September 9, 2019 2:51:51 am
India’s attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon has not gone according to plan. Trial and error is at the heart of science. With space technology, however, the results of an error can get exaggerated – it takes place in full public view. But landing a spacecraft was only one, though the most visible, part of the mission. This has certainly gone awry but as several scientists have pointed out, most of them not part of ISRO, there is substantive science left in the mission through the Orbiter which has been functioning normally. The lander and rover were to collect data only for 14 days. The Orbiter will remain operational for at least one year. Eight of the 14 instruments in the mission are onboard the Orbiter. The big science objectives of the mission, including the search for water, are supposed to be fulfilled by these instruments. All these cannot be ignored just because the showpiece part of the mission has gone awry.
Space exploration is increasingly becoming performance science. Immense public expectations and emotions are on display. And that can bring its own set of complications for space agencies like ISRO which seem ill-equipped to deal with such situations. It is thus important for ISRO to acquire better skills of communication and public relations. In the run-up to the Chandrayaan-2 launch, this was done effectively, as ISRO engaged with the public, put out videos and animations, organised quiz contests, and attempted to satisfy, and also arouse, the curiosity of the people about the moon and space exploration.
After this setback, however, there seems to be some reluctance, on the part of ISRO, to accept what went wrong. There was a loss of communication with the lander, it has maintained, and efforts were being made to restore contact. Subsequently, it has said that it has located the lander on the lunar surface. But what happened was the failure of Vikram to make a soft-landing on moon. Evidently, at the time contact with the lander was lost, it was moving towards the moon with a speed that was more than what was desired. From thereon, there can be only one possibility. That the lander went on to make contact with the moon’s surface at a speed higher than required for a soft-landing. Whether it got completely destroyed in the process, or suffered partial destruction, or was fully intact and therefore still contactable, is something that will be ascertained later. It is irrelevant to the mission objective of making a soft-landing and carrying out scientific investigations on the surface of the moon. There is no shame in admitting the failure to achieve these mission objectives in this attempt. ISRO knows, better than most, how to bounce back from disappointments.
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