India Aims for the Moon
A U.S. scientist reports from the scene of India's first lunar launch.
- By Paul D. Spudis
- AirSpaceMag.com, October 21, 2008
(Page 2 of 5)
Fire, thunder and water (October 22, 8:15 a.m.)
As the voice over the loudspeaker counts below 20 seconds, I strain my eyes to look out over the coastal scrub between me and the gleaming white monument in the distance. As the count reaches below 5 seconds, I first see the bright orange glow of rocket ignition. It is surprising, even though I expected to see it. In the demi-light of early morning, it is startling. As the count reaches zero, I finally see the entire vehicle—until now I could only view the upper two-thirds. It’s a beautiful white needle, with a huge ball of orange flame beneath it.
It first rises very slowly, but when it clears the launch tower, it is absolutely spectacular! The launch pad is surrounded by a thick plume of white smoke around the base of the tower. As it streaks through the sky, it is still dead silent—the rocket sound has not yet reached us at our viewing site. The rocket quickly disappears into the low morning rain clouds—it’s moving astonishingly quickly. Then I hear the deep roar of the engines. The low frequencies of the engine noise beats on my chest. The crowd seems disappointed that the rocket vanished so quickly, but I suspect it will re-appear soon.
It does! A bright orange spotlight rises above the low clouds, arcing over the ocean in a magnificent streak. We have it in continuous sight only for a few tens of seconds, but from these glimpses, I can get a good feel for the trajectory, taking the rocket east-southeast over the Indian Ocean, toward orbit. When the rocket goes out of sight a second time, the crowd rushes into the nearby tents, which are set up with computer readouts and video of the Mission Control Center. We all sit in the plastic lawn chair seats provided inside a very pleasant, air-conditioned tent. A plot of time versus velocity and time versus speed is on the screen, showing the rocket as a bright spot over a curve of the planned trajectory. As near as I can tell, it is absolutely spot on the money. It’s moving like a bat out of hell—after only five and a half minutes, the PSLV has already achieved orbital velocity.
As we all gather in the tent to watch Chandrayaan reach orbit, an enormous downpour occurs outside. The heavy monsoon rain pounds our tent roof. The space gods have smiled upon on us this day—the rain held off until after we had left Earth.
We all watch the trajectory information intently. Now, a mere 20 minutes after launch, Chandrayaan is on its way to the Moon. The crowd relaxes and applauds enthusiastically. It has been a memorable morning. This was my third launch; I attended the launch of Clementine to the Moon in 1994 (from Vandenberg AFB, on a surplus Titan II, the rocket that launched the Gemini astronauts). I also went to a space shuttle launch in 2001, a particularly memorable launch that arced over a full Moon, rising above the Atlantic. Both of those were striking experiences.
But I think this one actually exceeds the other two. The tension released after a launch is enormous. You work on an experiment for years, nursing it through financial and technical difficulties. You baby-sit it during testing and integration with the spacecraft. So much rides on something so dangerous. You have visions and nightmares of exploding rockets and time and effort wasted.
I do not have those thoughts this morning. This warm, rainy day in southern India, I feel wonderful. Our spacecraft got a superb ride this morning. It’s on its way to the Moon. Now I think ahead—what new adventures await us on the remainder of this voyage of discovery?