Why It’s Wrong to Call the Chandrayaan-2 Mission a Failure

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Why It’s Wrong to Call the Chandrayaan-2 Mission a Failure

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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he country woke up to heartbreaking news today, as headlines announced that the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) highly-anticipated Chandrayaan-2 lunar probe did not land on the south pole of the moon. ISRO broke the news that it had lost contact with the craft’s lander late last night, as the country watched on in a livestream that featured a number of teary-eyed scientists and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance.

As the day progressed and more details of the so-called “failure” emerged, one thing became clear. Despite what the alarmist headlines initially announced, the space programme is in no way a failure. Rather, it’s an indication of just what our homegrown space agency is capable of pulling off with few resources in the future. 

For starters, most objectives of the highly-complex mission were met without a hitch. The only problem arose in the dying minutes of the mission. As an ISRO scientist put it, “Only 5 per cent of the mission has been lost… the remaining 95 per cent is orbiting successfully.” That’s a grade that even the world’s most academically oriented parents, who give birth to children with Ivy League school forms in hand, wouldn’t go as far as calling a failure. 

The Chandrayaan-2 craft was made up of three main components — an orbiter, a lander christened Vikram, after India’s space pioneer Dr Vikram Sarabhai, and a rover named Pragyan that sat neatly in the lander. For a majority of the mission, everything went according to plan — the orbiter broke off from the Vikram lander without a glitch, and will now continue to study the moon from afar and send back high-resolution images to ISRO for a year. 

Despite what the alarmist headlines initially announced, the space programme is in no way a failure.

After breaking off from the orbiter, though, Vikram successfully descended for 13 minutes, and was in the process of slowing down so it could make that much-talked about soft landing when ISRO scientists lost communication with it. Vikram was just over two kilometers from the surface of the moon’s south pole — a place that no nation has ever explored before, and a distance that’s sometimes hard to cross in Andheri without blacking out. It was that close. This is especially painful to hear when you consider Vikram casually crossed 384,400 kilometres between the Earth and the moon on the way there with no glitch.

There now remains a small chance that Vikram may have survived the fall, in which case ISRO has 14 days to try and establish communication with the lander, and the entire mission will still be considered a success.  

It’s interesting that the Chandrayaan-2 mission was also launched on board a GSLV Mk III rocket, an acronym that may remind you of another vehicle with a similar name. In 2010, a video showing a GSLV rocket exploding seconds after take off had gone viral, and similar tributes to the ones we’re seeing today had poured in for ISRO. That mission was labelled a failure as well. But today, less than a decade later, its successor is launching a complex space mission to an unexplored area of the moon that had scientists from across the world rooting for its success.

ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan had earlier called the complex landing manoeuver they were attempting “15 minutes of terror”.

There’s also the fact that this entire mission cost the country approximately $150 million, as opposed to Nasa’s Apollo missions, which would cost about $445 million (and $2.24 billion, if we adjust for inflation) prior to their discontinuation. The fact is, our scientists are sending spacecraft to the moon with a 95 per cent success rate, for less than it takes some people to build statues. To call this a failure and call Student of the Year 2 a success is absolutely ridiculous. 

ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan had earlier called the complex landing manoeuver they were attempting “15 minutes of terror”. In an interview with NDTV, he had compared the level of care required to holding a newborn baby in his hands. Today, a video circulated of the prime minister hugging the inconsolable ISRO chief after the announcement. The PM is also heard telling the head scientist that there will be a “new dawn”.

And there is indeed a new dawn to look forward to. India is currently working on programmes to launch our first-ever manned space mission, Gaganyaan; an orbiter to Mars, Mangalyaan; and the launch of Aditya L-1, a mission to observe the surface of the sun. In the next decade India will begin its own Space Age, and Chandrayaan-2 will be remembered as an early success that heralded many more to come.

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