Those terrifying few minutes at ISRO during Chandrayaan-2 descent

ISRO, Chandrayaan-2, Chandrayaan, Moon, lunar touchdown, GSLV MKIII
Journalists at the media hut watching the live descent of Vikram lander of Chandrayaan-2, at ISRO centre in Bengaluru on Saturday (September 7) Photo: Prathap Ravishankar

India often looks forward to the celestial bodies around it for their astrological significance. And of them, the moon has been the only one in the immediate sight of intrigue.

Around the world, people with unrelenting ambition have been trying to explore this natural satellite of the earth, not just out of curiosity but also because it’s a matter of national pride. And in the pursuit of this ambition, several nations have had set sail to moon over the past few decades.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission is one such ambitious programme. Despite a technical glitch that postponed the launch of the mission, the GSLV MIII vehicle managed to soar into the sky placing the Chandrayaan-2 module in space and accomplishing several precise orbital manoeuvers, thus sending the nation’s excitement and expectation much higher and further than the mission itself.

The landing of the Vikram module was scheduled during the early hours of September 7, 2019. And hours ahead of the landing, the surroundings of the space control centre in Bengaluru was abuzz with curious space enthusiasts and journalists.

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Besides, people from different backgrounds, from daily wage labourers to students and software professionals, were present there to witness the historic moment. And several of them were found enthusiastically sharing their feeling on the national television.

The gathering also witnessed ardent supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chants of “Jai Modi ji” often echoed in the crowd of attendees. Interestingly, it seemed that some of them were present there only to get a glimpse of Modi. But, little did they know that the prime minister himself won’t be present in the media hut, which was placed right adjacent to the mission control facility.

The media hut too was packed with journalists and ISRO staffers and engineers. With hardly any space to even move between the cameras pointing towards the giant screen, people tried finding vantage points to get the best view of the telecast.

Soon, as the landing sequence initiated ahead of its schedule, the crowd settled down and the chattering news anchors quietened, except for the sounds of camera shutters.

ISRO chairman briefs PM Narendra Modi during the final few minutes of descent (ANI)

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Subsequently, the room livened up as the rough braking phase of the descent concluded and the fine braking phase initiated. Applauses and sighs of relief echoed across the hall as the descent advanced towards it final leg. But everyone knew the most crucial and difficult phase was yet to come. With their eyes glued to the giant screen, the attendees started discussing about what’s going on.

An eerie silence resumed as the most crucial part of the descent, to successfully make a soft touchdown, arrived. Everyone was visibly prepared to celebrate the country’s historic achievement once the Vikram module touched down on the lunar surface. That never came.

The screen froze right after it showed the lander was 2.1 kms away from the surface of the moon. Occasionally, it showed anxious scientists and impatient children waiting for further developments. It felt like Déjà vu. It was very similar to the first launch attempt of this mission.

But this time, everyone seemed to slowly accept the probability that this could be a failure that we wouldn’t want to accept. And, ISRO’s announcement that it has lost communication with the lander sealed it.

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There was a pall of gloom in the media hut by then. With disappointment, rose a lot of questions. The ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) technicians and engineers present there seemed visibly dejected.

Soon, chaos erupted across the room as the crowd tried to presume what went wrong with the lander. It seemed everyone had their own theory. Subsequently, people started walking out. It was a dull unceremonious exit from the tent.

Meanwhile, an ISRO official walked in onto the stage to formally deliver the news that communication with the lander has been lost and that the data was being analysed. While several attendees demanded that ISRO chairman K Sivan must deliver the news and answer questions, many others congratulated the officials and asked them not to lose hope.

But this was just a minor setback for the ISRO. The space agency will definitely bounce back and take everyone by surprise, which it has done time and again. For all that we know, only communication was lost, not hope.

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