Messages from the moon mission

The Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Dr. K Sivan won the hearts of the nation even when the Chandrayaan-2 mission lander Vikram failed to touch the surface of the moon as planned. An emotional Dr. Sivan was moved to tears and was consoled by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was at hand to participate in what would have been a grand celebratory moment in India’s space history. At that moment, both the men embodied what might be the mood of the nation – failures happen; we went this far; we’ll do better the next time. The Prime Minister’s words said it well: "We are proud of our space programme…the best is yet to come. The nation is with you."

The nation understands that failures are a stepping stone to success, that ISRO right from its early days under Vikram Sarabhai has dreamt big and worked its way through and there are bolder missions in the offing. So, what’s the point of the defence and claims except that they show less of a capacity to analyse what went wrong and more of offering a comforting story to the public.

From there to this weekend, a space of barely a fortnight, ISRO under Dr. Sivan has not emerged in as much good light. The claim made by the ISRO Chairman that the Chandrayaan-2 mission was a “98 per cent success” was quite unnecessary, offering the unheroic side of what in the minds of the nation remains a heroic, path breaking organsiation. It is not surprising that Dr. Sivan has come under fire from seniors outside of ISRO who know the organisation and probably what has been happening as it took on its boldest mission yet. Earlier, ISRO has let it be known that "till date 90 to 95 per cent of the mission objectives have been accomplished.” That inexact analysis, coupled with the “98 per cent” claim on Saturday from the Chairman has led a former official to say that soon the mission will be declared 100 per cent successful. The PR-kind claims from ISRO have been associated with gung-ho analysis and projections, including exact months and dates of when the next missions will be launched to getting an Indian on the lunar surface by December 2021.

Dr. Sivan’s repeated statements, most notably over the weekend at the convocation at IIT Bhubaneshwar, that there are not failures but stepping stones to learning and success now begin to sound like apologies or damage control in a place where no such explanation is required. The nation understands that failures are a stepping stone to success, that ISRO right from its early days under Vikram Sarabhai has dreamt big and worked its way through and there are bolder missions in the offing. So, what’s the point of the defence and claims except that they show less of a capacity to analyse what went wrong and more of offering a comforting story to the public.

In that light, some of the questions that are being asked by former ISRO officials deserve attention, particularly because they point to a culture at ISRO that appears, as stated, not to favour open questions, inquiry and debate.  This may not be the full and correct picture but it is an indicator of happenings. As a result, we have seen less of any analysis being offered on why the lander crashed and more of hopeful statements for the future. As an IANS report quoting retired ISRO officials pointed out, the Chandrayaan-1, which delivered on its goals but served for just over 300 days as opposed to the planed 700 days, was subject to failure analysis that went on for a year. “Now claiming 98 per cent success for Chandrayaan-2 in the first month itself is therefore not correct,” as a retired official put it.

In organisations like ISRO, where a lot of the work is presumed to be at the cutting edge, public scrutiny is often limited, at least in India. We accept what is told to us and are less equipped and less inclined, given secrecy about national missions along with the grand and visionary exploration that ISRO is tasked with, to dig deeper into the ways of working and possible causes of failure. The more closed the organisation, the more things can go wrong. Consider that NASA has had huge failures, including the loss of the space shuttle Columbia (the second vehicle to be lost) and the death of all its occupants including the India-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla in 2003. That disaster was traced to the damage to the insulation tiles which were hit as a chunk of SOFI (Spray on Foam Insulation) tore off during takeoff.

Shuttle operations were stopped for two years, many organisational and procedural changes were ordered and a detailed investigation report made a scathing attack on the way NASA studied the damage during liftoff and took its chances. That report produced in a total of six volumes was duly released in full. It also reported problems with cultural practices in NASA, which were subsequently fixed. Consider a comment from that report: “Too often, accident investigations blame a failure only on the last step in a complex process, when a more comprehensive understanding of that process could reveal that earlier steps might be equally or even more culpable. In this Board’s opinion, unless the technical, organisational and cultural recommendations made in this report are implemented, little will have been accomplished to lessen the chance that another accident will follow.”

In organisations like ISRO, where a lot of the work is presumed to be at the cutting edge, public scrutiny is often limited, at least in India. We accept what is told to us and are less equipped and less inclined, given secrecy about national missions along with the grand and visionary exploration that ISRO is tasked with, to dig deeper into the ways of working and possible causes of failure. The more closed the organisation, the more things can go wrong.

Of course, the loss at ISRO is nowhere compared to the loss of NASA in this instance, but we are in the early stages of our space journey. The approach should be to have the best of ideas coming to the top, to accepting challenges and answering them rather than a top down approach as has been alleged.

There is an unfortunate political twist to the story in the edging out of an ISRO senior Tapan Misra, which triggered a letter by several scientists speaking in his favour. Last year, they wrote, “Misra has been transferred…because he had opposed delay in a project, and second, because he opposes the move to privatise ISRO. If this is true, then the act of transferring Misra will cause widespread demotivation among the scientific community as it constitutes a strong signal to scientists to either align their views with the political powers of the day or else be prepared to migrate elsewhere if they want to practice independent scientific enquiry.”

Amid all this, there is of course the good news. The orbiter is safe and flying around the moon. A national probe panel has been formed to study what happened to the lander. May the results not be unnecessarily rushed. A few days or even weeks, as is being suggested, are not good enough to study and analyse as complex a mission as this. Let every aspect be studied. And may we keep away from the territory of claims and future missions till everyone gets to the bottom of this. The failure carries the potential to teach ISRO much more than a successful mission might have. That would be a good way to live the mission of Chandrayaan-2, which states quite simply: “Expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.”

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR)