Chandrayaan-3: History, etched in space | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Chandrayaan-3: History, etched in space

Aug 24, 2023 04:55 AM IST

For 18 minutes (that’s how long the landing process actually lasted), a nation held its collective breath

At 6pm, S Somanath, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), knew that his agency had done it. He got up from his seat at ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in the Peenya industrial area of Bengaluru, smiled at the anxious faces around him, and nodded his head as if to tell himself the mission was successful.

Bengaluru: ISRO employees watch the successful soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the surface of the moon at ISRO's Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility, in Bengaluru, Wednesday, Aug 23, 2023. (PTI Photo/Shailendra Bhojak)(PTI08_23_2023_000366A)(PTI)
Bengaluru: ISRO employees watch the successful soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the surface of the moon at ISRO's Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility, in Bengaluru, Wednesday, Aug 23, 2023. (PTI Photo/Shailendra Bhojak)(PTI08_23_2023_000366A)(PTI)

Two minutes later, the communications centre, from where he and his team were tracking Chandrayaan-3 as its lander descended onto the lunar surface, broke into loud cheers and applause. Minutes later, Somanath commandeered a microphone and said five words that only caused the applause and the cheers to grow louder.

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“India is on the moon!”

Also read: Chandrayaan 3 importance: Future Moon colonies could be Mars mission stops, says astrophysicist

Until then, the air in the large room was thick with tension. The landing process was preprogrammed but a bunch of things could go wrong, like they did four years ago when Chandrayaan-2, the predecessor of the current mission, Chandrayaan-3, saw its lander crash onto the lunar surface. The team picked itself up, dusted itself off, and got down to work. And as Somanath described it in an interview ahead of the launch, it ensured that it was ready with backup plans for backup plans.

It wasn’t just them. For 18 minutes (that’s how long the landing process actually lasted), a nation held its collective breath. Earlier in the day, people performed prayers in places of worship around the country; schoolchildren spoke of space and their dreams; and nothing else seemed to matter. Not since the US moon landing in 1969 has an entire country been galvanised by the possibility of a breakthrough in space explorations as India was on Wednesday.

Over 60 million people watched a simulation of the landing on the space agency’s website; and many more did on TV channels and news websites airing the same feed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, joined the viewing party at Isro remotely from the Brics Summit in Johannesburg, and responded to Somanath’s announcement by waving the Indian flag.

“To be witness to such a historic event is a great blessing...It is only the beginning for India, we now have to claim success with missions to the sun and Venus, among many more,” he said.

Later, in a phone call with the Isro chief, Modi said, “Your name itself is associated with the moon (Somanath means the lord of the moon), and today you have helped India raise our flag on the moon. Your family will be proud of you, as is every Indian.”

That they were. Outside the centre, people gathered with flowers and boxes of sweets. Some danced. Others cheered. And still others looked skyward, as if to visualise the lander (called Vikram) in their minds.

And everyone at the space agency was visibly moved. K Kalpana, the mission’s associate project director said that since the last mission, the team had pretty much lived and breathed Chandrayaan-3. Not far from her, but outside the centre, waving the Indian tricolour enthusiastically, Madan Adarsh, a cleaner at ISTRAC said that Wednesday’s landing felt like a personal success to him.

Other scientists flashed V and thumbs-up signs; Isro’s complement of women engineers, increasingly written about in recent years after years of working in near-obscurity, milled around, hugging each other and posing for the cameras. Kalpana summed it up, her eyes tearing up.

“This is the happiest moment of my life, and I am sure it is the same for many of us today. Each failure comes as a lesson and we did not get disheartened from our last failure, instead we learnt from it and improved ourselves.”

Somanath himself appeared to be happy to let his team have their moment in the sun, preferring to let them do much of the talking. When he spoke, he generously credited all those who came before at the space agency. And he pointed to how this was only the beginning.

The project’s director P Veeramuthuvel said the success would mean that after four years, scientists and engineers at the agency would “sleep peacefully”.

He was speaking metaphorically. While the celebrations went on till late, so did work. The rover, Pragyan, rolled out of the lander nearly four hours later. The next phase of the mission had started.

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