India Aims for the Moon

A US scientist reports from the scene of India’s first lunar launch.

The PSLV rocket that launched Chandrayaan-1, on its way to the pad. (ISRO)

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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?

A warm, rainy morning (October 22, 7:30 a.m.)

I wake at 3 a.m. Might as well get up, as my alarm would be going off shortly anyway. It’s pitch dark out here in the Indian boondocks. The small television in my room tells me that the countdown is proceeding smoothly. It is now about two and a half hours until launch.

Having heard light constant rain all night as I slept fitfully, I go outside with some anticipation about a weather delay in the launch of Chandrayaan. Outside, it’s calm and beautiful; a last-quarter Moon smiles down on SHAR from directly overhead, and the brighter stars twinkle through some high clouds.

We may just get this thing off today! No time for breakfast as the VIP contingent boards several large buses in the dark. They are taking us out to a special launch viewing site set up especially for us. The drive takes about 20 minutes, even though it cannot be more than a few miles away. In the warm, close dark morning, we pass the occasional stone sign, like one for the “S-Band Precision Tracking Station.” We finally arrive at an old, abandoned rocket assembly tower, a site that has been re-configured into a special viewing area for the launch.


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