Sep 07, 2019, a day all Indians and a large part of the rest of the world too were waiting for – India’s Lunar Lander Vikram was to settle down gently on the moon at a place never explored before – the south pole. The South Pole region of the Moon has craters that are cold traps and contain a fossil record of the early Solar System which needed exploration. Chandrayaan-2 was to soft-land its lander – Vikram and rover- Pragyan in a high plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of about 70° south. The landing was slated for early this morning, with the Prime Minister, no less at Mission Control, sharing the undoubted tension of the scientists and staff there. That’s how important a milestone it was in India’s space journey, but it became a case of so near, yet so far.
Sometimes, even the best of plans do not go our way, and the famous, stoic, and almost emotionless voice that Mission Control Centres all over the world are known for, gravely intoned that “There is a loss of signal from the lander – the data is being analysed.” Long before the announcement actually came, the situation was all too clear – The Prime Minister had quietly moved away from the front row to a side location in the venue, and there was sudden hush in the hall – the students, the engineers and the visitors were quietly looking at the screens on the wall, as the whole nation waited with bated breath. Our dear lander has ‘fallen silent’ 2 km above the lunar surface and just seconds before its moment of glory.
The Flight of Chandrayaan 2 which launched on 22 July from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at 2:43 PM had been approved by the Union Cabinet in the last week of Aug 2009 when India’s first Moon Mission was still in flight orbiting and surveying the moon from a height. This was to be India’s first attempt to land on the moon, release a rover to get on the floor, collect samples of moon dust analyse them and sent its report back to earth.
Leadership at a time of crisis:
Real leadership in a leader is shown at a time of crisis –Mr George W Bush was informed of the 9/11 attacks on the WTC in New York moments before he was to address the students in the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Advised as he was, not to mention the attacks when addressing schoolchildren, he overruled that advice and spoke without any notes to the children, to the teachers and to the nation, as one family, about the WTC attacks.
It was very noble of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mingle first with the flight control personnel, then with the schoolchildren, and then speak on the media to the nation exhorting one and all to gracefully accept the fact that we have come this far and that this in itself is no mean achievement. When he embraced ISRO Chairman K Sivan and consoled him, he reminded each of us that he is with us every step of the way, as we work together to develop an India strong on all fronts.
While the ISRO officials were crestfallen, Prime Minister Modi told them: “Be courageous.” Interacting with the gloomy-faced scientists at the control room of the ISTRAC, he said: “Whatever you have done till now is no mean feat.” “The nation is proud of you. “You all have served the nation and done a great service to science and mankind. Move ahead with lots of courage. I am with you, hope for the best,” he said, patting ISRO Chairman K. Sivan on the back.
President Ram Nath Kovind stated that “With the Chandrayaan 2 Mission, the entire team of ISRO has shown exemplary commitment and courage. The country is proud of ISRO. We all hope for the best.” The Congress party also officially reacted to this development. It stated that the country stood in solidarity with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) team. It also added that their hard work and commitment had made everyone proud.
Shooting a projectile way out of our planet into space, and then after 47 days, having it at a very precise point, more than 3,80,000 km away, at a very specific time in the very hostile environment of space is by itself an outrageous thought, but given the determination, the teamwork, and the skills of Indian technocrats at all levels, we did it, and we are proud of that.
Never has the whole nation been as unitedly focused on one spot at one time except maybe an India Pakistan World Cup Cricket Final. Watching every movement of the lander on the screen, and the readouts in the digital displays, we were following the each and every word and looking for any cue from the commentators, as we realized that our cherished goal had slipped away. The last part of an exploration is always the most difficult and getting your vehicle to another celestial body with only telemetry controls is always prone to a very high element of risk. We almost got there – but only just.
Consolation: Apollo 11 – also an almost disaster.
NASA recently disclosed a very disturbing recording of the first manned landing on the moon by Apollo 11. After taking several detours from the originally planned location, the lander actually descended into its place in history with only 17 seconds of fuel remaining in the tank. While the whole world has been cheering their achievement for the past 50 years, most of us were blissfully unaware of the tragic disaster that this flight had almost turned into.
Mission Control, their voice not much different from what it is now, actually acquiesced into a mild grin (maybe for the first and only time in their history) and a sigh of relief because the news of the successful landing came in just as the flight controllers were ‘starting to turn blue’ from holding their breaths. Even damaging their lander would have effectively destroyed any hope of a return. This was a tragedy the U.S. could do well to avoid. And avoid they did. By the hard work of all involved from the start, and at every stage of the project, and also a good measure of sheer luck.
The unmanned craft that we sent up was no less exposed to these hazards than any of the other vehicles before it. For an unmanned vehicle the risk is much greater because for the mission controllers to take any steps, they should know what damage has occurred, assess it, work out a fix, and then rectify it before they can continue with the journey. For all, or even any of that work to be done, there must be a signal not only one way but both ways, back and forth, which there wasn’t. And they would also need some time, which was not there.
Even if the lander was in a braking mode, at 2 km above the surface, it was still hurtling towards the lunar surface at a very high speed, and was, at the moment of signal loss, just a few seconds of flying time away from a space object that would obliterate it on impact. ISRO says that they are watching and let us hope for the best, but this is a stark reminder that space has always been a very hostile frontier, and it will remain that way.
The main orbiter continues in orbit around the moon and will keep working for another year – the estimate is that only the 5% data that had to come from the lander and Rover is lost – the main data that is due from the orbiter is still secure.
Exploration, whether on land, by air, or in space, is always prone to hazards, and an event like today cannot and should not be called a failure. It is only a delay – we need to wait only a little bit more before we achieve the goal we have set up for ourselves as a nation.
By: Arun Pinto