It’s not often one can manage to weave in Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd in the same headline and achieve a happy serendipity vis-à-vis the subject on hand. What can I say? I shall affect a false modesty, shrug my shoulders and go, ‘It just came to me.’ Those of you not quite in tune with the oeuvre of western popular music may approach Google search for enlightenment. So much for preliminary pourparlers.
Now then, listen up everyone. Please gather round and let’s hear it for all our heroes and heroines from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who worked their socks off and burned the candle at both ends, to say nothing of the midnight oil, to put Chandrayaan 2 on the moon. Well, more or less. To be precise, the Vikram Lander was tasked with the touchdown, and the Orbiter living up to its name – orbiting the moon and taking pictures. There have been some minor hiccups, but let’s put that to one side. For now, you can raise your glasses, holler three cheers, shout hip-hip hooray, blow squeakers, jump up and down, in fact all the things you are accustomed to doing whenever India wins the World Cup. Which is twice, last I checked. I am referring to cricket and not football (that’ll be the day). Seriously folks, getting back to Chandrayaan 2.0, to accord it its fashionably current terminology, this is one achievement about which we can all be fully justified in going over the moon. Sorry folks, but this is moon puns time. That said, let us pause for a moment, gather our thoughts and try to recollect what it was that Chandrayaan 1.0 accomplished. Stands to reason, if there’s a C2, there ought to have been a C1. And this is what my snooping around yielded.
In simple layman’s terms, eschewing all the scientific gobbledygook which most of us will struggle to comprehend, C1 was primarily involved in orbiting the moon and gathering loads of information including sophisticated imaging and to see if there’s any spare water on the lunar surface that we thirsty earthlings are so concerned about. I may be guilty of oversimplification, but that’s as far as I am prepared to go. C2 has been doing pretty much all that its older sibling achieved, but with one major exception. Its remit was to actually land on the south or dark side of the moon, a feat not attempted so far by the other space heavyweights. Vikram was to be the Lander. The promised landing did not actually take place, at least not at the first time of asking, the blip vanishing off ISRO’s radar screens some 2.1 kms shy of the surface of the golden orb. The whole of India was hoping and praying that this devoutly wished consummation would eventuate, putting India firmly on the moon map, with the rest of the big boys involved in the space race. While that did not quite happen to ISRO’s complete satisfaction, our scientists have still shown they’ve got what it takes to keep India striving for greater things in the future. Take a bow, ISRO.
One issue to ponder over C1, which was launched in 2008. Official sources are silent as to what exactly happened to this satellite, and one version has it that it went off the radar at some point in 2009, after concluding much of its appointed tasks, and was never heard of since. Probably sucked in by what Isaac Asimov might have termed ‘the third dimension’, akin to the Bermuda Triangle. We shan’t speculate any further on C1 as our thoughts are currently engaged with the supreme challenges of C2.
Our indefatigable Prime Minister was with the scientists at ISRO HQ in Bangalore all the way through the ebb and flow of tidal emotions that must have buffeted everyone involved. That we fell just a wee bit short of the ultimate goal of a perfect landing did not deter the PM in the slightest. He had stirring words of encouragement to all those who had toiled sleeplessly for months on this immense project. Displaying his inimitable chutzpah, the leader of the nation exhorted all concerned to hold their heads high and be proud of what they’ve achieved – and that more exciting challenges are on the anvil. Narendra Modi has certainly shown a thumbs up to foster the scientific temper of the nation. His emotional and extended embrace with the humble head of ISRO’s operations, K. Sivan, was touching. He appeared to be echoing Kipling’s immortal words, ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; and treat those two impostors just the same; yours is the earth and everything that’s in it; and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!’
While we continue to await more information on what C2 has been able to achieve (ISRO claims a 90 to 95% success, a claim swiftly mocked by the Cassandras), there are a couple of things which happened here on earth that left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth. Opposition firebrand, Mamata Banerjee had to put her maladroit oar in to criticise the government, the PM in particular, for spending so much time on the C2 project when more pressing matters here at home needed urgent attention. She dubbed it a ‘distraction’, a comment that did not go down well with most denizens of the country. Methinks the lady doth protest too much! She did attempt to make amends later on by joining several luminaries in lauding the efforts of ISRO (taking care to keep the PM out of the encomiums), despite the project falling fractionally short of attaining its stated objective. That said, her attempts to soften the blow appeared more like a case of ‘damning with faint praise’.
Media coverage of the C2 event, as the hour of reckoning approached, was disproportionately over the top. All the television channels were clearly playing the usual game of one-upmanship which we have grown accustomed to. However, most channels seemed to have puzzlingly pre-decided that the operation was an unqualified success. The grammatical tense in which the hyperventilating anchors talked up the event, with exaggerated nationalistic fervour and rah-rah-ing, was that it was a done deal. All this while C2 was still on its way to the lunar surface, and no one had any fingernails left. Talk about counting chickens before they are hatched! If one can adduce a cricketing analogy, it was rather akin to popping the champagne corks while the last wicket was still at the crease. If you’ve been following the ongoing Ashes series, you will know the last wicket can often prove to be a stumbling block. Everyone put on a brave face when the final denouement became agonisingly apparent, and for once, most of the opposition members joined the government in lavishing plaudits for the sterling efforts of ISRO. The praise was tinged with a touch of consoling, but that was kosher under the circumstances. Anything to the contrary would have landed them firmly in the soup. They have plenty of other sticks to beat the government with.
In sum, the nation was fully engaged in Chandrayaan 2’s brilliant tilt at the lunar windmills, the populace waxing and waning, like the moon, as it neared its target. The jury is still out as to the level of success it achieved and is still to achieve. The situation is ongoing. As we go to press, there is some susurration over reports that a thermal image of the Lander Vikram has been spotted by Orbiter, but ISRO is loath to give away anything more. Understandably playing its cards close to its chest. They have, however, confirmed touchdown, though not with the pinpoint accuracy hoped for, which has led to some communication issues with the Lander. All hands are on deck to try and solve the problem, but with each passing day, hopes are receding. Fingers are being kept firmly crossed.
This much we can say. The moon mission kept Kashmir, the economy, the auto industry crisis and mind-numbingly boring, domestic politics out of the headlines for a while. That’s something to cheer about. Despite the setbacks, ISRO has come out of this smelling of roses, which no one will begrudge. To importunate questions on why we spend so much time and expense on the moon, the answer is, ‘Because it’s there.’ As singer songwriter Joni Mitchell so simply puts it, ‘At least the moon at the window, the thieves left that behind.’
Illustration kind courtesy of Raghupathy Sringeri