A request to ISRO about Chandrayaan 3

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has said its launch window for the Chandrayaan 3 mission is July 12-19. For now, the mission is expected to lift off on July 14 (at 2.35 pm IST). Chandrayaan 3’s mission is the same as that of its predecessor, Chandrayaan 2, with some marginal additions.

It has the same hardware configuration, including a lander named ‘Vikram’ containing a rover named ‘Pragyan’, attached to a propulsion module. The surface lunar mission has a planned lifetime of 14 days. The lander has four scientific payloads and the rover, two. The propulsion module itself has one. The biggest difference between the two missions, it would seem, are changes to reduce the chances of another crash-landing. As Jatan Mehta wrote in his ‘Moon Monday’ newsletter:

To increase the chances of sticking the landing this time around, ISRO has made several upgrades to the Chandrayaan-2-like lander, such as software improvements to accommodate failure, strengthened legs, a couple of new sensors for enhanced and redundant navigation-related measurements, and better power and communication systems.

Chandrayaan 3’s success will strengthen India’s position within the Artemis Accords, which it signed just last month, because it will make the country one of only four to have landed and operated a rover on the Moon. But as much as ISRO has a good reason to aim for success, it may have an opportunity if the mission fails as well – an opportunity to show that it has matured as an organisation.

The Chandrayaan 2 mission experienced a partial, but significant, failure on September 7, 2019, when its lander, bearing the rover, crashed on the lunar surface instead of gently touching down. ISRO researchers later traced the problem to a glitch in the onboard computer that lowered the amount by which the lander had to decelerate as it descended and an issue in the propulsion system. But a few months passed between the crash and the crash report, and in this time, the public conversation surrounding the accident was a cesspool of hyper-nationalist narratives and counterproductive statements by senior ISRO members.

As soon as news of the lander’s crash became public, ISRO stopped communicating updates, and refused to admit – despite all the evidence pointing that way – it had happened for a full week. In keeping with the national BJP government’s mission until then to make the Indian space programme a matter of national pride by couching its feats in a nationalist narrative, social media platforms were inundated with claims from the usual corners that the part of the mission that had failed was a “technology demonstrator” that made up a minor part of Chandrayaan 2.

Around this time, then ISRO chief K. Sivan also told journalists that the Chandrayaan 2 mission was a “98% success” – a stunningly disingenuous attempt to downplay what had been, until the mission’s launch, the basis of many of ISRO’s claims to greatness as well as which had occupied hundreds of scientists and engineers for several years. Technology demonstrators are important, but ‘Vikram’ and ‘Pragyan’ weren’t just that; more importantly, no way they were just 2% of the mission. Yet Sivan had been the one to say such a thing, even if he later palmed the blame off to a review committee, even as the organisation he helmed made Herculean efforts to reestablish contact with ‘Vikram’. All of this vitiated the narrative of the incident.

To make matters worse, after the lander’s crash on the day, journalists gathered at the ISRO HQ in Bengaluru were treated to a scene as Pallava Bagla shouted demanding Sivan address them. When ISRO members other than Sivan did turn up, he was rude. Bagla later apologised for his behaviour – but not before a senior Congress leader, Abhishek Singhvi, called Bagla “insane” and asked for him to be sacked. It seemed for a time that no one was interested in letting the dust settle.

For those who were plainly curious about the mission’s technical specifics as they existed, the specifics in which ISRO’s lessons for future missions, including Chandrayaan 3, would take root, the sole resource (in my limited experience) was the ISRO forum on Reddit, where independent spaceflight enthusiasts were putting together and combing through photos captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to find the lander’s resting place and clues to the cause of the accident.

The Indian government has a penchant for cutting access to information after major accidents and disasters. It did so after the Joshimath landslip, when ISRO reported that the town had slid by 5.4 cm in 12 days. It did so after it supposedly liberated Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution. It did so after the Manipur riots and is yet to restore connections in the state, going so far as to brook long-winded arguments about access to VPNs in the process.

Even before Chandrayaan 2, there were some signs that ISRO had become part of the fold, including – but not limited to – the BJP government’s narratives of ISRO’s feats, the organisation’s increasing opacity, and pettiness in the face of criticism. In 2018, its then chief Sivan said that ISRO would like to lead international efforts to mine helium-3 on the Moon and transport it to the earth, disregarding the unhelpful hype and pseudoscience surrounding the isotope’s potential as a nuclear fuel.

More recently, Sivan’s successor and current chief S. Somanath claimed that India has had a “knowledge society” since “Vedic times”, that Indians’ accomplishments were appropriated by Western scholars who then regurgitated it as their own findings, and that “those working in the fields of artificial intelligence [and] machine learning love Sanskrit”.

These signs aren’t encouraging, but it’s possible to hope that these individuals and their advisors will put ISRO above themselves and their opinions. I sincerely wish that Chandrayaan 3 succeeds to the tune of 100%. At the same time, space is hard, as they say (especially for less-well-funded and less-well-technologically supplied organisations like ISRO).

And in the event of a failure, I hope ISRO will respond by sharing regular and timely updates, answer journalists’ queries, think before speaking, and, overall, conduct itself with the grace of being the premier space-faring body of the Global South.

Note: This article was updated at 5.10 pm on July 7, 2023, to include an issue with the propulsion system among the reasons Chandrayaan 2’s surface mission failed. Featured image: The LVM 3 launch vehicle lifts off bearing Chandrayaan 2 from Sriharikota, July 22, 2019. Credit: ISRO.