How much are two and a half kilometres? Maybe not much if one has to drive on a six-lane highway. But it became too much when India’s moon lander lost communication a mere two and a half kilometre before reaching its destination. While it may sound like a setback, the history of space exploration is littered with such misses. Both the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union have had a series of space disasters including those leading to loss of life. The great Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space lost his life in one such mission. Therefore, one can derive comfort from the fact that at least the spacecraft managed to reach so near to its target which could have involved countless precise manoeuvres. This has not been India’s first foray into space. Far from it, India has been a leader in space technology for decades and is steadily consolidating its gains and benefitting numerous other nations by providing affordable state of the art space technology, at a fraction of the cost of what the US or Russia provides.
As the nation and the world watched India’s latest space venture, I was reminded of the first Indian in space, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma. I was a child when he went into space aboard the Soviet spacecraft, Soyuz T – 11. It was my elder sister’s birthday and we had all sat up near our Weston black and white television set in our home in Jullundur to watch his epic space flight. I remember blurry images on the TV. I was confused and curious. I pestered everyone around with questions even as we ate the halwa made for my sister’s birthday. I asked, why was he sent to space? To ward off more blustering questions, my sister answered, he has been sent to see if the earth is indeed round! I had been recently made aware of this fact then and I was only reluctantly able to believe it as I could only find flat ground in the distance I walked to my school nearby. There was no evidence of any curvature. I had reasoned that perhaps we lived inside the round earth on one of its diameters! So, it was indeed heartening for me to know that Rakesh Sharma had gone to space and found that earth is indeed round and lay to rest my doubts permanently! I carried this belief for quite some time until I became aware of the real facts.
We have come a long way from that. I have come a long way too. But I would reckon that it would still not be easy for anyone to answer this question, why send this probe to the moon? I am still looking for the precise answer even as I console myself that this is just a stepping stone to greater voyages and exploration of the unknown!