A good rocket launch site has a few important characteristics. An unpopulated patch of land near an ocean is preferable, so no one gets showered with wayward bits of flaming metal. It’s also nice if it’s on the equator—like all spheres rotating on an axis, the Earth spins fastest in the middle, which provides rocket boosters with extra oomph. In other words, the best sites tend to be in remote, tropical locations. That such places are also often among the world’s poorest gives many launches a counterintuitive feel: billions of dollars in futuristic machinery rising up over rainforests and shantytowns.
That was so, at least, this February in Sriharikota, an island off India’s southeast coast, a couple of hours north of Chennai. To reach Sriharikota, which on maps looks like a 17-mile-long snake feasting on a 5-mile-wide goat, you cruise along a chaotic highway where semis vie for right of way with women carrying water buckets on their heads. Eventually you reach a causeway that, during the dry season, is flanked by marshlands, salt ponds, and mud. At the end of this road is the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.