As we drive away from an important moment in our lives back towards our daily grind, it is perhaps time to look into the rear view mirror and reflect on what Chandrayaan-2 made us realise: about us, about the broader Universe, and about India.
Forty-eight hours have passed since the signal from the lander was lost. The loss of signal sounds very innocuous but usually belies a much deeper problem. Why would a perfectly healthy spacecraft suddenly stop communicating? And, if contact was really broken because of a non-dire reason, it would have been re-established in minutes, or at most hours.
One dire prognosis is that the vehicle was in danger, most likely overheated, and that the communication system was damaged. ISRO seems to have located the lander. Whatever the underlying issue was, and whatever the final status of the lander is, it is important to accord the ISRO team the necessary time to look through the available data and reconstruct what happened in the final minutes. Without the study of the data sent out by the lander, it is not possible to hypothesize what happened: the engineering possibilities are far too many.
The average Indian’s involvement in the mission was historic. There was huge interest in this scientific event: a lot of households stayed awake to watch the landing. Not just did people follow the mission, many followed along with the intricate and esoteric engineering procedures: from lander separation to the various steps of the landing. Indians in India and abroad came together to celebrate one of the finest moments of Indian scientific history.
Perhaps the public participation, and the scientific enthusiasm created as a result, is one the biggest contributions of Chandrayaan-2. Perhaps in some way, this was India’s Apollo moment, when the majority of American households stayed glued to their televisions, to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the Moon. And for a moment, let us just imagine that the lander had landed perfectly, and the rover had driven off the ramp in a matter of hours, to explore the lunar soil. Just imagine what the public interest and participation would have been!
Chandrayaan-2 perhaps reminded us how insignificant humans are in the Universe, even with our most developed spacecraft. A small difference in spacecraft attributes, like speed, orientation, relative timing of different engineering sequences, can have potentially disastrous consequences. And, recall, this is to just to visit our nearest neighbour in space – less than half a million miles away.
Even in the 21st century, humans are remarkably helpless when it comes to space travel. Distances in space are way too large, and our spacecraft are comparatively very slow. The star nearest to us, Alpha Centauri, is about 4 light years away — or approximately of the order of 10,000 times farther than the Earth-Mars distance. Currently, it takes about a half-year to travel to Mars — which means it will take something of the order of 5,000 years for a human spacecraft to reach the nearest star. And the centre of our galaxy is 1,00,000 light years away — which is beyond our wildest dreams.
The Chandrayaan mission teaches us the importance of experimentation. Indeed, in a spacecraft and in life, it is important to experiment in order to move forward. If we worked within our comfort zone, without any risks, we would never progress. The story of the human race is based on experimentation and risk taking. I think the setback for Chandrayaan-2 teaches us the importance of experimentation: that all progress is a result of risky endeavours, which could have failed.
Many leaders in the worlds of business and politics try to distance themselves from failure. They dissipate in the background while someone down the chain of command takes the questions and the brickbats. The Prime Minister’s gesture was uplifting. He took ownership of the outcome, and stood with ISRO at the moment when it mattered the most. It was clear that he would continue to support ISRO in its journey of exploration, regardless of the outcome of Chandrayaan-2.
What Chandrayaan-2 also teaches us is to savour the journey, rather than to be fixated on the outcome. In the journey of half a million miles, the Vikram lander could not complete just the last 2 kilometres. If we fixate on the final outcome, we miss out on the beauty of its journey from the lab to almost the surface of the Moon. We have become an increasingly outcome-driven society – but unless you can celebrate the journey, it is hard to justify undertaking the effort. Because most efforts, at some level, carry the risk of failure.
What happened with Chandrayaan-2 is a very possible outcome in the space business. A decade-long space project can be destroyed in seconds: it takes away the sweat and toil of thousands of engineers who have poured years of their lives into it. For an astronaut, in addition to the uncertainty of the final outcome, there is a risk of bodily harm, should the spacecraft experience an anomaly.
I remember driving up to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, California, the day before the Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997. The road leading to the laboratory was lined with satellite trucks from the media. The press room was packed with journalists who had flown in from all over the world. As a young scientist, I felt a sense of apprehension. It was intimidating to process scientific results and present them to the world in a matter of hours. Scientific enquiry requires thought and peer review: a press deadline does not necessarily help in arriving at the correct solution.
While the huge public interest in science is very welcome, at some point it is important to realise that this might create pressure on the scientists. Scientific discovery, unfortunately, does not respond to deadlines. While science under the arc lights is the new normal today, it is important to remember that the real science happens afterwards — and away from the media glare. Discoveries that will result from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, or any spacecraft mission for that matter, will come after days of thought, collaboration with fellow scientists, and review by a peer group — perhaps a year or more into the future.
In 1993, I left India to pursue planetary science research in the US. At the time, ISRO had no Planetary Science Program. Today, a youngster in India has much greater possibilities, if indeed their aspiration was to pursue planetary science as a career. Today, ISRO is on to its third planetary mission, set to launch missions to Venus and Mars in the next decade, with perhaps more missions being announced going forward. ISRO will inspire children to look beyond traditional choices, as they go about planning their careers.
(Dr Amitabha Ghosh is Chair of the Science Operations Working Group of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission)