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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As I wander about this site, I suddenly see the PSLV rocket on its pad, about three miles away. It is floodlit and surrounded by lightning arrestors. We have a clear view of the vehicle and it’s only about an hour and a half until launch. ISRO has set up tents with large video screens, showing the activities of Mission Control. The countdown has gone so smoothly that it makes me slightly worried. Weather is no problem, as we have broken rain clouds at low altitude with hazy cirrus above. Our viewstand should give us a spectacular view of the flight as the rocket curves over the Indian Ocean (which I cannot see from here; dunes block the view).

I strike up a conversation with Raj Chengappa, the managing editor of India Today, a news magazine. He wants to know all about our experiment, the Chandrayaan mission, and the value of the Moon. We have a great time in this discussion, as he is very well informed and we talk about the long term value of the Moon. I give him my lunar “stump speech”—that the Moon is a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system, a source of materials and energy to enable new spaceflight capabilities. Chandrayaan is a key pathfinder in our voyage back to the Moon.

The countdown continues, slowly ticking by until it’s just two minutes to launch before I even realize it. I stop talking to my friends and the people around me. I want to immerse myself in what is about to come.


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.


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