A touching moment in India’s failed moon mission

A touching moment in India’s failed moon mission

S Murari

A rivetting image is of Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugging and consoling Indian Space Research Organision chairman K Sivan after breaks down as Chandrayaan‘s lander Vikram fails to make a soft landing on the moon surface barely 2.1 km from above it.

Only minutes earlier, the scientists cheered as Vikram successfully completed the rough braking stage when its velocity was stage by stage reduced as it hovered the moon’s surface. The next 15minutes was nail-biting as it got into fine braking mode when Vikram was on its own what Sivan himself had called 15 minutes of terrifying moments.

It turned out to be precisely that when ground station at Bengaluru lost contact with Vikram at 2.01 a.m. on Saturday. After waiting for some minutes, Sivan walked up to Prime Minister to break the bad news when he broke down. Modi hugged him and patted his back. Minutes later he told the scientists: “The nation is proud of your achievement. The nation is with you. I am with you”.

How consoling his words might have been, the failure at the very last moment was hard for scientists who toiled for years to put this mission in place. Maybe, only three other nations have successfully soft landed on the moon—the US, Russia and China. Even Israel had failed.

India’s aim was virtually to aim at the stars and shoot at the moon. Scientists at ISRO tried to not just crash-landing, but a touchdown, that too on the south pole of the moon’s surface, something no other country has attempted so far. Sivan knew anything could go wrong during the last 15 minutes when Vikram would be on auto descent and ground control could only wait with bated breath and hope for the best.

As grim faced Sivan announced:”Ground station lost signal from Vikram when it was 2.1 km from landing. The available data is being analysed”.

So close, yet so far. No wonder Sivan found it hard to bear. More so as Prime Minister was there at the Mission Operations Complex at ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Command Network (ISTRA) in Bengaluru. So were 70 students from various parts of the country, besides a Bhutanese national, who were special invitees to watch what was to have been a historic moment. That was not to be.

Though Vikram may have been lost, but all is not lost, yet, if it is still orbiting the moon. Former space scientist P C Ghosh has said a partial success has been achieved as the orbiter onboard the lander is perfectly working in space. Pragyan, the six wheeled buggy (orbiter) which was supposed to rove on the surface and collect data, may be still inside the lander.

A clear picture will emerge once ISRO studies the data and comes to know what went wrong and how.

As Modi in an address to the nation said the science is trial and error experiment and it should go on. Asking the scientists not to be deterred by the failed Chandrayaan-2 mission, he said’ the nation will reach its goal of reaching the moon”.

All top leaders of the country, including Rahul Gandhi, have expressed their solidarity with ISRO scientists. In a rate tribute, former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has said: “This mission was not a failure but a successful step towards reaching the ultimate goal. This is an incredibly proud moment for all of South Asia. We are certain you will soon succeed.”

This is not the first time that a high profile mission has failed in the presence of the Prime Minister of the country. In the 1980s, ISRO’ Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) plunged into the sea seconds after take off from Sriharikota rocket launching station. Rajiv Gandhi consoled the scientists the same way Modi did.

ISRO has indeed come a long way from the days of SLV to Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The cryogenic engine could not be sourced from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Undettered, ISRO scientists developed our own cryogenic engine after years of toil.

The US may have landed a man on the moon way back in July 1969. But India’s moon mission is not about man landing, but to study if moon has water and other minerals.

On the horizon is the Mars mission.