Chandrayaan 2: A pause, not abort-mission

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Updated: July 16, 2019 7:11:23 AM

Chandrayaan 2: Given the relentless coverage of the mission and the fact that the global media is in awe of Isro’s success-on-a-shoestring-budget story, the failure to launch on Monday could seem to some as a loss of face, but nothing can be farther from the truth.

Chandrayaan 2 launch, Chandrayaan 2, isro, NASA, Roscosmos, Chandrayaan, GSLV Mark IIIChandrayaan 2 is intended to become the second mission to make a soft landing near the lunar south pole after Chang’e 4, the Chinese spacecraft that landed there earlier this year. (PTI Photo)

Chandrayaan 2: A launch of India’s second lunar probe, Chandrayaan 2, close to the 50th anniversary of the American moonlanding that immortalised Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would have been great for optics, but beyond that missed opportunity of timing, there is little to make of Isro aborting the launch on Monday. Isro, as per reports, detected a glitch with launch vehicle, the GSLV Mark III, that was to blast off with the orbiter, lander and rover, and the launch was called off just 56 minutes before the scheduled time. The expectations, both in India as well as globally, from the moon mission against the backdrop of the phenomenal space success that Isro has demonstrated over the years, were high, and therefore the decision to abort, albeit temporarily, has drawn disproportionate attention from critics and mourners. Had a successful launch, and then a successful soft landing on the lunar surface, happened as scheduled, India would have become only the fourth nation in the world to have achieved this feat, after the erstwhile USSR, the US, and China.

The Chandrayaan 2, apart from demonstrating India’s space prowess, has serious exploration goals, from study of the lunar topography and mineralogy to the study of the lunar exosphere and the search for water on the moon. The orbiter will map the lunar surface. But, most important, the mission would serve as a beta for the 2022 manned mission to the moon that India is eyeing.

Given the relentless coverage of the mission and the fact that the global media is in awe of Isro’s success-on-a-shoestring-budget story, the failure to launch on Monday could seem to some as a loss of face, but nothing can be farther from the truth. NASA and Roscosmos—both with decades and billions of dollars of launch experience—have catalogues of failure, some of them quite recent. NASA’s launch failure with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 1 launch in 2009, the rendezvous failure of its DART satellite, a long-list of aborted missions for a host of reasons, technical glitches to budgetary constraints has not dented the perception it enjoys as the world’s premier space agency. Indeed, there have been two missions that have exacted terrible human costs from NASA.

Every agency has had a problem of failures, accidental and of oversight—recall the US’s NOAA 19 fiasco, where the satellite was badly damaged at NASA’s private sector partner’s facility due to procedural lapses! The lunar mission’s eventual fate has a lot at stake—the hard work of Isro’s talented pool of engineers, the pace of progress towards realising India’s space ambitions, and even what can be potentially added to the bank of human knowledge should the mission succeed. What it doesn’t put at stake is Isro’s rich legacy as a premier space agency in its own right and national pride. Chandrayaan 2 reimagines space prowess for India, but a temporary delay isn’t something that doomsayers can credibly harvest.

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