The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has witnessed many trials and tribulations. In his book, My Odyssey: Memoirs of the Man Behind the ‘Mangalyaan’ Mission , Chairman of ISRO (2009-2014) K. Radhakrishnan recounts a difficult moment before a crucial press conference. This was after a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket carrying a very expensive GSAT-4 plummeted into the Bay of Bengal in 2010. He writes, “A teary-eyed Dr. Rangan [his senior colleague] came up and hugged me... This being a failure, I decided to face the media alone.”
ISRO has also faced ridicule over the years. A founding scientist at ISRO, R. Aravamudan, writes in his memoir about the reaction of his children after India finally placed a satellite in orbit using the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV): “My little sons were thrilled. In their school the SLV had been dubbed as the Sea Loving Vehicle. And now their father’s organisation had been vindicated.” The SLV’s cousin, the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), quickly earned its own epithet, says Nambi Narayanan, the embattled ISRO scientist, in his book: “The vehicle was so aerodynamically jinxed that every time it was test launched it plunged into the sea. It came to be known as Always Sea Loving Vehicle.”
Changing the narrative
In all these accounts, there is no mention of ISRO facing budgetary cuts or opprobrium over the descending trajectories of its satellites. That is why the spectacle that unfurled last week, after India’s failure to soft-land the Vikram lander on the moon, raises the troubling question of why ISRO feels the need to airbrush setbacks by retrospectively altering the narrative. Less than 24 hours after ISRO Chairman K. Sivan made it apparent that the Vikram lander had ceased to touch down on predicted lines, Vikram went from being the heart of the mission to being only 5% of the mission’s objectives. “We have already done 90%-95% of the technology demonstration,” Mr. Sivan said.
ISRO provides four reasons on its website for what made the Chandrayaan-2 mission “special”: This would be the first space mission to conduct a soft landing on the moon’s south pole, the first Indian expedition to attempt a landing on lunar surface using home-grown technology, the first Indian mission to explore lunar terrain with home-grown technology, and would make India only the fourth country to soft land on the moon.
Chandrayaan-2 was initially conceived as a collaborative mission between India and Russia. India was to make the orbiter spacecraft and launch (by GSLV) and Russia was to provide the lander and rover. Russia then said that it would only provide the lander. Later Russia pulled out of the mission and India ultimately decided to design a lander and rover on its own. This delayed the Chandrayaan-2 mission by nearly four years and advanced India’s Mars mission. Therefore, it’s hard to understand how such an iconic module that shows India’s ability to design a space vehicle suddenly became only 5% of the overall mission objective. Remember, it was Vikram’s camera that sent “beautiful images of earth” as viewed from space on August 4.
With its ‘special sauce’ missing, Chandrayaan-2 is now in the league of its predecessor Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, which included a lunar orbiter and a moon impact probe that crash-landed on the lunar equatorial surface. The key difference is that Chandrayaan-2, propelled by the GSLV MkIII rocket, went all the way into a lunar orbit. This proved that ISRO had mastered the nuances of the cryogenic engine, which allows rockets capable of carrying heavier payloads to be designed. This is going to be what truly propels India into the league of space powers.
It is puzzling then that Prime Minister Narendra Modi opted to view this sensitive failure-prone segment of the launch, the liftoff, far away from Sriharikota, but chose to be with the scientists only at the landing, the 5% tail end of the mission.
The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter carries eight instruments on board to photograph the moon in much better detail than previous missions. While the focus over the last few days has been on Vikram, there’s no information yet on what these sophisticated instruments have discovered so far. Soon after the Vikram debacle, ISRO announced that the mission life of the orbiter had now dramatically increased to seven years from the projected one or two years. As these are futuristic projections, it would be premature to assume that 100% of the orbiter’s stated objectives have been met, especially because ISRO doesn’t specify how it attributes weightage to different aspects of Chandrayaan-2. While every screw is critical to the success of a space mission, it doesn’t follow that each of them carries equal weight to determining the overall success of the mission.
A rarified club
It is in the nature of organisations everywhere, particularly when their projects involve significant public money, to spin news in the light of bad press. However, in spite of its delayed launch, Chandrayaan-2 has never had to face negative publicity. Even before the GSLV embarked on its journey, it was already drilled into our minds that our expectations should be low. We were informed, for instance, that the success rate of moon-lander missions historically was only about 46%. We were told that the odds of failure were high, but that India would join the rarefied club of nations that had achieved this feat — the U.S., Russia and China — if it tasted success. It needs to be underlined that India for decades has been part of a rarefied space club that consists of only a handful of countries capable of launching home-made satellite aboard home-grown rockets. Therefore the only real ‘pressure’ that ISRO faced with Chandrayaan-2 was to conform to social media-fuelled national pride.
ISRO’s founding Chairman Vikram Sarabhai had once said, “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight... We must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.” While that may be a dated quote, the operative word is ‘competing’.
ISRO’s successes are built on the altar of multiple failures improved over five decades. It still has a long way to go — from successfully grooming a private sector industry capable of providing many more jobs to ensuring that it maintains its meritocratic work, culture and ability to hire talented engineers who can be invested in its work. While getting the world to share in its success is important, ISRO only needs to explain its setbacks, not hide them with the cellophane of national pride.