The collective despairing groans of a billion-plus Indians last week, as the Vikram lunar lander careened out of orbit and lost contact, metaphorically signalled the disappointment of a nation that had been transfixed by the ambitious moon mission. That sense of anguish was amplified by the extraordinary sight of India’s top space scientists in tears; it required the comforting ministrations, and the faith-reinforcing words, of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for them to find solace from that fleeting moment of mournfulness. Despite the made-for-media nature of that scene, it served to provide a cathartic release from the tension of the build-up to that denouement, and enabled a dispassionate audit of the expedition. And such an assessment, based in equal measure on the metrics of pure science and of (pardonable) emotion, must acknowledge that the last-mile glitch notwithstanding, the Chandrayaan-2 mission has thus far been an emphatic success.
Indicatively, officials at the Indian Space Research Organisation have noted that even given the bleak prospects of establishing contact with the crash-landed Vikram, whose location on the lunar surface has since been pinpointed, the fact that the orbiter is working fine means that up to 95 per cent of the mission objectives has been achieved. The orbiter is expected to be functional for a year or more, and the payloads on board are sending back reams of data. For instance, the CHACE-2 payload will measure the temporal variations in the lunar exosphere; and the RAMBHA-DFRS payload will study variations of electron density in the moon’s ionosphere. Taken with all the other data streams expected, this will expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge for all of humanity. No less significant is the mission’s role in firing up the imagination of millions of Indians, particularly impressionable schoolchildren, in a way that will have an immeasurable multiplier effect. Modi’s presence at the mission control centre, of course, served to enhance the media visibility for the enterprise. But it was the audacity of the project — with India bidding to become only the fourth country to attempt a soft-landing on the moon — that ignited Indian minds. In school after school, that found expression in essays that channelled a lively interest in pure science. Given the challenges that India faces in inculcating a scientific temper among its populace, the contribution of this event in advancing that goal cannot be overestimated. That two women scientists are at the vanguard of the mission is also an aspirational symbol of gender equality. Those intangible gains count for as much as the scientific data that the mission will harvest.
In the final analysis, perhaps the weight of expectations of a billion-plus Indians proved too heavy for Vikram. But even that one small mis-step represents a giant leap in the cause of expanding the frontiers of science — and of a scientific temper — in this marvellously moon-struck nation.