had talked, it was quiet. Very quiet.
DRDO Chief Dr Saraswat, ASL Director Avinash Chander, A2P Project Director Tessy Thomas, DRDL Director Venugopalan were the biggies I could spot periodically overseeing one thing or the other. In fact, A2P had completed a trial countdown run on December 9 and there were close to 250 events (points) to be tested and confirmed ahead of the station readiness for the auto-launch.
“We are told that the weather would clear tomorrow (December 10) and we hope to have the launch at around 10 am,” said Tessy, during her brief interaction at the launch site. I could see many youngsters, may be in their late 20 and early 30s working tirelessly. I could see a spring in their steps. Tessy was probably praying that everything should go as planned. India’s first woman scientist, to head a missile project, was as cool as a cucumber. “I called up my mother and took her blessing,” Tessy said. May be, she was hoping that the A2P success could be the ideal gift to her mother, a qualified teacher, who just turned 75.
On the other side, A2P was sitting pretty on a new launcher. It was one sight that one would remember for a long, long time. Scientists and technicians – spotting a white overall – were a perfect picture of concentration. Their goals were set. Mission locked. Just that they needed luck. High-speed cameras were positioned at vantage positions to capture the moment.
It was 12.30 am in the night and one could see many senior scientists getting ready for a crucial review meeting scheduled to begin at 1.00 am. For them, the night was still very young. In the meantime, I received yet another access pass to enter the all important Block Office to witness the next-day launch. There were many Do's and Don’ts to follow.
I got back to the room at 2 am. The room was empty, as usual! The two apples on an extreme corner tables were intact, signaling that none had come in. These apples were there right from the moment I was allotted the room.
On the launch day, I woke-up at 5 am and was excited to witness the launch. Luckily, I was greeted by two gentleman who were already up and ready to hit the action front. “We knew you were here. We were told that one journalist was coming. Sorry, we couldn’t meet early. We were busy. Hope you didn’t have any problem in the island? Is this the first time you are witnessing a launch? Hope you got the pass?” There were too many queries during the maiden moment of introduction.
“In the last two days I have not seen anyone in this hostel barring the security and canteen chaps. I am keen to know when do you guys get to sleep?” I asked. “Sleep? I came last week and would have slept may be for a total of 3-4 hours. What we don’t miss is the morning shower. That sets the pace. During a launch campaign this is what we have been used to. We don’t get tired. When we go back, may be things are slightly better,” my scientist friend-cum-room-mate said. “Don’t write all this in your paper. Don’t put our names. We are enjoying our work. Come, let’s have a quick tea and hit the launch site,” he said. Remember, he has been with DRDO for over 20 years.
India’s Agni-II Prime lifted-off at 10 am as planned. In the next few seconds it disappeared from the trajectory and fell into the sea. A complete silence and everyone was disappointed. I rushed to the project communication centre to file my report. India’s A2P fails. A 300-word report, to make a living, was over in 15 minutes. All the efforts of 150-odd scientists at the island; 1,500-plus back in various labs; their hard-work, dedication and sacrifices in life – all I could package in just four paragraphs! Sometimes, I feel Journalism, is a cruel profession. A very unfair profession that lacks a soul! Only reports on murder, extortions and wardrobe malfunction can fetch more news space, sidelights and even find slots during primetime debates.
I was back in my room within two hours, and found nobody there. The boy from the reception came and gave a small slip, which read: “Hello Ananth. I am leaving. We have to come back next week for another campaign. Sorry, it failed. It happens. We will do it next time. Call me when you are in Hyderabad.” It was my room-mate, whom I have met may be for just 10 minutes!
A2P failed, but nobody died! Hope, you would agree?