“India has the capability to undertake a mission to the moon.”
This was a passing mention in a long lecture delivered by K Kasturirangan, then chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in Delhi on May 11, 1999 — the first anniversary of Pokhran II, when India exploded a test nuclear device in the Rajasthan desert.
But sitting in the audience was Murli Manohar Joshi, then union minister for science and technology. The statement caught his attention. The lecture over he asked Kasturirangan if he meant what he said. When Kasturirangan reaffirmed his remark, Joshi promised to back him to the hilt.
The project was initially called Somayana. “It took four years to fully plan the mission, and another four years to implement it,” Kasturirangan, now retired and a Rajya Sabha member, who attended the launch, told HT.
"I feel very proud today. It is a demonstration of our capability and determination to take on challenges in such cutting-edge technologies.”
The project was discussed endlessly in various forums and committees before it got the final go ahead in 2003. It was in that year too that then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, speaking from the Red Fort on Independence Day, rechristened it Chandrayaan.
Kasturirangan’s successor at ISRO, G. Madhavan Nair, took the task forward, inviting foreign collaboration on a major scale.
As it happens, India’s lunar mission comes at a time when there is renewed interest in the moon across the world. Japan launched its lunar expedition, Selene (Selenological and Engineering Explorer) — also called Kaguya — in September 2007; China followed a month later with ChangE-I. The US’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is slated for a late 2008 launch, followed by another satellite next year.
“Let me tell you, there will be many surprises for scientists,” M. Annadurai, project director for Chandrayaan 1 told HT. “We are not reinventing the wheel. We are not duplicating efforts other countries have already made. Our instruments are state-of-the-art which did not even exist a few years ago... With the data we will collect, it will be possible to build an international station on the moon to support a manned flight to Mars.”