Moon landings

Ahead of Chandrayaan 2’s date with the lunar surface on September 7, the following line has been bandied about in the Indian as well as foreign media:

Only three countries – the US, Russia and China – have attempted and succeeded in soft-landing a payload on the Moon.

If Chandrayaan 2’s Vikram lander succeeds in its mission, India will be in elite company.

However, before we rush to attribute this to the technological prowess of the Indian space programme, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), I wonder if there is a confounding factor that should give us pause.

As India is on the cusp of becoming only the fourth country to have attempted and succeeded in soft-landing a payload on the Moon, how many countries have attempted this feat in total?

That number is only four: the US, Russia, China and Israel. A private Israeli mission named Beresheet attempted and failed to soft-land on the Moon in April this year.

Without diminishing the magnitude of what the Vikram lander is going to attempt, it seems fair to state that India is also in elite company in terms of having a space programme big and matured enough to aim at soft-landing payloads on the Moon in the first place.

This in turn prompts the consideration that attempting to soft-land on the Moon is the prerogative of large space programmes – which is evident. However, does this imply that what we’re comparing here is not the specific technological achievement of soft-landing on the Moon but in fact the relative sizes of different national space programmes?

The Americans and Russians have together tried around 20 soft-landings and succeeded 16 times. On the flip side, these two countries pioneered the technologies required to achieve this feat at an accelerated pace during the Cold War space race, so perhaps an adjustment must be made for the failure rate.

Either way, ISRO’s prospective feat would have been indisputably impressive if, say, a dozen countries had attempted to soft-land on the Moon and failed. But that is not the case, so how can we be sure a lunar soft-landing isn’t something that a sufficiently well-equipped space programme achieves?

Put differently, can a lunar soft-landing be used as a reliable indicator that a national space programme has simply graduated on a technological scale, from one ‘ability level’ to the next?