As I start writing this article, the nation awaits with bated breath to witness history in the making. It's D-day and only five minutes separate us from beholding the launch of Chandrayaan-3, the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO’s) third lunar mission. 'Chandrayaan' is a Sanskrit word that translates to Moon vehicle or Moon craft in English. Thousands of citizens have assembled at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh to be a part of this iconic moment.
Meanwhile, I feel jittery with excitement squirming in my belly, as the ten-second countdown to the launch has begun. T-10 second….3, 2, 1….and what a majestic lift-off that was, much to the delight of the entire nation! The spacecraft was launched on a GSLV Mark 3 (LVM 3) heavy-lift launch vehicle. As the country's third lunar endeavor is underway, Chandrayaan-3 is carrying on its shoulder the aspirations of a nation that seeks to join the elite league of countries that have achieved a soft landing on the Moon, which includes the United States of America, China and the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Chandrayaan-3 is designed with a twofold purpose: to showcase India's technological prowess and to unlock the secrets of the Moon's uncharted territories. The mission's primary objectives include demonstrating a safe and precise soft landing on the lunar surface, showcasing the mobility of the rover, and conducting in-situ scientific experiments. By pursuing these goals, Chandrayaan-3 aims to expand our understanding of the Moon's composition, geological features, and potential for future human habitation. The idea is to position India's surface mission closest to the lunar south pole, an area of immense scientific interest due to its unique geological characteristics and regions still in perpetual shadow.
The path to lunar success has not been without hurdles for ISRO. Its previous mission, Chandrayaan-2, faced a setback in September 2019 when the Vikram lander, meant to execute a soft landing, encountered technical difficulties and crashed. This setback was a stark reminder of the formidable challenges involved in a soft moon landing. However, ISRO's dedication to learning from past experiences has paved the way for Chandrayaan-3 to build upon the lessons of its predecessors and emerge stronger.
Soft landing on the Moon remains a formidable feat, even after more than 50 years since Neil Armstrong first set foot on its surface. The complexities involved are numerous and demand utmost precision. The journey to the Moon itself poses challenges, as spacecrafts must traverse vast distances while overcoming potential failures at various stages. Furthermore, deceleration during landing is challenging due to the Moon's lack of a substantial atmosphere. Relying solely on propulsion systems, spacecraft smust carry significant amounts of fuel, resulting in a delicate balance between fuel requirements and added weight.
The absence of a global positioning system (GPS) on the Moon adds another layer of difficulty to soft moon landings. Spacecrafts cannot rely on a network of satellites for precise navigation. Instead, onboard computers must autonomously calculate and make critical decisions during the final approach to ensure a precise landing. The last few kilometers are particularly crucial, requiring real-time adjustments and responsiveness. Factors such as dust kicked up by propulsion systems further complicate navigation, demanding agile responses from onboard systems.
Despite the challenges, successful lunar missions by various countries serve as beacons of hope. The United States and the Soviet Union experienced numerous failures before achieving soft landings during the space race. China emerged as a trailblazer, accomplishing a soft landing on its first attempt with the Chang'e-5 mission in 2013. Drawing inspiration from these successes and lessons from past setbacks, Chandrayaan-3 seeks to forge a path of its own, contributing to the expanding body of knowledge about our celestial neighbor.
Without taking away anything from the glory of the space shuttle, there is one societal phenomenon worth discussing that has pervaded the nation right from the announcement of the Chandrayaan-3’s mission to its launch. It is the showering of religious practices surrounding the launch. The chairman of ISRO, S. Somnath and other officials stopped by the Tirupati Venkatachalapathy Temple in Andhra Pradesh to offer their prayers. This is not the first time that Indian scientists have blurred the lines between faith and science. Earlier this year, the collaborative NASA-ISRO satellite NISAR commenced its journey with a symbolic inauguration, marked by the traditional breaking of coconuts.
It’s no denying that India is a predominantly religious nation but on a personal note, it is better to separate ritualism from science. When we separate the two, it sends a nuanced message to our youth that it is mathematical precision, well-planned research and advancement in technology that create scientific milestones — not some irrational ritual dedicated to an invisible figure.
The Chandrayaan-3 is expected to land on August 23, 2023. Its success could mark a historic achievement for India. Chandrayaan-3's scientific payloads, combined with its enhanced landing capabilities, offer the potential for groundbreaking discoveries about the Moon's composition, the presence of water, and the mysteries of the solar system's origins. It is worth mentioning that the mission is being led by Ritu Karidhal, endearingly known as the “Rocket Woman of India”. She is a stalwart in the field and is particularly known for her contributions as the Project Manager and Deputy Operations Director for the Mars Orbiter Mission.
The indomitable spirit of India's scientists and engineers, their unwavering commitment to exploration, and their resilience in the face of setbacks exemplify the nation's dedication to pushing boundaries and achieving greatness. Chandrayaan-3 represents India's ongoing quest for scientific knowledge and technological prowess, igniting the collective imagination of a nation as it steps closer to the realization of its lunar dreams. And for all those complaining about why the nation’s treasury is being used on space exploration, there’s a wonderful quote by renowned writer, Larry Niven: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!”