Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugged a disconsolate Dr K Sivan, director ISRO, on September 7, 2019
On Saturday morning, hours after India’s attempt to make a soft landing at what would have been the southernmost spot on the moon to be visited by a spacecraft failed to go as per script, mixed emotions prevailed at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility in Bangalore. The 3,840-kg Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, after travelling a distance of 3,83,998 km from Earth, had attempted to drop a lander named Vikram near the lunar south pole. A billion hearts sank as mission controllers lost communication with the craft when it was only 2.1 kilometers from the dusty surface.
At ISRO, there was disappointment at missing history by a whisker, but also a sense of pride, shared by everyone watching the spectacle live. India had just successfully launched a second lunar probe, carrying eight scientific payloads for mapping the lunar surface and studying the outer atmosphere of the moon, over a decade after our space programme turned heads with Chandrayaan-1. Importantly, India had dreamed big–and would continue to do so, with plans to send a manned mission to the moon, and a Venus probe, in the offing. Chandrayaan-1 had found evidence of widespread stores of water on the moon, but the lander and the rover aboard Chandrayaan-2 could have been the first to explore as-yet-unseen trenches of the lunarscape that are believed to contain ice deposits.
India would not just have become the fourth country to land a vessel on the moon, but also the first to explore the most inaccessible reaches of the moon, 600 km from the south pole. NASA’s landing sites, in comparison, are located near the equator, where it is safe to land. China’s Chang’e-4 mission, which in January 2019 became the first to land in a crater on the southern side of the moon, did so at a latitude of about 45 degrees south. Five months earlier, a private moon mission from Israel failed to make a soft landing when a technical glitch caused the main engine to shut down, making it impossible to slow the spacecraft’s descent. In fact, the high failure rate of landings ensured that there was no soft landing on the moon between 1976 and 2013.
Vikram the lander and Pragyan the rover were therefore not on a short-sighted mission to simply land on the moon to boost India’s standing among the space powers of the world. They were instruments in the most ambitious attempt yet to understand the lunar surface and what promise it holds for the human race. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugged a disconsolate Dr K Sivan, director of ISRO, on Saturday morning, and lauded ISRO for its stellar work and resilience over the years, the country burst into cheers for the former director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, a humble man from Sarakkalvilai village in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district who had been instrumental in designing India’s launch vehicles. “The setback caught us unawares. We did not expect, in a million years, that the mission would fail. But it has set the stage for higher goals and better mission planning at ISRO,” says a senior thermal engineer who has spent the past two years on the Chandrayaan-2 mission.
In an interview to Doordarshan, Dr Sivan said that the landing failure would not affect ISRO’s upcoming launches, including those of Cartosat-3, an earth observation satellite, and RISAT-2BR1, in October. “Work would continue on the flagship Gaganyaan crewed mission set for 2022,” he said.