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15 nervous minutes that united India: When smiles vanished and tension took over

About 400 journalists gathered at a makeshift media centre in an expansive lawn at the ISTRAC in Bengaluru.

September 07, 2019 10:26 pm | Updated 11:18 pm IST - Bengaluru

Media persons watch a live broadcast of Chandryaan 2 lander Vikram’s planned soft-landing at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network centre in Bengaluru early on September 7, 2019.

Media persons watch a live broadcast of Chandryaan 2 lander Vikram’s planned soft-landing at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network centre in Bengaluru early on September 7, 2019.

The anticipation across the country to watch Chandrayaan-2’s lander Vikram set down on the moon paralleled the feverish wait of a sports fan preceding a big game.

By nightfall on Friday, #Chandrayaan2 was on top of the Inida Twitter trends with about 100,000 tweets every hour. National Geographic had roped in a former NASA astronaut for its live telecast of the event. Celebrities across the world — including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and entrepreneur Jeff Bezos — cheered for India in its second lunar exploration mission.

About 400 journalists gathered at a makeshift media centre in an expansive lawn at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bengaluru. Like vehicles in the city’s traffic, TV reporters and camera persons jostled to get the best pictures. A few others were mining information from a few scientists and science writers present.

Defining moment

Four hundred metres away, at the Mission Operations Complex (MOX), ISRO scientists, headed by Chairman K. Sivan, were awaiting the defining moment of their years-long work. As the space vehicle approached its destination, the women and men who had toiled on it, were hoping and continuing to work for its successful soft-landing. Accompanying the scientists at MOX were Prime Minister Narendra Modi, government officials and 60 students from classes 8 to 10, who had won ISRO’s online quiz.

“The entire world awaits the data from Chandrayaan-2,” Dr. Sivan had said on the eve of the landing.

Indian Space Research Organisation employees react at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network centre in Bengaluru early on September 7, 2019 as they watch the live broadcast of the planned soft-landing of the Vikram Lander of Chandrayaan 2 on the surface of the moon.

Indian Space Research Organisation employees react at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network centre in Bengaluru early on September 7, 2019 as they watch the live broadcast of the planned soft-landing of the Vikram Lander of Chandrayaan 2 on the surface of the moon.

 

But the soft-landing itself, Dr. Sivan had hinted, was usually a suspense thriller. “[It] is extremely complex and we will experience approximately 15 minutes of terror,” he had said after offering prayers at Tirumala on July 13.

Expectant silence

As Chandrayaan-2’s lander Vikram (named after Vikram Sarabhai) began its descent, an expectant silence prevailed in the ISTRAC campus, with hush falling over the voluble media centre. Even the Prime Minister’s hitherto beaming face suddenly grew solemn.

At about 1:50 a.m. (IST) on Saturday, when Vikram began its vertical descent phase, Dr. Sivan conveyed a message to the the Prime Minister.

Ten minutes later when the latter left his seat, the media guessed something was wrong.

But there was no official announcement. Then, at 2.16 a.m., Dr. Sivan, with a slight shake in his voice, said, “Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km. Subsequently, communications from lander to ground station was lost. The data is being analysed.”

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