“Vikram Lander begins its descent in 20 minutes”; “Powered descent – rough braking of Vikram Lander begins”; “Rough braking of Vikram Lander ends and fine braking phase starts.”
And then suddenly, the announcements from the control room of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) ISTRAC centre in Bengaluru stopped. So did the applause that came after every step of the lander's descent towards the south pole of the moon. A screen at the centre showed the green path of the Chandrayaan-2’s lander suddenly turning into a red line, indicating the lander slightly deviated from its original path. The expressions on the faces of the scientists in the control room started changing, from hope and excitement to worry. A scientist put his head in his palms. The cameras then panned to ISRO chairman K Sivan, who looked anxious. A while later, the ISRO chief gave an update: “Vikram Lander has lost communication with the ground station.”
The man who had held his composure in the midst of the most tense moments at ISRO, as the data was being analysed, broke down while seeing Prime Minister Narendra Modi off after the latter’s press conference early on Saturday. “I could understand the mental state all of you were in,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the anxious ISRO staff associated with the mission. “I could see the sadness on your faces. The whole country is with you. You haven't slept for many nights. There was a sadness on the faces of everyone when we lost contact with Chandrayaan-2. The mission will succeed," he added.
When the PM was departing, an emotional Sivan leaned on Modi's shoulder. The PM consoled him – and messages are pouring in from citizens across the country: Dr Sivan, project director M Vanitha, mission director Ritu Karidhal, and the entire team of Chandrayaan-2 scientists and ISRO staff, India is very, very proud of you.
Undoubtedly, you’re upset. This project is the culmination of years of constant research, patient planning, discussions and trials and errors. We feel your frustration and your disappointment. However, this is only a minor hurdle, and there is no question that the only way forward is up.
Chandrayaan-2’s journey, from the word go, was fraught with uncertainties and delays. Even when the launch was called off a few minutes before its take-off on July 15, the team bounced back. The entire team swung into action, fixed the technical snag in 24 hours and majestically launched Chandrayaan-2 on July 22.
At every step of Chandrayaan-2 journey from then on – into the earth’s atmosphere and orbit, then into the lunar orbit and when the orbiter separated from the Vikram Lander – everything went as planned. Even when the Vikram Lander was making its way to the moon’s surface and reached an altitude of about 2.1 km from the moon’s surface on Saturday, the team looked hopeful, until the communication from the lander was lost.
It was a heartbreaking moment for the man behind the team that successfully launched Chandrayaan-2. Since 2.20 am on Saturday, Sivan, Vanitha and Ritu's team of scientists have been scouring through every available data to establish contact with the lander, hoping to continue with its planned mission to put India on the moon.
But all is not lost, and the team should remember this. The orbiter is still doing its job. It will complete 95% of the mission by going around the moon and collecting data for the next one year.
Sivan and his team will continue to work, to ensure we land on the moon, soon.