New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried his best to cheer up scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) today as the failure of the Chandrayaan-2 landing sunk in. The gloom was clearly visible on the ISRO leadership and personnel despite Modi underscoring India’s civilizational ethos in perceiving failures as part of eventual success. However, images of ISRO Chairman K. Sivan breaking down as Modi consoled him, showed the high hopes that were bet on this mission and the emotional challenges that it had imposed.
Space is unforgiving. The world has lost precious resources in establishing and continuing spaceflight and the horror is more palpable when astronauts, the envoys of mankind in outer space, have lost lives. India too shared its grief with the world when Kalpana Chawla perished on the space shuttle Columbia as it disintegrated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. At the same time, the successes and achievements too are celebrated not just by the country in question, but by the global community at large.
ISRO is no exception to failures. However, it is the grit in these situations that determines whether the failure is permanent or a mere setback. This attitude guided ISRO when launch vehicle failures were common. India stood in solidarity with ISRO throughout these years and today is no different. Bhutan too sent a heartfelt message even as its students missed the opportunity to celebrate the landing success with Modi.
Instead, what these students watched on ISRO screens is the Vikram lander carrying Pragyan rover in its fold failing to control its descent rate and attitude when approaching the lunar surface. This process is autonomous and ISRO could only watch as it unravels. Therefore, several experiments were made on the ground to perfect the landing system. Nevertheless, mimicking an alien world on Earth in a controlled environment cannot be compared to the realities awaiting them on the lunar surface. Moreover, Vikram’s landing zone is at a higher latitude in the south polar region of the moon making navigation hazardous.
The mission is not a complete failure though. As ISRO noted already, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter carries the majority of the overall mission payload. These high-end sensors can assess the lunar environment and surface in greater detail for scientific purposes and to guide future probes. Moreover, opportunities exist for joint experiments like Chandrayaan-1 did with American Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Even the Vikram lander is useful to the extent of data it gathered today to rectify onboard decision-making errors in future landers and rovers.
These future missions are dependent on political will as much as on ISRO’s technical knowledge. The strategic rationale behind the Chandrayaan project has been established by this author on these pages before. Ambitious space missions signal a country’s rising influence in the world and of its technological advances. Accordingly, the two superpowers — the United States and the then Soviet Union — competed in launching planetary exploration and human missions during the Cold War. But now as the Western influence wanes, Asia’s waxing and India plays a dominant role in that. Chandrayaan-2 signals India’s arrival to the foreground in concurrent outer space affairs.
Another significant mission in this context is India’s human mission Gaganyaan. The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle has performed flawlessly in launching Chandrayaan-2, increasing its reliability quotient for the human mission. In fact, the institutional strength of ISRO lies in overcoming launch vehicle failures and international pressure over the past few decades. This strength allows ISRO to overcome today’s frustration and design appropriate solutions.
The Chandrayaan-2 landing is only the first-ever attempt by India to land on the moon. Even experienced space agencies cannot confront the ‘last few minutes of terror’ as the spacecraft tries touching down on the lunar or Martian surface. These experiences of the United States, Russia, China and recently Israel point to outer space as still a challenging domain to explore.
Therefore, the collective wisdom of these countries is very much essential. Russia partnered with India on Chandrayaan-2 in the initial stage. Japan too is interested in partnering with India in lunar exploration. However, the geopolitical realities cannot be ignored, particularly when national pride is involved. Major powers intend to demonstrate political will and indigenous technological advances through space missions. Such calculations restrict international cooperation.
The United States and the then Soviet Union competed in the original space race before realising the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project when the American and Soviet modules were conjoined in space. Its larger successor, the International Space Station, also carries strategic intent. It is a joint project of Western countries and Japan with Russia’s participation made contingent on abrogating India’s cryogenic engine deal.
India’s position had changed since then emerging as a middle power with strategic ties to great powers. The Vikram landing is meant to serve a signal of India becoming self-reliant in lunar exploration. Self-reliance helps India forge international collaboration as an equal partner. This calculation compels India to attempt moon landing again soon, just not today.
The author is a Research Analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit. Previously, he was an Associate Fellow in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Views are personal.