The virtues and vices of reestablishing contact with Vikram

There was a PTI report yesterday that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is still trying to reestablish contact with the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 mission. The lander had crashed onto the lunar surface on September 7 instead of touching down. The incident severed its communications link with ISRO ground control, leaving the org. unsure about the lander’s fate although all signs pointed to it being kaput.

Subsequent attempts to photograph the designated landing site using the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter as well as the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter didn’t provide any meaningful clues about what could’ve happened except that the crash-landing could’ve smashed Vikram to pieces too small to be observable from orbit.

When reporting on ISRO or following the news about developments related to it, the outside-in view is everything. It’s sort of like a mapping between two sets. If the first set represents the relative significance of various projects within ISRO and the second the significance as perceived by the public according to what shows up in the news, then Chandrayaan 2, human spaceflight and maybe the impending launch of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle are going to look like moderately sized objects in set 1 but really big in set 2.

The popular impression of what ISRO is working on is skewed towards projects that have received greater media coverage. This is a pithy truism but it’s important to acknowledge because ISRO’s own public outreach is practically nonexistent, so there are no ‘normalising’ forces working to correct the skew.

This is why it seems like a problem when ISRO – after spending over a week refusing to admit that the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s surface component had failed and its chairman K. Sivan echoing an internal review’s claim that the mission had in fact succeeded to the extent of 98% – says it’s still trying to reestablish contact without properly describing what that means.

It’s all you hear about vis-à-vis the Indian space programme in the news these days, if not about astronaut training or that the ‘mini-PSLV’ had a customer even before it had a test flight, potentially contribute to the unfortunate impression that these are ISRO’s priorities at the moment when in fact the relative significance of these missions – i.e. their size within set 1 – is arranged differently.

For example, the idea of trying to reestablish contact with the Vikram lander has been featured in at least three news reports in the last week, subsequently amplified through republishing and syndication, whereas the act of reestablishing contact could be as simple as one person pointing an antenna in the general direction of the Vikram lander, blasting a loud ‘what’s up’ message in the radio frequency and listening intently for a ‘not much’ reply. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of R&D, manufacturing practices and space-science discussions ISRO’s currently working on but which receive little to no coverage in the mainstream press.

So when Sivan repeatedly states across many days that they’re still trying to reestablish contact with Vikram, or when he’s repeatedly asked the same question by journalists with no imagination about ISRO’s breadth and scope, it may not necessarily signal a reluctance to admit failure in the face of overwhelming evidence that the mission has in fact failed (e.g., apart from not being able to visually spot the lander, the lander’s batteries aren’t designed to survive the long and freezing lunar night, so it’s extremely unlikely that it has power to respond to the ‘what’s up’). It could just be that either Sivan, the journalists or both – but it’s unlikely to be the journalists unless they’re aware of the resources it takes to attempt to reestablish contact – are happy to keep reminding the people that ISRO’s going to try very, very hard before it can abandon the lander.

Such metronymic messaging is politically favourable as well to maintain the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s place in the nationalist techno-pantheon. But it should also be abundantly clear at this point that Sivan’s decision to position himself as the organisation’s sole point of contact for media professionals at the first hint of trouble, his organisation’s increasing opacity to public view, if not scrutiny, and many journalists’ inexplicable lack of curiosity about things to ask the chairman all feed one another, ultimately sidelining other branches of ISRO and the public interest itself.