The soft landing of a robot on the Moon might have eluded India but eventual success may not, given its space agency’s history of learning from failures.
Millions of Indians, along with a visibly emotional Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief, K Sivan, were heartbroken on Sept. 07, after Chandrayaan-2 Vikram Lander deviated from its defined path, minutes before its scheduled touchdown at the lunar south pole.
The lander soon lost communication with ISRO’s mission control complex in Bengaluru.
However, a thin ray of hope arose yesterday (Sept. 08) after ISRO announced it had located Vikram. “Right now, communication is lost, but we are trying to re-establish contact with the lander over the next 14 days,” said Sivan, in an interview to the national broadcaster Doordarshan.
Space enthusiasts hope ISRO will bounce back. Here are a few instances when it did.
The first failure
In the early 1970s, ISRO began working on the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) project to develop the capabilities to launch satellites.
The first SLV-3 launch took place on Aug. 10, 1979 with the Rohini satellite. However, just 317 seconds after launch, it crashed into the Bay of Bengal due to a faulty valve. India’s former president APJ Abdul Kalam, the project coordinator of the SLV-3 mission when it crashed, had then made a speech on how to handle failure.
The failed mission set the tone for ISRO’s future achievements.
On July 18, 1980, ISRO successfully launched SLV-3 from the Sriharikota rocket launching station and the Rohini, satellite RS-1, was placed in orbit, making India the sixth member of an exclusive club of space-faring nations.
A series of unfortunate events
In rocketry, one cannot be too careful with the launch vehicle, and no one knows it better than ISRO.
In 1987, the failure of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV-1) caused a massive dent in India’s space programme. The 40-tonne rocket, hailed as “a giant leap into the use of an array of hi-tech,” lost direction and plunged into the Bay of Bengal, minutes after taking off from Sriharikota.
The second ASLV launch attempt, in 1988, carrying the SROSS-2 satellite was also unsuccessful.
In 1993, ISRO witnessed another disappointment with the unsuccessful launch of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This was attributed to three reasons: the gap between switching off the second stage engine and switching on the third stage engine, an error in the control software and, failure of retro-rockets to fire.
The first successful PSLV launch took place on Oct. 15, 1994. Since then, various PSLV versions have had 39 successful launches.
Another launch failure for ISRO came in 2006, when GSLV-FO2 veered off its trajectory and disintegrated due to a motor failure. The rocket was to place the Insat 4-C communication satellite in a geosynchronous orbit but later ISRO issued a destruct command after it found that the rocket was not on its intended path.
The road ahead
Experts believe ISRO’s future projects will not be hampered by Chandrayaan-2’s temporary setback.
The space agency plans to send a three-member crew to space for at least seven days under its Gaganyaan mission, scheduled for 2022. On Sept. 06, the Indian Air Force said it has completed the first level of selecting astronauts for the mission from its pool of test pilots.
“There will be absolutely no problem at all. It (Chandrayaan-2) will have no impact. The satellite missions, as well as the human space flight mission (Gaganyaan), will go very smoothly without any problem. Each mission is of a different type,” said former ISRO scientist PG Diwakar.
In 2023, ISRO intends to send an orbiter mission to study the atmosphere of Venus for its Shukrayaan mission. Aditya, or the Aditya-L1 mission to study the sun and Mangalyaan 2, are also in the pipeline.