CHENNAI: India's third mission to the moon - Chandrayaan-3 - will be led by a scientist from Tamil Nadu who will shoulder the responsibility of building a new rover and lander for the project.
P Veeramuthuvel, a native of Villupuram, is the designated Chandrayaan-3 Project Director. He replaced M Vanitha, an outstanding scientist and Project Director of Chandrayaan-2, whose lander failed to soft-land on the Moon on September 7.
Senior ISRO officials told Express the change of guard was purely an administrative routine and Veeramuthuvel is no stranger to the lunar programme. "He was serving as Deputy Director in the Space Infrastructure Programme Office at the ISRO headquarters and is known for his technical acumen," said an official.
In fact, Veeramuthuvel was the point of contact for ISRO while holding negotiations with NASA for cooperation on the Chandrayaan-2 mission. He was part of the team implementing the arrangement that covers cooperation related to the NASA-provided laser retroreflector array (LRA).
Officials feel Veeramuthuvel would have a clear mindset and lead the Chandrayaan-3 team better as he would not have the burden of past disappointment. However, some within ISRO question the change. "I feel it is not proper to make changes before the project is formalised. The Union government is yet to approve the Chandrayaan-3 mission. The space agency's request for supplementary grants is still pending."
Veeramuthuvel did not respond to Express calls or emails and ISRO is also tight-lipped on why Vanitha was removed from the Chandrayaan-3 project.
ISRO had faltered in the last mile on September 7 when the Vikram lander attempted a historic soft-landing on the uncharted Moon's south pole. In a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, Jitendra Singh, the minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), who looks after the department of space, said that the first phase of descent was performed nominally.
"During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value. Due to this deviation, the initial conditions at the start of the fine braking phase were beyond the designed parameters. As a result, Vikram hard-landed within 500 metres of the designated landing site," he said.
For two months, both ISRO and NASA had unsuccessfully searched for lander signatures on the Moon's surface. But to everyone's surprise, Chennai techie Shanmuga Subramanian was able to discover it which NASA verified and formally announced on December 3.
Meanwhile, Veeramuthuvel's father said the Chandrayaan 3 project director's boyhood dream was to be a scientist at ISRO.
Speaking to Express, P Palanivel, 65, said, "We are staying in the railway quarters at Villupuram and I retired after working as a technician in Southern Railways. Veeramuthuvel did his schooling in the railway school at Villupuram and did a diploma in mechanical engineering in a private polytechnic college."
He continued, "He did his undergraduation in engineering in a private college at Chennai. Then he did his postgraduation at another private engineering college. He then joined IIT Madras for a PhD."
"Though he got some other opportunities including jobs from central government departments, he didn't join there and in 2014, his dream came true as he joined ISRO as a scientist. Now he has been appointed as project director for Chandrayaan 3 and it's a very proud moment for us," he added.