Human curiosity is a remarkable force that, for eons, has driven us to explore the unknown, pushing the boundaries of our understanding and capabilities. As a civilization, nowhere is this curiosity more evident than in the awe-inspiring realm of space exploration. As we gaze upward and reach for the stars, we embark on a journey that not only uncovers the mysteries of the cosmos but also reflects our innate desire to expand our horizons. In this grand endeavor, if we are to explore our nation’s recent history, India has emerged as a shining beacon, solidifying its position among the elite nations (Soviet Union, USA, and China) championing space travel. Today, we trace India's landmark moments in space exploration.
Under the Nehru administration, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai founded the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) with the aim of shaping India's space program. Initially a part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, INCOSPAR assumed the responsibilities of the Department of Atomic Energy in the realm of space science and research. Dr. Homi Bhabha, then director of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), played a crucial role in its establishment. The committee's pivotal decision was to establish the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) at the southernmost tip of India. Among the pioneering team of rocket technologists who laid the foundation of INCOSPAR was Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who later went on to become the President of India.
This is the historic year when it all began. INCOSPAR was replaced and in its place, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was born out of a strong desire to harvest the benefits of outer space for India and mankind. The space agency was fueled by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, often hailed as the father of the Indian space program.
The Aryabhata satellite stood as India's inaugural venture into space, marking a historic milestone. Named after the ancient Indian mathematician, the Aryabhata satellite aimed to conduct scientific experiments in X-ray astronomy, solar physics, and other realms. Carried into orbit by a Soviet launch vehicle, the satellite's mission contributed to India's evolving space program, offering crucial experiences in satellite technology and research and setting the groundwork for the nation's future achievements.
Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam spearheaded the launch of India's first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-I), marking a significant leap in the nation's space capabilities. This pioneering achievement culminated in the successful deployment of the Rohini satellite into a near-earth orbit. The SLV-I's launch not only demonstrated India's technological prowess but also showcased its determination to establish a self-reliant space infrastructure.
This was the year of Chandrayaan-1, when India launched its maiden lunar mission. It aimed to do an imaging of the Moon's surface and exosphere. Equipped with eleven scientific instruments, the orbiter conducted remote sensing across multiple wavelengths, leading to significant discoveries such as detecting water molecules and hydroxyl on the moon''s surface. Despite its premature end due to communication loss, Chandrayaan-1's achievements laid the groundwork for subsequent lunar missions.
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan marked India's inaugural interplanetary endeavor. MOM's remarkable success in reaching Mars' orbit on a limited budget showcased India's technological capabilities. With scientific goals encompassing the study of Martian morphology, atmosphere, and methane presence, MOM not only positioned India as the first Asian nation to reach Martian orbit but also highlighted its growing influence in international space exploration and research.
Kalamsat-V2, a nano-satellite developed by Indian students, was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Weighing just 1.2 kilograms, it holds the distinction of being the lightest and smallest satellite to ever be placed in orbit. Designed by a team of students from Space Kidz India, Kalamsat-V2 was named after Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam himself. The satellite showcased India's prowess in miniaturized satellite technology and provided a platform for experimental communication through amateur radio frequencies. The successful launch of Kalamsat-V2 was a significant achievement for India's youth, as it demonstrated that even students with limited resources could contribute to space research and exploration. Since its launch, it has inspired several young minds to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and space-related fields.
Chandrayaan-2, India's second lunar exploration mission, was a more ambitious mission compared to its predecessor, as it included an orbiter, a lander named Vikram, and a rover named Pragyan. Chandrayaan-2 aimed to further investigate the Moon's surface, composition, and its south polar region. However, the mission failed in its lunar phase when its lander 'Vikram' crashed into the surface of the Moon minutes before the touchdown following anomalies in the braking system in the lander while attempting a landing. In spite of this major setback, Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter continued to function well and provided invaluable data that contributed to the recent success of Chandrayaan-3. They say failure is the pillar of success and rightly so. The ISRO scientists learned from their mistakes, developed a more nuanced plan that fully accounted for complexities of the Moon’s south pole and eventually cracked the code to achieve a soft landing.
In the present continuous, we as a nation are whole-heartedly basking in the glory days of Indian space exploration, owing to our brilliant scientific community. Chandrayaan-3, India’s third and most recent lunar mission was launched on 14 July. On 23 August at 18:02 IST, the lander and rover landed near the lunar south pole region making India the first country to successfully land a spacecraft near the lunar south pole and the fourth country to soft-land on the Moon. This success has not only made the nation proud, it has also created opportunities for several start-ups and companies involved in sectors such as space tech, aerospace, defence and R&D. The historic achievement will also increase government financial allocations for space research, paving the way for more interstellar triumphs in the years to come.