India Today - - FROM THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF - (Aroon Purie)

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.

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.

Our Nov. 3, 2008 cover

Our Jul. 3, 2000 cover

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