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Behind euphoria, how ISRO mission gave India the moon it asked for

Long before the kaju burfis were distributed at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s moon mission control centre on the night of November 14...

Written by Johnson_t_a | Bangalore |
November 16, 2008 12:03:51 am

Long before the kaju burfis were distributed at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) moon mission control centre on the night of November 14, scientists had spent hours over coffee, tea and lunch interactions highlighting for the public the significance of the Chandrayaan-I mission.

For ISRO, often at the receiving end of criticism for embarking on a Rs 386-crore journey across 386,000 km, amid India’s still developing status, the need to communicate that the mission was not about being an ‘also ran’ has always been high on the agenda.

Lost in the clutter of technical specifications and the euphoria of the successful landing on the moon have, however, been little stories on how low cost the mission actually is, on how ISRO pulled as a team, on some of the possible scientific gold lying at the end.

Project director for the moon mission M Annadurai narrates one anecdote to explain cost comparisons and hints at possible future commercial benefits of the mission.

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“When ISRO built the basic stripped-down spacecraft for the moon mission, we received an offer from the United States for purchase of a similar spacecraft at four times the cost we had incurred to build it. We built it at a cost of Rs 80 crore,” he says.

In the mission control room on Friday night, soon after the Tricolour settled on the surface of the moon onboard the Moon Impact Probe (MIP), ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair, peeved by frequent questions on cost viability, announced that ISRO had given the country much more than the Government had invested in it.

“India asked for the moon, we have given it the moon,” Nair famously remarked before being mobbed by eager television crews.

Among the benefits that cannot be quantified from the moon mission, ISRO scientists say are a “thrust to basic science and engineering research and in bringing young talent to fundamental research”.

Individual leaders for the mission — project director Annadurai, director of the control centre S K Shivakumar, satellite centre chief T K Alex, principal scientist for the mission J N Goswami — were all visibly elated after the touchdown on Friday night.

While national and state awards have been announced for several of the team leaders, the scientists themselves have been keen on highlighting the teamwork that has gone into the mission with over 500 people engaged over the past two years.

“We symbolise your achievements and accomplishments. Chandrayaan-I is one of the greatest team efforts. Awards recognise the team effort. It is for you and me. Thank you for being part of the team,” wrote Annadurai in an e-mail to the project team.

At the beginning of 2008, wishing his team a happy new year the project director had written: “As Chandrayaan-I family we have fared well. During the new year we have to stretch ourselves more to meet early shipment of the spacecraft.”

According to ISRO scientists, one of the biggest challenges in the mission has been to integrate the various international instruments on the spacecraft on account of the different calibration standards involved.

While mountains of data that tell a better scientific story of the moon and its matter are expected from the two year mission, one specific element that scientists will be keeping their eyes peeled for is Helium 3, considered important for energy generation experiments with nuclear fusion technology.

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