Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on September 25, 2009
There was some embarrassment in India after the untimely end of the country’s first mission to the Moon last month. The unmanned Chandrayaan-I spacecraft, which was supposed to last for two years, fell out of radio contact while in orbit around the Moon in late August, just ten months after its launch. That prompted some defensiveness from a fansite of the Indian Space Research Organization, which quickly played damage control by claiming the mission had accomplished much of its goals. Chandrayaan-I.com said in a statement that it’s “not unusual” for things to go wrong in space. “NASA has faced several space mission failures and who can forget tragic end of space shuttle Columbia and the crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to landing.” * In other words, yes, our space mission crashed – but at least nobody died!
Now, though, ISRO fans don’t have to resort to poor-taste defensiveness. Indeed, Indians can crow that their nascent space program, through its short-lived Chandrayaan-I, has helped make one of the most important discoveries in the history of human exploration of the Moon. A NASA probe aboard the Chandrayaan-I detected water on the Moon’s surface, and the Indian press is euphoric. “One Big Step for India, One Giant Leap for Mankind,” crowed the Times of India. “If it weren’t for them (ISRO), we wouldn’t have been able to make this discovery,” the paper quoted Carle Pieters, the Brown University researcher who analyzed the data from the NASA probe, saying.
Unfortunately for ISRO, the agency won’t be able to capitalize quickly on the discovery. The next Indian space mission, the Chandrayaan-2 isn’t scheduled to launch until 2013. That means India would be behind China in a 21st-century Asian version of the U.S.-Soviet Union space race. The Chinese ended their first lunar mission earlier this year after 16 months and plan on landing a craft on the Moon in 2012. Japan’s in the race, too, having just completed its first lunar mission. In this Asian race, the Chinese seem to have the edge, but for now the engineers in India’s program can boast that their first mission turned out pretty well after all.
* Updated September 29