Contact with moon lander is lost, but there's still 'Hope'
The loss of the lander is no doubt a setback, but it doesn't mean that the entire mission is a failure.
It had all the trappings of a Bollywood blockbuster. A 72-year-young country with mighty space ambitions dares to attempt what no nation has ever done before - to land a robotic mission at the moon's south pole. The audacious aspiration to be among the space pioneers, the noble desire to spark a renewed interest in the region's youth for science and technology, the bold dream to foster a new age of discovery and the grand quest to enhance mankind's knowledge of the macrocosm. it was all building up into a cosmic crescendo, especially in the days and weeks after India's Chandrayaan-2 lunar exploration spacecraft successfully took off on July 22, 2019.
The country's huge population, bogged down as it is by slowing economic growth and a record joblessness rate, was waiting with bated breath to see the moon lander, Vikram, make a soft-landing on the lunar south pole. It wasn't just Indians who wanted to see the lander touchdown at its destination safely - anyone and everyone who is even remotely interested in science wanted to see this endeavour succeed. Besides, who doesn't want to back an underdog? As icing on the proverbial cake, the completely indigenous endeavour was undertaken at a bargain-basement cost. There's no dearth of media tattle on how, at Rs978 crore ($136.5 million in yesterday's exchange rate), the cost of India's Chandrayaan-2 mission was less than half of the budget for the 2019 Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Endgame ($356 million).
The climax built up quite nicely and intensely to its logical limit. Like Slumdog Millionaire's Jamal Malik taking his last lifeline for the final question worth Rs20 million, the mood at Indian Space Research Organisation's (Isro's) Mission Operations Complex - and across the world with millions following it live on YouTube and television channels - was buzzing with anticipation and hope. But life sometimes decides to not follow a scripted narrative. If it was a movie, a protagonist might have foreseen a glitch and corrected it with zero seconds on the countdown timer and the lander would have touched down to hugs and high-fives at the command centre. That wasn't to be, unfortunately.
After the 47-day and 400,000km journey, the lander came tantalising close - within 2.1km distance of its landing surface - before losing contact with its home base on mother earth. Indian scientists knew exactly what they were getting into, with Isro chairman K. Sivan previously describing the moments as "15 minutes of terror" when the lander was to be completely on its own, without any oversight by the ground control. A similar exercise by another country in April had failed and India took notes from that failure and enhanced its landing process but, in the end, it may not have been enough.
The loss of the lander is no doubt a setback, but it doesn't mean that the entire mission is a failure. For the mathematically inclined, the setback amounts to a mere 5 per cent of the total assignment. The remaining 95 per cent - the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter - is very much alive and revolving around the moon at an altitude of 100km above the surface. Space-focused countries including the UAE have commended the pursuit, with Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, tweeting that the mission "is a new space experiment proving that #India is a great space power, all the support from the #UAESpaceAgency and the #UAE." Even in the 5 per cent mission failure, Vikram the lander would have given clues to future explorers, including the UAE's own 'Hope' probe, set to embark on its journey to Mars in July 2020. In mankind's quest to conquer the final frontier, a lander may be gone, but there's always 'Hope'.