One evening in the late 1960s, a few schoolmates and I, students at the Shreyas Foundation school, all between the ages 9-12, were invited by the celebrated scientist and founder of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Vikram Sarabhai to attend a balloon launch on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Although some of my mates – Pravir and Abhijit Pandya, Meena Satyaprakash, and Parth Rastogi – were children of Vikrambhai’s colleagues, and scientists at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), they had not been invited to see their parents at work before, making this a novel treat for them too.
We assembled in an open area in Thaltej Tekra with the smart-looking Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) building far on one side and the new PRL building on the other. My friends and I stood wide-eyed around the balloon, trying not to get in anyone’s way, but too curious about the proceedings to actually stand aside.
Instead of getting annoyed, Vikrambhai gathered us close to the balloon, explained its mechanics, and told us about the kind of meteorological data it would be gathering in the lower atmosphere. Such data was being collected for the first time by India. We watched the ascent with great awe and our curiosity showed no signs of abating and even as the light began to fade.
We peppered the scientists with questions on all sorts of scientific and not-so-scientific matters that only children are capable of asking. How long would the balloon stay up? Could one accidentally drift away into space? Wouldn’t it be fun to go up with one to chase the weather, enter the environment, and overlook cities? And as the moon rose in the sky, we discussed the moon, and rockets, and wondered what would happen if you threw an apple from the window of your rocket in space and if it would land on earth as Newton promised.
Vikrambhai and the other scientists welcomed our flights of fancy, mostly encouraging us to answer our own questions based on the scientific principles we already knew, and at other times telling us about astonishing new discoveries that pushed the boundaries of human knowledge. It was a night of wonder, and vismay (astonishment), the young and the old, of knowing and discovering, of science and fantasy.
Our young minds were full of burning questions. Those among us with a scientific bent of mind were heading fearlessly into the realms of physics and astrophysics, of conducting experiments and making cool discoveries. Others like me, stood in awe of the vast skies, of realms far beyond our human imagination, and wondered why it felt so sacred.
I cycled home, my shirt billowing in the wind, wanting to urgently share everything with my sister who had missed it. Looking back at that singular evening, I realised how fortunate I was to have been shown the skies by such extraordinary visionaries.
If we can introduce our children to something new in what appears ordinary and familiar and feed their delight, we set them and millions of Indians on a path of discovery that has no bounds.
Mihir Bhatt is director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad. He is currently working on space weather impact risks.