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Rocketry and Space in India. Origins.

From Hyder Ali to Vikram Sarabhai

Rocketry and Space in India. Origins.

From Hyder Ali to Vikram Sarabhai

Mysore. Hyder Ali. Tippoo Sultan. Serigapatam. Vikram Sarabhai. Aryabhata. SLV-3. Sriharicota. Rohini.

Excerpts from

blazing the trail by mike gruntman

Blazing the Trail

The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry

AIAA, Reston, Va., 2004

Winner of the Luigi Napolitano award (2006) from the International Academy of Astronautics

book info and content    hardcover    book preview


(pp. 1, 2, 6)


The earliest rockets were solid propellant rockets (or solid rockets) with gunpowder (black powder) as propellant ...


Many believe that gunpowder and later the rockets first appeared in China. Some would even argue that gunpowder was known for more than 2000 years. It is not inconceivable, however, that the Hindus independently discovered gunpowder, maybe even earlier than the Chinese did. It is also possible that some secrets of pyrotechny penetrated into both China and India much earlier from the ancient civilization of Egypt. The known Chinese records of fireworks simply antedate those in other countries ...


The Chinese approach [to rocketry] strikingly differed, as we will see later, from the rocket development in India. A few hundred years after the battle of K'ai-fung-fu [in 1232], the Indians already built very big and sophisticated war rockets and employed them on an exceptionally large scale.

We do not definitively know when and where exactly the first rockets appeared. The existing Chinese records are simply the oldest found. In any event, a fortunate marriage of the military necessity and emerging technology took place some time not later than the 13th century. This marriage had started a set of technological developments that would eventually lead man to space.


(pp. 23-29)

Events in faraway India boosted the European interest to rocketry in the late 18th century. This was the time when several Indian princes vigorously resisted European advances in the subcontinent, widely using war rockets. The reports on Indian rocketry did not pass unnoticed in Europe and would open with time a new chapter in rocket development.

War rockets had been known in India for several centuries. The great Timur (Tamerlane), the mighty leader of nomad warriors, faced rocket fire when he invaded India in 1398. India was famous at that time for its war elephants. A good war elephant valued as much as 500 horses was a formidable weapon, "in bulk and strength like a mountain; and in courage and ferocity like a lion" (Pant 1997, 213). The Indians often used elephants as platforms for launching war rockets.

Timur was known for his ruthlessness and military victories from Russia and Anatolia in the west to Syria and Iraq in the south to China in the east. His seasoned and bold troopers were not intimidated, as the history would testify, by the “tales about the strength and prowess and appearance of the [war] elephants of Hindustan” (Jackson 1906, 198).

Blazing the Trail pages 23-02, 447-450

The decisive battle took place near Delhi on 17 December 1399. Timur recounted that the opposing forces of Sultan Mahmud included "125 elephants covered with armor, most of them carrying howdahs in which were men to hurl grenades, fireworks, and rockets" (Jackson 1906, 206). The Indian army was defeated and destroyed in the ensuing battle, and Delhi was captured and reduced to ruins.

By the mid-18th century, rockets had become a common weapon of warriors in India. Saltpeter was abundant. Readily available bamboo made excellent straight and light guiding sticks, an indispensable element of the rockets. Rockets perfectly fitted the warfare in the rough terrain. They did not require bullocks and elephants for transport, in contrast to expensive and heavy artillery. Whereas the technically sophisticated artillery was often commanded and serviced by experienced European officers and soldiers, the rockets could be carried and effectively fired by native warriors with only rudimentary training.

Indian states continuously warred against each other and fought with the European powers that wished to expand their control of the subcontinent. The native Indian troops widely used war rockets, both offensively and defensively.

For many years, the British struggled with Mysore, where rockets were employed on an exceptionally large scale. Around 1761 a brave and politically shrewd Muslim leader Hyder Ali (Hydur Ali or Haidar 'Ali Khan) became a ruler of the state of Mysore. A contemporary chronicler described his qualities in a pompous and inflated language common for the time, place, and circumstances, as "... Hydur Ali, the noise of whose courage and political ability had reached the utmost corners of the earth" (Hussein Ali 1842, 66).

Fig. 3.1. Elephant battery of heavy artillery along the Khyber pass at Campbellpur in 1895. Indian troops widely used war elephants for centuries in combat and later, with the advent of firearms, to haul heavy artillery. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Hyder Ali's dominion was peopled by six million inhabitants. His unusually well-disciplined army reached almost 200,000 troops and was well equipped with more than 20,000 pieces of cannon of various caliber. Many European officers served Hyder Ali. He was however an independent ruler and introduced Persian and Tartar terms for the words of command, replacing English and French.

Hyder Ali established a large rocketeer force of about 3000 men in 1767. This force had grown up to 5000 by 1786. According to one report, the regular infantry consisted of 16 cushoons, or brigades, and each of those included 200 rocketmen. The rocketmen were paid approximately the same amount as artillerymen and their detachment usually accompanied (together with cavalry, infantry, and pikemen) Hyder Ali on his trips.

Fig. 3.2. State of Mysore in India.

Hyder Ali's rocketeers introduced a major innovation: metal cylinder cases to contain the combustion of rocket black powder. The soft iron was crude, but the strength of the container was substantially higher than the earlier paper or bamboo constructions. Rockets usually carried 2 lb (0.9 kg) of black powder and had the range up to one mile. They were either armed with an explosive or incendiary warhead or sharpened at the end.

Text box

Mysore was an Indian state in the southern part of the subcontinent. It is interesting that Bangalore, the capital of the present-day Karnataka state (formerly Mysore), is now an important center for development of rocket and space technology in India.

The new Indian rocketry significantly advanced the state of the art. Chinese paper rockets remained small and inefficient, while the Indians developed their rockets into large and impressive devices with mass up to 12 lb (5.5 kg) and range of 1.5 mile (2.4 km).

Not everybody was impressed by rocket performance as a weapon, though. Hyder Ali's chief of artillery, the French officer Maistre de la Tour, wrote that

the implement is, on the whole, far more expensive than useful; which, I suppose, chiefly arises from the want of care and attention in making them up; however they have been sometimes productive of dreadful effects, by setting fire to ammunition wagons. These rockets are very well adapted for setting fire to towns and villages ... . A body of cavalry, not used to this kind of instrument, would be quickly thrown into disorder by it; for the rockets falling at the feet of horses, emit a flame, which frightens them ... . (de la Tour 1855, 158)

Not only cavalry was scared by rocket fire but also war elephants. Fighting the elephants by fire was a common tactic for centuries. In one battle, where the Timur's army faced Indian war elephants, he "marshalled a squadron of camels; these he sent forward each bearing a load of dry grass ... . No sooner had the fight begun than fire was set to these loads of inflammable stuff when the camels all in flames did so terrify the elephants that all took to flight" (Gonzáles de Clavijo 1928, 255). The elephant units and cavalry required special training to stand fire.

Fig. 3.3. Hyder Ali, 1722–1782. Figure from The History of Hyder Shah (de la Tour 1855, iv).

British reports from India and local chroniclers routinely mentioned war rockets, which occasionally inflicted serious casualties or killed a prominent officer. For example in the year 1780, the troops of the British General Coote launched a night attack on Hydar Ali's Fort Selimbur (Chillambrum). "The Kiladár, or officer in commanding that fort, whose name was Yousuf Khan, was, however, a brave soldier, and with three hundred men, defended the fort gallantly; and by continual shower of musket balls, rockets, and shells, he so effectually beat off the assailants, that between two and three hundred of the English army lost their lives, without any advantage gained" (Hussein Ali 1842, 426).

Fig. 3.4. Elephant brigade being taught to stand fire at Moulmein, Burma, in 1853. Figure from Illustrated London News, Vol. 22, No. 616, p. 269, 9 April 1853.

The high mobility of rocketeers invited the guerilla tactic to harass regular troops. So, in the same campaign of 1780, the supply train of General Coote was attacked. "The rocketeers ... each man taking post behind the Kewra (Spikenard) trees ... fired their rockets among the followers and baggage of the English; and the poor people, frightened, were thrown into the utmost confusion" (Hussein Ali 1842, 427). Two years later in another engagement, "the troops of Nawaub [Hyder Ali] ... vigorously attacked the General's army on all sides; and by suddenly charging them, and plying them with the rockets, they carried away strength and stability from the feet of infidels" (Hussein Ali 1842, 456).

Text box

Saltpeter, an indispensable ingredient of gunpowder and rocket propellant, was widely available in India. A British scientist surveying the dominions of the Rajah of Mysore for the East India Company described in the late 18th century that "the makers of saltpeter received advances from government, and prepared the saltpeter from the earth. ... The earth seems to contain the nitre ready formed, as no potash was added to it by the makers. It is only to be found in hot season ... The soil ... is sandy and rocky, and the ways passing over ... are much frequented by men and cattle. From the 10th of January until the 10th of February the saline earth is scraped from the surface, and is lixiviated, boiled, and crystallized twice" (Buchanan 1807, 316).

The British also attempted to use rockets against their adversaries but without much enthusiasm and success. On one occasion they fired rockets at the cavalry of Hyder Ali. The cavalry was, however, "habituated to the fire by various exercises performed with paper rockets, and the horse, instead of being frightened, marched fiercely over them [the British]" (de la Tour 1855, 159).

The early unguided rockets were highly inaccurate and unpredictable. They could have a devastating effect on poorly trained and poorly led militia-type troops and frighten horses. In essence, the rockets were a weapon against large-area targets and against the troops they were to intimidate rather than to injure. During World War II, inexpensive and not very accurate unguided missiles produced a storm of protective fire in the skies and saturated the approaches to the navy ships and ground targets. The rockets were effective against exposed and concentrated infantry but did little damage to properly entrenched and dispersed seasoned troops. This characteristic of rockets remained until introduction of guided missiles in the 1950s.

Rockets were a weapon dangerous in storage and transportation. The history records a number of deadly events, including the heavy losses among the Hydar Ali's troops in fights with their perennial adversaries, the Mahrattas. In 1768 "it chanced that a shot from one of the Mahratta guns, fired at a considerable distance, fell among a string of camels carrying rockets, and threw them into disorder; and, in the tumult and crowd of men, the rockets took fire, and flying among the baggage and followers, threw them into utter confusion. To increase their misfortune, a rocket, which had taken fire, fell on one of the boxes of ammunition, and blew it up; and in black cloud of smoke, which rose up to heaven, many of Hydur's brave soldiers were carried up to a great height ... ." (Hussein Ali 1842, 195)

The British–Mysore conflict had lasted for a number of years when Hyder Ali died in 1782. Tippoo (Tipu or Tippu) Sultan, a brave but not very politically sophisticated son of Hyder Ali, became a new and strongly anti-British ruler of Mysore. The stage for decisive battles that would effectively end this spectacular chapter of the Indian rocketry was set.

Fig. 3.5. Tippoo Sultan, 1749–53 – 1799. Figure from A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippo Sultaun (Beatson 1800, title page).

A new British Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, was appointed in 1786. He was the same General Cornwallis who five years earlier surrendered the British Army at Yorktown, Virginia, during the American War of Independence. The Government instructed Lord Cornwallis to refrain from aggressive wars and annexations. The British–Mysore hostilities, however, intensified.

Tippoo was taught military tactics by French officers in the employ of his father. The French wrestled with the British for control of India and were eager, as always, to twist the lion's tail and help British adversaries. In addition, numerous soldiers of fortune from many European nations served in various Indian armies at that time.

Tippoo Sultan increased his rocketeer force by some accounts to 5000 men. In 1792 the Tippoo's troops surprised the British by a large-scale use of rockets in the battle of Seringapatam. The rockets had a strong effect on the Indian native troops, in particular the cavalry that moved in great bodies. Undoubtedly, rocket noise and fire frightened horses and elephants.

The last and decisive clash, the fourth Mysore war, was triggered in 1799 by the discovery of the Tippoo's secret negotiations with France. Tippoo "privately despatched ambassadors to the Mauritius ... to solicit the aid of 10,000 Europeans and 30,000 Negro troops" (de la Tour 1855, 298). The resistance of Mysore was finally crushed by the British, and Seringapatam, the Tippoo's capital city and the seat of Mysore rajahs since 1610, was successfully stormed. During the siege of the city, an artillery shot struck a magazine of Tippoo's rockets causing a dreadful explosion. Three days later, the victorious British troops entered Seringapatam and captured almost 10,000 Indian rockets. This decisive victory effectively put an end to the serious rocket development in India, which would reemerge only in 1960s.

Fig. 3.6. View from the northwest front at the siege of Seringapatam in May 1799. "...At sunrise on the 2nd of May ... soon after the batteries opened up, a shot having struck a magazine of rockets in the fort, occasioned a dreadful explosion ... ." Figure from A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippo Sultaun (Beatson 1800, 122).

Text box

The rockets were so widespread in India and so deeply penetrated the culture that one song mourning Tippoo Sultan, The Dirge of Tippoo Saltaun from Canara, had the following lines (de la Tour 1855, 331):
His mountain-forts of living stone
  Were hewn from every massy rock,
Whence bright the sparkling rockets shone,
  And loud the vollied thunder spoke

The reports on Indian weaponry reached Britain together with the captured rockets. Rocket lessons were also learned by the French who fought with their Indian allies against the British. The interest in new weapons grew rapidly, fueled by the imminent showdown between archenemies, Napoleon's France and Great Britain. The center of rocket development would consequently shift to Europe.



(pp. 447-450)


The glorious time of Indian war rockets was in the 18th century, followed by many decades of neglect and lack of interest in rocketry. The situation began to change only in the early 1960s when Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was appointed chairman of the Indian National Committee for Space Research. Sarabhai, who earned a Ph.D. in physics from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, set up a research group studying cosmic rays and upper-atmosphere phenomena in the late 1940s. He later reached prominence as an industrial manager and formed several Indian technology-oriented companies.

Fig. 17.17. Vikram Sarabhai, 1919–1971, considered by many to be a "father" of the modern Indian space program. Photo courtesy of Indian Space Research Organization, Bangalore.

In 1962, Sarabhai made the first practical steps in organizing Indian space activities under the aegis of the Department of Atomic Energy. He began with establishing the first launch site near a fishing village Thumba in Kerala on the southwestern coast of India. The first rocket, an American Nike–Apache, was launched from the new site on 21 November 1963. In addition, Sarabhai arranged manufacturing in India of French-designed sounding rockets.

Design and fabrication of indigenous Indian sounding rockets, the Rohini family, followed. The first Rohini 75 was launched at Thumba in 1967, with rockets growing in size to Rohini 125 and Rohini 560. The latter missile was capable of lifting 200-kg (440-lb) payloads to altitudes up to 400 km (250 miles). The program led to developing expertise in propellants, pyrotechnic devices, testing instrumentation, structures, and materials. Japan's Hideo Itokawa spent a significant amount of time with Sarabhai in 1960s serving as an advisor to the emerging Indian rocket program.

In 1972, India signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to launch first Indian satellites on Soviet rockets. In three years, an Indian team under Professor U.R. Rao built a satellite, named Aryabhata after a prominent Indian mathematician and astronomer of the fifth century. The spacecraft was successfully launched on 19 April 1975 from the Soviet Kapustin Yar missile test range. Aryabhata had mass 360 kg (794 lb) and carried scientific instrumentation to measure radiation from solar flares. The power supply failed after 60 orbits, thus prematurely terminating the mission. Two more Indian satellites, Bhaskhara 1 and Bhaskhara 2 (named after an Indian mathematician and astronomer of the 12th century), were launched in 1979 and 1981 from Kapustin Yar. The first Indian spacecraft were built by Hindustan Aeronautics, Ltd., with several critically important components such as solar cells, batteries, and surface coatings supplied by the Soviet Union. The program was an important and valuable learning experience for Indian scientists and engineers and helped in the development of the national industrial capabilities indispensable for a space-faring nation.

Fig. 17.18. The first Indian satellite Aryabhata launched by the Soviet Union from the Kapustin Yar missile range on 19 April 1975. Photo courtesy of Indian Space Research Organization, Bangalore.

Delivery of educational television programs to rural areas through the American Applications Technology Satellite (ATS) was another major space-related program in India. A large number of receiving stations equipped with inexpensive 3-m (9.8-ft) dishes were built throughout the country. Television programs in literacy, agriculture, family planning, and health were beamed to the American satellite that retransmitted them for four hours a day. The experience with the first Indian satellites and the ATS program led to emergence of a national space industry employing almost 10,000 people in the 1970s. In addition, more than 30 universities became involved in space research, and a number of specialists working in foreign countries decided to return home to India.

Design of an indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) was conceived in 1969. The launcher, SLV-3, was to place small satellites in low-Earth orbit. Building the vehicle was a major nationwide undertaking involving more than 40 industrial and government enterprises. Five-sixth of the required components were designed and fabricated in India. The SLV was a slim four-stage all-solid-propellant rocket 22.7 m (74.5 ft) tall and only 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter. The rocket mass was 16,900 kg (37,250 lb) at liftoff. The first, second, third, and fourth stages developed thrusts of 622.7 kN (140,000 lbf), 266.7 kN (60,000 lbf), 90.2 kN (20,300 lbf), and 26.5 kN (5960 lbf), respectively. The cases of the first- and second-stage motors were made of stainless steel, whereas fiberglass was used in motors of the third and fourth stages.

Fig. 17.19. First launch of a satellite by the Indian SLV-3 rocket from a launch site on Sriharicota Island on 18 July 1980. An all-solid-propellant four-stage rocket successfully placed a small spacecraft Rohini in low-Earth orbit. Photo courtesy of Indian Space Research Organization, Bangalore.

A satellite that was built for launch by the national rocket, Rohini, was a small spacecraft equipped with a CCD-based camera with a 1-km resolution on the ground. It also carried Indian-made solar cells. (The USSR supplied all solar cells on the Indian satellites launched earlier from Kapustin Yar.)

Rohini was launched from a new test site constructed on Sriharicota Island near the southeastern coast of India. Sriharicota, a small 44 km (27 miles) by 7 km (4.5 miles) island, is located at 13 deg N geographical latitude, making it an excellent location for a space port that takes advantage of the Earth's rotation and offers favorable conditions for launches into nearequatorial orbits. Only the French (and ESA) permanent launch site at Kourou is better in this respect. (Obviously, launches from an oceangoing platform by SeaLaunch and launches of Pegasus rockets from an aircraft can be conducted from any desired geographical latitude. The Italian San Marco platform off the coast of East Africa near the equator was used for launches of American rockets in early 1960s, and the facility does not exist today.)

Fig.17.20. Rohini, the first Indian satellite placed in orbit by a national space launcher, the SLV-3. The spacecraft was about 0.5 m (1.6 ft) in diameter with mass close to 40 kg (88 lb). The first flown Indian solar cells produced 3 W of electric power. Photo courtesy of Indian Space Research Organization, Bangalore.

After several years of delays, the first Indian space launch was ready in 1979. The attempt failed, however, because of problems with the control system of the second stage. Success came on 18 July 1980, when the Rohini spacecraft was placed in orbit with perigee 306 km (190 miles), apogee 919 km (571 miles), and inclination 45.75 deg. Rohini stayed in orbit more than 10 months and reentered the atmosphere in May 1981. Thus, India joined the elite club of space-faring nations who built and launched satellites.



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