Beleaguered Indian Space Research Gathers Star Dust

11/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Indian Space Research Organization shone this week, after a few months of that sinking feeling into the darkness of despair. In the early part of the week it conducted a copybook launch of a constellation of nine satellites, including the country's own oceanic remote sensing satellite, Oceansat 2. In the latter part of the week came the news that the ISRO's maiden lunar mission, Chandrayaan 1 (Lunar Vehicle 1) has discovered water on the moon with the help of NASA's payload, Moon Minerology Mapper.

For weeks before this, ISRO was being pilloried for the failure and eventual abandonment of the Chandrayaan 1. On 29 August. 2009 the Indian Deep Space Network in Byalalu near Bangalore, lost total contact with Chandrayaan 1. The end was not sudden, nor unexpected. The final failure was a culmination of a number of technical glitches that started to surface soon after the launch of the lunar vehicle.

In November 2008, barely after a month of its launch the spacecraft's power systems started to fail one by one and ISRO was compelled to deactivate some of its payloads. In April this year the Star Sensor, a key component, stopped functioning due to intense solar radiation. And in the next month, the backup sensor also failed, thus plunging ISRO into a sense of imminent doom.

But even after these setbacks, ISRO exuded a modicum of confidence about the viability of its mission. The Indian space scientists tried to recover the mission by using gyroscopes to orient the spacecraft, a job that would normally have been done by the Star Sensors. They made a last ditch effort in order to protect the craft from the thermal radiation that it experienced at an altitude of 100 kms from the Moon's surface. Compromising on some mission objectives, the spacecraft was raised to an orbit of 200 kms away from the Moon's surface.

But at 1:30 AM on 29 August the base station, which guided Chandrayaan-1 through its orbit, lost radio contact, and it seemed all was lost. Finally the optimism that it could successfully complete its two year mission was replaced by the realization that it has met with a premature end.

Not many believed ISRO when its authorities declared that the spacecraft, Chandrayaan 1 had accomplished "90 per cent of its tasks." The scientific commentators of the country were quick to charge the space organization with lying to the country about its impending failure and gross incompetence. This week ISRO pulled back from the brink one more time.

The organization is comparatively young by the standards of the American and the Soviet/Russian counterpart. It came into existence in 1969, bringing to fruition almost two decades of individual research by scientists of free India. The man who envisioned ISRO was the great scientific administrator, Dr Vikram Sarabhai.

He noted at the beginning of ISRO the following objectives for the budding organization: "There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. 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. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society."

Clearly, he had attempted to unify two depressing facts girdling a young nation: poverty and lack of international power. On the one hand was the imperative of commandeering scarce resources for an apparent exercise of limited utility for the common man. On the other was the necessity of laying the foundations for acquisition of national power.

One may note Dr Sarabhai's caveat about lunar and planetary explorations or even manned spaceflights. It would seem that in the 40th year of ISRO's existence its current activities go against the mandate laid down by its founder. But a closer examination of Dr Sarabhai's homily indicates that a visionary like him could not but leave a window open for a future when the country's power accretion would justify such 'flights of fancy.'

So amidst the international verbiage about China and India emerging as the two new major powers of the 21st century, it is of little surprise that the country is planning a manned mission to the Moon in 2020 around the same time China is slated to do the same. This manned Moon mission of India's would follow a manned space mission in 2015-16.

Whether this new race to the space of the 21st century is as absorbing as the 20th century edition of the one between the USA and then USSR would depend a lot on the successes notched by such probes like the Chandrayaan 1, and its follower, Chandrayaan 2. The latter is slated to land a lunar rover on the Moon's surface. Will history witness the re-invention of the wheel?