India Conquered the Moon..

India Conquered the Moon..

By: Qamar Bashir

Dr. Vikram Sarabhai is widely regarded as the father of India’s space program. His visionary leadership set India on a path of space exploration and technological advancement. He recognized the potential of space technology for India’s development and was instrumental in creating the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) dedicated to space research and applications. He emphasized the importance of using space technology for practical applications in agriculture, communication, meteorology, and education and aligned the space research with India’s socio-economic needs.  He also recognized the need to cultivate a skilled workforce for space research at established institutions like the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) to provide quality education and training in space science and engineering.

Knowing that India cannot do it alone he  fostered collaborations with other countries and space agencies, helping India benefit from global advancements in space technology and finally launched India’s first Satellite marked a significant achievement in space technology self-reliance which transformed into Indian National Satellite System (INSAT), which revolutionized telecommunications, broadcasting, and meteorology in India.

Under Dr. Sarabhai’s guidance, ISRO successfully launched its first satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975 marking India’s entry into space technology and laid the groundwork for subsequent satellite missions.

The man who translated Dr. Sarabhai’s vision into reality was none other than Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, often referred to as the “Missile Man of India.” He played a pivotal role in the development of ballistic missile and space launch vehicle technologies.

Due to my deep interest in space technology, I read the book “Agni; the Wing of Fire” authored by Dr. Abdul Kalam. The book is  now available free on the internet. I would  recommend that everyone who has a little interest in developing space technology, wants to know the leadership qualities needed and the ability to raise successful institutions should read this book.

In his book, AK explains his childhood, how he was helped mostly by his Hindu teachers to develop and refine his mathematics and engineering skills and how he was awarded with scholarships to pursue his advanced studies.

 He explained in detail how Dr. Sarabhai discovered him and put him in charge of India’s satellite and missile program which finally made history when the Agni missile was fired successfully and made India one of the few countries who possessed the ability to launch ballistic missiles. This technology was later used to develop the India Space program.

I was amazed by the trust reposed by the Indian government on a tan Muslim of Gujarat by making him incharge of India’s first satellite vehicle, SLV-3 program, which successfully launched the Rohini Satellite RS-1 into orbit in 1980, marking India’s entry into the space age.

He was also made the chief architect of India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) which aimed to develop a range of indigenous missile systems.  The program led to the development of missiles like Prithvi, Agni, Trishul, and Akash.

For a poor country like India during those times, it was not a smooth ride but it faced multiple challenges which included limited financial resources, technological constraints, and the need to build expertise in various areas.

 Despite these challenges, ISRO achieved significant successes. In 1975, India launched its first satellite, Aryabhata, marking its entry into space technology. Over the years, ISRO developed its satellite launch vehicles like the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), making it a reliable option for commercial satellite launches.

One of ISRO’s major successes was the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) in 2013, making India the first Asian country to reach Martian orbit and the fourth space agency in the world to do so.

Another milestone was the Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008, which made India discover water molecules on the Moon’s surface.Chandrayaan-2 was launched by ISRO with the goal of exploring the Moon’s south pole region aimed to study the lunar surface, search for water ice, and understand the Moon’s geology.

Chandrayaan-2 was launched on July 22, 2019 using the GSLV Mk III-M1 launch vehicle, also known as “Bahubali,” which is ISRO’s heaviest and most powerful launch vehicle. After launch, the GSLV Mk III-M1 inserted Chandrayaan-2 into a temporary Earth orbit, known as an “Earth parking orbit.

Chandrayaan-2’s onboard propulsion system was used to perform a Trans-Lunar Injection maneuver involving firing the spacecraft’s engines to give it the necessary velocity to break free from Earth’s gravitational influence and head towards the Moon. 

After a journey of several days, Chandrayaan-2 entered the Moon’s gravitational sphere. The spacecraft performed a series of maneuvers to gradually reduce its velocity and be captured by the Moon’s gravity, thus entering lunar orbit. The Vikram lander was intended to make a soft landing on the Moon’s surface. It separated from the orbiter and began its descent towards the lunar surface but it did not go well and  lost communication with ISRO during its final stages of descent. Despite the challenges faced during the landing phase, the mission’s achievements have contributed significantly to the understanding of Earth’s celestial neighbor.

Undeterred by the failure, India immediately set the launch of Chandrayaan-3 (C-3) mission in motion. Learning from the previous experience, C-3 used  a new navigation system that helped the lander to land precisely on the Moon’s surface.  A new braking system was deployed that helped to slow down the lander and prevent it from crashing. It also used a new communication system that allowed the lander to stay in contact with the ground control station during the landing.

Launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on 14th July, 2023, C-3 followed the same trajectory as of Chandrayaan-2 and  successfully landed on the Moon’s south pole on August 23, 2023. The  lander, called Vikram, successfully touched down on the Moon’s surface at 1:45 am IST (10:15 pm UTC). The rover, called Pragyan, will be deployed from the lander and will explore the surrounding area for one lunar day (around 14 Earth days).

The C-3 will help scientists to learn more about the presence of water ice on the Moon, a valuable resource that could be used for drinking, growing crops, and producing fuel. The Moon’s southern pole receives nearly continuous sunlight due to its location near the lunar south pole, making it an ideal spot for solar power generation. The craters in the polar regions are believed to be “cold traps” where material from asteroids and comets might have accumulated over billions of years which could provide insights into the history of the solar system and the Moon’s geology. It is also believed that the southern pole hosts besides water, such as carbon dioxide and methane which could reveal more about the Moon’s evolution and its interaction with the space environment. The presence of water ice and the favorable lighting conditions make the southern pole a potential site for future lunar bases which could serve as research outposts, launching points for deeper space missions, or even stepping stones for human missions to Mars.

The other programs in line of India’s space program are; the Gaganyaan mission aims to send Indian astronauts (Gagannauts) into space, fostering human spaceflight capabilities, the Aditya-L1 mission will study the Sun, and the proposed Venus mission aims to explore our neighboring planet. Moreover, ISRO remains a prominent player in the global commercial satellite launch market.

India’s space program has come a long way since its inception, overcoming challenges and achieving remarkable successes. The pursuit of exploration, technological advancement, and international collaboration defines ISRO’s aspirations as it continues to shape the country’s space endeavors.

Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC