Taking off despite the many hurdles

ISRO faced a hiccup during the launch of Chandrayaan-2. Space success stories across the world are punctuated by such setbacks

Published: 03rd August 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd August 2019 01:10 AM   |  A+A-

AMIT BANDRE

Chandrayaan- 2 is now safely on its way for a rendezvous with the moon. The first attempt to launch the satellite was aborted on July 15 due to a technical glitch. With corrections applied within the next few days, the GSLV Mark-III not only had a smooth sailing in the second attempt but also launched the satellite in an orbit higher than what had been planned, thus saving precious on-board fuel. Going by the history of space exploration, the initial hiccup that ISRO successfully overcame is not an outlier. It is part of the larger story of how the spectacular success of space conquest across the world is mostly punctuated by temporary setbacks.

Vikram Sarabhai, whose birth centenary falls on August 12 this year, is the pioneer who ushered India into the age of space exploration. In the 1960s, he led a team of young scientists and engineers, and in his characteristic modest style, began to launch a series of sounding rockets from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram.

These early rockets couldcarry small experimential hardware meant for doing atmospheric science research. Compared to the behemoths weighing 640 tonnes that the GSLV launch vehicles have become today, the first sounding rockets were quite modest, less than 100 kilograms in weight. Notwithstanding their small size, lean design and functional complexity, they had their fair share of difficulties. In 1963, the first sounding rocket was launched but not before last minute hitches, ranging from launchpad to remote control malfunctioning, were rectified just in time.

More dramatic was the run-up to the first successful launch of indigenous launch vehicle SLV-3 by ISRO in July 1980. A little before the launch, the cables that tied the rocket to the ground, operated through remote controls, failed to unhinge and could have prevented the rocket from taking off. Finally, one of the technicians undertook the risky job of manually detaching the chains from the ready-to- fire rocket. This was the first successful launch that came onlymonths after the previous attempt in 1979 had failed.

Last month, the world marked the 50 years since humans first set foot on the moon. Reflecting the perilous nature of this adventure, the then US President Richard Nixon even had a speech prepared in case of an unexpected disaster: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” This speech was never used as the three men aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft returned safely back to the earth.

But the mission was not without its edge-ofthe- seat tense moments. The lunar module Eagle, which actually landed on the moon, was commanded by Neil Armstrong. As the Eagle detached from Apollo 11 to descend towards the lunar surface, a small excess pressure gave Eagle the extra boost to go well beyond the planned landing site by nearly six kilometres. Not only did the plans go awry, to make matters worse, Eagle was also running low on fuel.

Tense moments at the control centre in Houston finally gave way to relief when, with only about 30 seconds of fuel left, Armstrong’s voice came alive, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, The Eagle has landed.” Almost 90 years ago, in 1926, the American physicist and engineer Robert Goddard successfully launched the world’s first rocket with liquid fuel in Massachusetts in the United States. The first rocket flew for only a few seconds before it crashed to the ground.

Goddard thought of failures as “valuable negative information”, an idea that was to become a basic lesson in space flight experimentation world over. In the early part of the 20th century, not everyone agreed with Goddard, and his repeated failures with improvised rockets did not inspire confidence. His pioneering ideas were criticised and even ridiculed as being impractical and violating the laws of physics. As an editorial in The New York Times in 1920 put it, Goddard’s idea of going into outer space presents “a severe strain on the credulity” for its lack of understanding of physics principles taught routinely in schools.

Hundreds of trials and modifications later, lasting over the next 15 years, Goddard’s rockets reached altitudes of several kilometres. Finally, when Neil Armstrong set out for the moon in 1969, The New York Times published a correction regretting the error in its 1920 editorial. In a few weeks from now, India’s moon landing module Vikram is expected to land on the moon’s surface. From the days when sounding rockets were carried to launch pads on bullock carts to preparing to launch humans into outer space by Indian rockets, it is an achievement that would not have been possible without the valuable lessons that failures have taught in the process.

As Robert Goddard, a veteran of many failed attempts, said, “work that is finally successful is the result of a series of unsuccessful tests in which difficulties are gradually eliminated”. This possibly has lessons for life but nowhere is it truer than in the case of rocket launches.



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