'Aborting Chandrayaan-2 Better Than Showing Fireworks To President'

Published: July 18, 2019 17:04 IST
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Patience pays at ISRO. Hundreds of scientists spent the last three days burning the midnight oil and working in teams from cities like Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, with the Prime Minister's Office keeping an eye on the progress.

After the hullabaloo, this is how the Indian space port looks like - scientists in a huddle to resolve a problem with cryogenics. Cryogenic engines have been the bugbear of the space agency. Handling super cold liquids is no child's play; only a few nations have mastered this complex technology. India is one among a handful.

Even before President Ram Nath Kovind left the rocket port at 9 am on July 15, possibly disappointed at not being able to witness the launch, the 100-odd scientists in the mission control centre got into a huddle to figure out what had gone wrong. By morning, when India woke up to the news, they had figured out that something was wrong with the cryogenic stage and a leak had stalled their mission.

By the time the President reached New Delhi, ISRO engineers had started draining the highly inflammable liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from the upper stage sitting almost 40 metres above the ground.

Then started the complex task of purging the rocket of all toxic material so that the problem could be fixed.

A top scientist said the problem was relatively easy to resolve but had the mission not been aborted, it would have resulted in failure and a loss of Rs 1,000 crore for India. The rocket and satellite had been saved so the launch could take place another day.

Chandrayaan-2's launch is now set for 2.43 pm on July 22.

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Chandrayaan-2 launch was aborted less than an hour before the scheduled time.

The "alertness, prayers and good wishes of over one billion Indians" helped avert a full scale disaster, an ISRO scientist said. The problem was resolved without changing any component - just "tightening it worked".

A message for the talented ISRO folks - please don't let pressure get to you.

Chandrayaan-2 is a Scisat, not a spySAT. Send it into space when 100 per cent ready. This is not a spy satellite that we need in the sky to peer over Rawalpindi or Balakot or Shanghai.

I have been in and out of ISRO facilities many times.

Your work environment is infectious. I come back supercharged every time I go to an ISRO center.

It was no different when I returned from India's only space port, the Satish Dhawan Space Center on the island of Sriharikota, on July 15. Many went back crestfallen after the Chandrayaan-2 launch was aborted. I left feeling reassured that professionals populate this unique island of excellence in the vast ocean of mediocrity.

"Failure is not an option" is the slogan from the Apollo era as we celebrate 50 years of the famous moon landing by Neil Armstrong on July 21, 1969.

For ISRO, the scrubbing of Chandrayaan-2's launch last Sunday was 'only a setback, not failure'. If this launch window of July 2019 was missed, the next most opportune one would come up in several months - perhaps in September - is what experts say.

Chandrayaan-2 has been 11 years in the making. A slip for reasons of oversight will not be pardoned by 1.3 billion Indians who have invested nearly Rs 1,000 crore in the mission.

Cryogenics is tough to master, but nothing that 16,500 minds of ISRO can't solve.

Go for it when ready.

I loved the complete dedication and professionalism when 56 minutes before the 2.51 am lift-off early Monday, the mission was called off.

I can imagine the pressure on the mission director or the vehicle director and the range safety officer to make that decision within 10 minutes. The decision to stop the countdown clock at 56 minutes and 24 seconds, that too with the President in the launch complex.

The decision to abort the launch, I am told, was taken not by ISRO Chairman K Sivan - an astute rocket engineer - but a responsible officer further down the pecking order, but fully endorsed by the Chairman. Only well-trained professionals can take such hard decisions. As one top scientist put it, the "stubborn" engineers at ISRO decided that aborting the mission was better than showing unprecedented fireworks to the President of India.

At least the Chandrayaan-2 satellite and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III are safe on the launch pad. That's a neat saving of Rs 2,000 crore of the taxpayer's money - about one-third the price of the Statue of Unity.

At least the rocket did not explode on the rocket pad. That would have set India back by decades, or, like in the case of Brazil, led to the whole program being aborted altogether.

It takes almost 60 days to bring the Bahubali rocket on to the rocket pad. A 20-hour countdown helps arm the rocket with its full arsenal. At lift-off, it is like a giant linear bomb.

De-arming the rocket is an even more Herculean effort.

Once a Range Safety Officer at Sriharikota told me after a GSLV Mk II launch failed and the rocket had to be annihilated mid-air over the Bay of Bengal: "I am not a destroyer, I saved Chennai!"

The world over, scientists are applauding India's decision to attempt a soft landing near the South Pole of the moon, an uncharted region.

When Chandrayaan-1 lifted off, many smirked, why go decades after the Americans landed on the moon?

How wrong they were.

India's maiden mission rewrote lunar geological history by finding traces of water molecules on the moon surface.

After Chandrayaan-1, a new era of "back to the moon" efforts followed. President Donald Trump wants to send American astronauts to the moon again by 2024.

Chandrayaan-2 will be equally path-breaking. It will carry 13 Indian scientific instruments and one NASA instrument to explore the lunar surface with the help of India's Pragyaan rover.

Chandrayaan-2 has the potential of paving the way for future colonisation of the moon, with ISRO setting up a 'mini-India' outpost.

"An expert committee identified the root cause of the technical snag and all corrective actions are implemented. Thereafter, the system performance is normal," ISRO said in a statement.

(Pallava Bagla is science editor for NDTV and author of two bestselling books on ISRO, 'Destination Moon' published by Harper Collins; and 'Reaching For the Stars: India's Journey to Moon, Mars and Beyond' published by Bloomsbury.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.



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