Why India’s Moon mission needs to be celebrated
India Today Group Editor-in-Chief talks about what Chandrayaan 2 helped us achieve despite the Vikram lander suffering a hard landing, in the September 23 edition of India Today magazine.
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“Space is hard,” NASA tweeted hours after its Indian counterpart ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission ended in disappointment and it lost radio contact with the Vikram lander. The spacecraft is now believed to have suffered a hard landing on the Moon.
NASA’s words of encouragement commending ISRO’s attempt are significant. No other agency knows how hard space is — multiple tragedies have not deterred the US space agency from its motto of exploring space ‘for the benefit of all’. It is also an acknowledgement of ISRO’s commendable efforts to catch up with the US, Russia and China, the big boys of the space club. Over the past decade, ISRO has sent probes to Mars and perfected the GSLV Mark III launch vehicle that can carry a four-tonne satellite into the Earth’s orbit.
India Today September 23 cover, What went wrong with Vikram.
Indeed, rarely has science captured the popular imagination in India as it did in the early hours of September 7 as millions of Indians tuned in to watch the final leg of Chandrayaan 2’s journey to the moon. India’s space programme has been a source of national pride, and justifiably so. Chandrayaan 2 attempted to make India the first country to land a mission on the Moon’s remote, unexplored South Pole and unlock its secrets. It had to contend with the fact that lunar soft landings have to deal with very high failure rates, the reason only three countries — the US, the erstwhile USSR and China — have achieved them. ISRO has mastered several critical technologies in this mission, including detaching the orbiter and lander and firing the four rockets in the descent phase. It experienced failure only on the final lap and, even here, the failure of the Vikram lander and the Pragyaan rover must not obscure the fact that they comprised only 30 per cent of the mission. Chandrayaan 2 remains in lunar orbit. Its eight instruments are still ticking and sending valuable data about the surface of the moon back to ISRO’s earth stations.
It’s not just the presence of valuable metals on the moon’s regolith but also the discovery of frozen water in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon’s dark side which could be significant discoveries. This is because water on the moon could make human habitation in lunar colonies a reality in the not-so-distant future. It could also be harnessed to make rocket fuel and launch expeditions into deep space from the moon, at a significantly lower cost than the terrestrial launches.
Our cover story, ‘What Went Wrong with Vikram’, has been put together by Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa, who has tracked India’s space programme for four decades. Chengappa spoke to his sources to give us a comprehensive account of the final moments of Vikram and what went wrong. It must be remembered, however, that Chandrayaan is only one of several inter-planetary missions planned by ISRO. The space agency is working on missions to study the Sun, Venus, Mars and possibly a Chandrayaan 3 mission. By December 2021, it hopes to accomplish what could be our greatest scientific achievement—injecting three Indian astronauts into Earth’s orbit on an Indian rocket.
I must confess I was sceptical when India’s lunar ambitions were first disclosed 19 years ago. I thought it was a case of misplaced priorities for a poor nation. I now realise the cost is not so much given the size of our economy, and the benefits are many. Besides the technical spin-offs for Indian industry, we have a world-class organisation in ISRO despite it being a government agency. We even celebrate its setbacks. Space may be hard, but it galvanises a nation. These are things money can’t buy.