ISRO Deserves Our Support — It’s Not Easy, It’s Rocket Science

‘Space is hard; no success without failure’: Neil deGrasse Tyson told The Quint after Vikram lander lost contact.

6 min read

Emotions rose to the skies when the ISRO chief suddenly began to sob, and PM Modi consoled him with an embrace. This was the closing scene when PM Modi left the ISRO centre on 7 September in Bengaluru.

This sent a strong message that the country has immense confidence and faith in our space scientists and engineers, even in the face of adversity. Social media has been buzzing throughout the day with congratulatory and touching messages for the ISRO staff. Overall, the general pulse is that we, as a country, stand united in this hour.

As the legendary astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson exclusively told The Quint over email on Saturday, 7 September:

“Space is hard, and there are no successes without failures. Those who explore and never fail were never on the frontier to begin with.”
Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director of Hayden Planetarium, USA to The Quint

Landing on Celestial Bodies Harder than High-Precision Surgery

Per se, landing on any celestial body sounds easy and even fun, thanks to the countless books, movies, animations and cartoons romanticising and over-simplifying it.

In reality, landing on any celestial body in the solar system is more complicated than the most complicated brain surgery on planet Earth. The amount of precision required for a man-made object from Earth to reach the moon and land on it, is comparable to shooting a toothpick from India to a piece of cheese on Antarctica, and the toothpick finding the exact designated hole in the cheese to fill in! That doesn’t sound easy at all, does it?

Speaking exclusively to The Quint, Prof G C Anupama, Dean of Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the first elected female president of the Astronomical Society of India, said:

“It is true that scientists and engineers at ISRO and elsewhere are disappointed with whatever happened to the Vikram lander. It would have been just wonderful to have 100% success, but that was not to be. Having said that, one should not ignore the successes of the mission. The Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle GSLV Mark III has been a success, paving the way for future missions. The Orbiter is there, on course, with all payloads functioning. So, we can expect good data from Chandrayaan-2 that will further our understanding of the lunar properties.” 
Prof G C Anupama, Dean of Indian Institute of Astrophysics to The Quint

Moon Landings in History: Making a Case for India

Not many have landed on the moon successfully. Only US, Russia and China have done this feat in the past. And we will never know how many attempts they have had before it became successful for them. Not all records are in the public domain.

Not every country is brave enough to do a live telecast of their first moon landing. One thing we, Indians, can take pride in, in this regard, is our honesty and openness in acknowledging our shortcomings. The ISRO staff did not have any airs and graces, and accepted the technical glitch with grace!

Dr Robert Massey, Deputy Executive Director, Royal Astronomical Society, London told The Quint over email:

“Sending probes into space, let alone landing them on the Moon, is never easy. Chandrayaan-2 was an ambitious project, and the Indian team should feel proud of their bold attempt. They can still look to the success of the spacecraft’s orbiter, set to add to the canon of data on the Moon, for lunar scientists everywhere. I have no doubt that we won’t have to wait long for another Indian landing craft, this time sending back pictures from the surface of our neighbouring world, and wish ISRO every success in that endeavour.”
Dr Robert Massey, Deputy Executive Director, Royal Astronomical Society, London to The Quint

What Chandrayaan-2 Had Hoped to Achieve

Chandrayaan-2 is India’s second mission to the moon, and will carry forward the legacy of its predecessor Chandrayaan-1 (launched in 2008) which discovered the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface.

Chandrayaan-2 consists of three parts: an orbiter, a lander named Vikram, and a six wheeled rover named Pragyaan. The mission was launched on 22 July. It entered the moon’s orbit in August, completing a series of challenging orbit manoeuvres. Its lander was launched into its lunar intimate trip on 2 September.

The lander Vikram was expected to land near the south pole of our Moon late last night. The whole world was anxiously waiting for the final touchdown of the lander. ISRO Chief Dr K Sivan, described it as the final “15 minutes of terror”, referring to the phase where the lander Vikram is supposed to autonomously guide itself to the lunar surface, without support from the ground control team.

Stephen Fry, a global science activist and legendary British comedian & actor, exclusively commented on ISRO’s achievement — despite hitches — over an email to The Quint and said:

“India should be intensely proud of its achievements thus far in the realm of space exploration. All great leaps forward are a mixture of advances and set backs – we only have to look at the history of NASA and the Soviet Space Agency to see that. In the great tradition of Ramanujan, Satyendra [Bose] and Acharya [Jagadish Chandra] Bose and the pioneering Vikram Sarabhai, Indian science is making itself felt across the world: followers and supporters of scientific achievement like me are filled with admiration.”
Stephen Fry, British actor-comedian, global science activist to The Quint

The Most Challenging Part For Chandrayaan-2

Landing on the Moon is a daunting task because it does not have any atmosphere, and hence, one cannot use parachutes to slow down and stabilise the lander’s descent. Therefore, we are forced to use ‘powered descent’, meaning that the speed of the lander is gradually reduced by its own rocket engines (thrusters), firing up in the required orientations.

Using these thrusters, the rate of descent has to be made close to zero at the moment of touchdown, in order to prevent any damage to the lander.

Hence, the term ‘soft landing’.

The orbiter and lander work together to scan and find a suitable spot for landing; free from dangerous boulders and lunar craters. On 6 September, the lander was giving active signal until it was about 2 km above the lunar surface. It was shown that the lander’s real trajectory deviated from its planned trajectory during the final countdown. Soon, the ISRO team lost communication with the lander, and we still don’t know what exactly happened to Vikram. The ISRO team is still analysing data to establish what the final fate of the lander is.


Hyper Nationalism and Chest-Thumping Over Chandrayaan-2

Before the lander was on its way, there were many Indians on social media displaying hyper-nationalistic mania and chest thumping, by claiming ‘we have become a superpower already by joining the elite club of space-power countries’. It is exactly this kind of arrogance that we should avoid. It is important to realise even more, that (wo)man is too small in front of Space, and our petty squabbles and childish races should be restricted to our planet alone.

Ridiculing ISRO and Space Scientists Is In Poor Taste

It is reassuring that our PM has stood with scientists throughout and has been extremely understanding and supportive even during a difficult situation. The sad part however, is that some sections of society (both from India and Pakistan) on social media are mocking and ridiculing our scientists and engineers, terming this whole exercise as an ‘utter failure’, a ‘waste of public money’ and so on. This isn’t true at all.

The lunar orbiter is live and kicking, with all the instruments working and doing experiments.

The lander also reached until 384,400 km out of 384,402 km; which isn’t a small feat by any measure.

Rest assured, the Chandrayaan-2 mission is still a success because it is going to give us a lot of meaningful data to tackle newer lunar science problems.


Why Space Exploration is Important

Investing in space science and atomic energy is never a waste of public money because it is this scientific curiosity, intellectual fervour, and research temper which sets us apart.

A country with our potential and talents has a long way to go in space. There are loads of asteroids, comets, natural satellites and Trans-Neptunian objects for us to explore even further. As the great American cosmologist, Carl Sagan, once said: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere!”

(Dr Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist and science writer. He tweets @aswinsek. This is an Opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same )

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More