The GSLV Mk III rocket. Once Chandrayaan 2 is ready, this vehicle will launch the mission

Landing on the Moon is a very complex mission and all the exigencies have to be factored in. The fate of a private Israeli Moon mission earlier this month may have influenced India's plans for its own moonshot

by Vasudevan Mukunth

These are the words of an unnamed official of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and they make a perfectly reasonable point. Landing on the Moon – or any other space-faring endeavour for that matter – is a very involved undertaking and it is prudent, if political, commercial and/or social considerations permit, to delay it until one knows the odds of failure are at their lowest.

However, what counts as failure? According to a PTI news report, which quotes the official, ISRO has postponed its Chandrayaan 2 mission to the Moon from April to July this year because a private Israeli mission named Beresheet failed to land on the Moon earlier this month.

This is surprising, if not bizarre. Chandrayaan 2 has faced four delays (that were publicly known) since March 2018 and at least seven overall. These include two major ones as a result of a significant design revamp in mid-2018 and minor damages suffered during testing in early 2019.

While some of the delays were unavoidable – such as Russia pulling out of the collaboration in 2013 – many of the others suggest, based on information in the public domain, that the space organisation frequently set readiness deadlines it was never in a position to meet. In effect, ISRO wanted to get Chandrayaan 2 up as quickly as possible and that precipitated the delays.

This is why it is bizarre that the ISRO official has found an excuse in SpaceIL’s failure at this juncture. At the outset, the takeaway seems to be that ISRO isn’t confident in Chandrayaan 2’s readiness to the extent that it acknowledges a mission it has been working on for almost a decade, and which was recently in its testing stage, could be affected by the outcomes of a simpler mission undertaken in a different part of the world.

More disturbingly, it suggests the official might be willing to palm off the blame for delays to extraneous factors, especially since the possibility of a June-July launch had already been mooted a few days before Beresheet crashed.

While ISRO is an industry veteran, Beresheet was the result of the efforts of a young private company named SpaceIL working together with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a national organisation owned wholly by the government. SpaceIL initiated the project to build Beresheet in 2011 in a bid to win the Google Lunar XPrize. In this endeavour, it received funds from the Israeli Space Agency (ISA), IAI and its current president Morris Kahn, among others.

SpaceIL finished testing Beresheet in January this year and it was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in February. On April 11, after the spacecraft had got into orbit around the Moon, the lander began to descend to the surface. However, one of its engines malfunctioned and the lander crashed down. The mission was declared a failure.

At ISRO, various components of the Chandrayaan 2 mission are in different stages of the production cycle. ISRO officials declared the orbiter ready last year but this was done before it had been tested after its payload had been integrated into its body.

In 2016, the lander underwent one series of tests, but in June 2018, members of an internal review panel recommended a slew of design and process changes on the landing sequence. Earlier this year, the lander component suffered damage during a second set of tests, pushing the mission’s launch to the second half of 2019.

Given this is the current status, it is odd for an ISRO official (and ISRO itself?) to suggest that the organisation has doubts about its Moon mission because a different mission launched by a different country flunked. By this logic, China successfully landing its Chang’e 4 probe should have accelerated ISRO’s progress.

Indeed, it would be great if IAI, ISA and SpaceIL plan to share share Beresheet data with ISRO so the latter can improve the prospects of Chandrayaan 2. But Beresheet itself is unlikely to be the cause for the latest delay if only because a) ISRO was supposed to have launched by now and b) tracking the success/failure of other projects (outside the purview of a formal data-sharing agreement, questionable given SpaceIL’s for-profit intentions) is an untenable road to mission readiness.

Better delayed than failed is one thing. Frequently delayed is quite another. The former is a proxy for attention to detail but the latter only indicates asymptotically that ISRO may have bitten off more than it could chew, and that doesn’t send the right signal about its abilities to the world.

On this count, the situation can only be improved if ISRO is transparent about the mission manifesto and where it stands currently vis-à-vis its various major components. Being more honest could allow all stakeholders – including the people at large – to re-calibrate their expectations as well as keep the organisation more accountable.

Then again, as those of us who have been following the ISRO story will realise, this is unlikely to happen. ISRO recognises the currency of prestige and might respond to arguments founded on that on paper. In reality, it is also why ISRO would rather hoard its prestige and keep absolutely mum about Chandrayaan 2.

On a separate note, while India’s wait to soft-land a robotic mission on the Moon nears one decade, the US and China have both announced plans to set up lunar research stations on the satellite’s south pole by 2024 and 2029, respectively.