The ambitious Chandrayaan-2 project, which was supposed to land a rover on the moon, went south early Saturday morning when the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, lost contact with the moon lander, named Vikram, two kilometres above the lunar site, minutes before touchdown was expected.
What was supposed to be a momentous day in the history of India, a day when the country would become the fourth nation in the world, after the US, Russia and China, to successfully land on the moon, quickly turned into a major disappointment.
Cheers of joy turned to tears at the launch control centre in Bangalore as Vikram suddenly disappeared off the communications channels.
Hours later, despite every attempt by the ground crew, there was still no connection to the lander.
Isro did not release any official word on whether signals disappeared because of a problem on the lander or because it crashed on to the surface of the moon. Later reports stated that the lander was spotted on the surface of the moon, and it was in one piece. Either way, it is not likely that Vikram will ever be recovered.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present at the launch control during the mission, left shortly after contact was lost.
In an address to the nation later that morning, he indicated that the mission had failed.
If everything went according to plan, the lander would have launched a solar-powered rover which was expected to work for one lunar day, the equivalent of 14 Earth days.
Its mission was to look for signs of water and “a fossil record of the early solar system”.
It is believed that there are relatively large deposits of frozen water at the moon’s South Pole, which is where the Vikram lander was headed. If the rover proved the theories to be true, then that would have been a giant step towards setting up a moon base, and a possible stepping stone to future Mars missions.
For India, the Chandrayaan-2 mission bore additional significance: besides the fact that national pride was at stake, there is also the fact that Modi has vowed to send a manned mission into orbit by 2022, and the success of Chandrayaan-2 would have given impetus to that mission.
The question is, now what?
The cost of the mission was 10 billion Indian Rupees (R2.11billion), a fraction of the $25billion price tag of the Apollo mission.
Despite the relatively small budget, the mission did raise questions about how funds are allocated when the country is still battling hunger and poverty. Some were critical of the Indian government, saying that the millions allocated to the launch would have been better spent in more pressing avenues.
To me, it is not a matter of the money spent, but the return on investment, particularly for a country like India. It is simple business: if the returns, whether tangible or not, are greater than the money put in, then it is an investment; otherwise, it is money down the drain.
Having said that, how do you measure the returns on something like a moon landing? Space travel is extremely expensive, and just like in the case of Chandrayaan-2 and Israel’s Beresheet mission in April 2019, things can go very wrong.
This is a question that has me perplexed. Clearly, there are no immediate tangible returns; there is no money to be made, no precious materials that we know of on the moon that we might exploit.
Which begs the question: what is to be gained? National pride? International status? If these are the only outcomes, then space travel is definitely not a worthwhile investment.
For those who say that space exploration and research are justification enough, I agree we cannot put a price on those. But does India’s current economic situation allow that much spending on research?
Perhaps there is a more sinister objective.
Earlier this year, in a show of military strength, India shot down one of its own moving satellites, proving it had the capability to do so with any satellite belonging to any country. India is now one of only four countries in the world capable of doing so. This comes despite India previously condemning the idea of an arms race in outer space.
This “weaponisation” of space flight technology has drawn criticism from many quarters.
Besides, according to Nasa the debris created by the destroyed satellite “ends up being there for a long time. If we wreck space, we’re not getting it back”.
Satish Dua, the former chief of integrated defence staff of the Indian army, defended India’s actions, stating that “India has to be fully equipped for war - whether it is subsurface, surface, air or space warfare”.
Is this it, then? Is the space race little more than war mongering?
* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.