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 4 of 5)
A long and tedious journey (October 21, 4:00 p.m.)
No, I’m not talking about the trip to the Moon. I’m talking about the three-hour, 100-km (65 mile) car trip I’ve just endured from Chennai to the Indian space launch center. Solid bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours—and that was just to get out of Chennai! India has almost (but not quite) achieved total traffic gridlock in their cities, and the time getting out of the center city was most of the trip. After we reached the suburbs, our speed of progress increased substantially.
The Indians launch their missions from a space center known as the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, or SHAR (from its location, Sriharikota). It sits on a low-lying spit of land that borders the Indian Ocean. They launch from here for the same reason that the Americans launch from Cape Canaveral—to ensure that any falling debris from an exploded rocket falls harmlessly into the ocean.
SHAR has a lot of the same ambiance as the Cape. It’s rather isolated (as was Cape Canaveral early in its history) and it’s flat, humid and warm. Scrub palm and thorny brush cover the landscape. Sea birds dot the tidal and mud flats as we drive across what seems like an endless causeway connecting the mainland to the spit on which the launch pad lies. One interesting difference here is that you must always keep your eyes on the road—you’re liable to run into goats, cows, chickens, pigs and an endless stream of stray dogs that run heedlessly across and along the road.
We’re staying at the ISRO (Indian space agency) guesthouse, a large block building that has a college dorm atmosphere. The big influx of foreign visitors arrived today; I would guess that we have about 20 to 30 visitors here. The press is also here in force. I saw around 15 remote vans and cars outside the main gate of SHAR, all getting ready to provide live coverage of tomorrow’s launch for Indian television.
As I was talking to Jitendra Goswami, the Chief Scientist for Chandrayaan-1, in the courtyard of the guesthouse, a reporter from Indian television saw us and ran over to get a talking head soundbite. Ben Bussey, a colleague from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, is here with me, so we both did our turn on camera. It’s always interesting to see how these short interviews get edited; sometimes, they don’t make you look particularly intelligent.
The weather is currently looking a lot better. It rained very heavily here yesterday, creating large, deep puddles in the parking lot to go with the high humidity and heat. The rain is not as much a concern for launch as the possibility of lightning. Goswami told me that the meteorologists are measuring continuously the electrical potential of the cloud cover. Pictures of the launch pad at SHAR show it to be surrounded by four very large red metal towers, all designed to serve as giant “lightning rods” to protect the vehicle.
We’re waiting around now to hear the status of the mission. We’ll probably be briefed at dinner tonight, which will be held in the dining hall nearby. I’ve found out that cameras are banned from SHAR, so I won’t be taking any pictures of the launch. But it will be intensely photographed by ISRO personnel.