The much anticipated, ambitious, attempt by ISRO’s unmanned space craft to land on the uncharted south polar region of moon did not go according to script and in ‘the last 15 terrifying minutes’ communication with the landing vehicle was lost, a distraught chief of the organisation, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, announced tears streaming down his face.
In those 15 minutes communication from the lander to the ground station was lost, he announced. The data was being analysed, he told the shocked scientists assembled there. Aimed to carry out a soft landing on the moon, the most complex and ambitious project India had undertaken, the project had been carried out with a fraction of the expense that the other three countries, China, Russia and the United Sates, had incurred.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was at the space centre at Bengaluru to watch the historic moment, offered words of support to the fraternity and hugged a sobbing Sivan. A cryptic tweet from the ISRO summed it all; ‘Vikram Lander descent was planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1km. Subsequently, communication from the Lander to the ground station was lost. Data is being analysed.’
ISRO had actually worked for 10 years to reach this point, said an expert. ‘This is rocket science, there can be failures. It is not that everything can go exactly in copy book fashion.’
Mr. Modi hailed these achievements in space ‘as a symbol of the country’s rising ambition as a global power. We remain hopeful and will continue working hard on our space programme.’
India is proud of its scientists, he continued. ‘They’ve given their best and have always made India proud. These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!’
Coming as it does in the midst of a renewed global interest in lunar exploration, this was watched closely by scientists around the world. And they expected the rover, named Pragyan, meaning ‘wisdom’, would spend two weeks collecting crucial data about the composition of the moon’s surface. It is also hoped the six-wheeled vehicle, could help scientists understand how much water the polar region contains.
‘India is going where probably the future settlements of humans will be in 20 years, in 50 years, 100 years, said a US scientist. At a cost about 140m dollars, far less than other missions, this is an entirely indigenous project, with the lander, the rover, the rocket and the orbiter, all being made in India. And this is the effort that Modi lauded when he described it as a ‘a symbol that shows India is marching towards an effort to make a new India.’
Sivan had also described the lander’s 15 minute descent – navigating its way autonomously – as ‘terrifying’ and this is also the ‘most complex mission ever undertaken by ISRO.’ There are also plans to send three astronauts into space by 2022.
Modi was on hand to lift their spirits. ‘I could see the anxiety on your faces. There is no need to get disappointed because it is not a small achievement. The country is proud of you’, he said having travelled all the way to the Bangalore Mission Operations Complex of ISRO.