Inside India’s lunar mission
It was meant to be a day of pride for India on September 7, when the country was set to join an elite club of nations to have successfully landed a mission on the moon.
But that morning as Vikram, the Chandrayaan-2 mission’s lander, slowly made its way down to the lunar surface it lost communication with India’s space agency.
On Thursday, NASA said that Vikram had a “hard landing” and its location is still unknown.
While this part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission has failed, this is just one step in India’s space ambitions, and this experience may have laid important building blocks for future launches.
This mission was particularly complex for India, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the nuclear and space policy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, told CNN, as it was the country’s first landing on a “non-terrestrial surface.”
“Lunar landing or any landing is always a tricky issue … the chances of things going wrong at the very last minute are always there,” Rajagopalan said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who championed the lunar mission, later consoled the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) team in a televised address.
“We will look back at the journey and effort with great satisfaction,” Modi said. “The learnings from today will make us stronger and better. There will be a new dawn and a brighter tomorrow very soon.”
Modi’s optimism shows that when it comes to the space race, perhaps not everything has to be an immediate success.
“Landing on the moon is no easy mission to accomplish. It shows India has progressed very far as a space nation. Despite the failed landing on the surface, the orbiter is still active and functional in the lunar orbit,” freelance space journalist Jonathan O’Callaghan told CNN.
Chandrayaan-2, which means ‘moon vehicle’ in Sanskrit, took off on July 22 and over a period of 47 days gradually moved from orbit to orbit and was then sent in a slingshot towards the moon.
The main shuttle, comprising of an orbiter, rover and lander, entered lunar orbit on August 20. Its primary mission was that, after successfully landing on the moon, its rover would collect samples for 14 days. Following that it was scheduled to power down and stop transmitting.
While communication with Vikram has now been lost, the mission’s orbiter has settled into its work, transmitting data to India as it circles the moon in a now extended seven-year mission.
“Before this century, India’s space program was quite different to the rest of the world. There weren’t these high goals of landing on the moon or going to Mars, but since the turn of the century, India has changed its focus to these grander missions,” O’Callaghan told CNN.
And ISRO’s latest attempt at landing on the moon could help countries and private firms to understand better the nuances involved in space exploration, leading to better and more successful missions in the future.
Conversations are being had between different countries on what happened and what the lessons are for everyone as they embark on future missions, Rajagoplan said.
“That will contribute to the larger understanding of how missions are so complex and what are the things that need to be taken into account,” she added.
For the past decade, India’s foray into space exploration has been marked with successful missions. India has quickened the pace among Asian countries, such as China and Japan, as it competes to outmaneuver the others in space.
The Chandrayaan-2 reportedly cost around $141 million, which is less than half the amount spent on the recent Hollywood blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame,” which cost $356 million to make.
“What’s notable is that they’re done with a low budget and they’re very ambitious. This was India’s second moon mission, but it was already an attempt to land on the surface, which is commendable,” said O’Callaghan.
“Normally you’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars, but India doing this at a low cost is important because there has been some criticism over why India has been doing these missions to space when there are other areas to focus on.
“But I think it’s important for the country to do these missions on a relatively low budget to provide inspirations and aspiration for the general public,” he added.
In January, China made history by becoming the first nation to land a rover on the far side of the moon and a planned mission next year is due to land on the moon, collect samples and return to Earth.
Even if India did not become the second country after China to explore the far side of the moon, its ambitions to become a major player in space continue.
By 2022, India aims to launch a manned mission into space. The Chandrayaan missions just laid foundations for that plan.
While Chandrayaan may not have achieved what it set out to, it was able to accomplish one thing. Hopes for the homegrown mission managed to unite the country, which like others across the globe grapples with an increasingly polarized political climate.
Many took to social media to share their thoughts.
“ISRO has managed to achieve the impossible — unite the right wing and the left wing,” read one tweet.
Another compared it to India’s national obsession, cricket, tweeting even “the World Cup didn’t unite Indians like this.”
Others simply thanked ISRO, writing, “For a few hours tonight, you united the country in excitement, solidarity and genuine patriotic pride. That’s not something we’ve had in a while. So, thank you.”