When you fail to soft-land on the moon, try, try again

When you fail to soft-land on the moon, try, try again
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The day that India’s Chandrayaan-2 Vikram lunar lander made its final approach for a landing on the lunar South Pole began with such promise. Everything was going nominally up until the Vikram, was about two kilometers above the lunar surface. At that point, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Mission Operations Center lost contact with the spacecraft. ISRO scientists assumed that the Vikram had crashed.

However, just over a day later, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter located the Vikram lunar lander, apparently having hard-landed on the moon intact, though reportedly on its side. The ISRO planned to spend 14 days attempting to establish contact with the Vikram. After that time the arrival of lunar night will doom any hope of getting useful science out of the lander.

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is expected to spend the next year returning excellent science. In the meantime, people ranging from the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineWhen you fail to soft-land on the moon, try, try again Is the Senate ready to protect American interests in space? With SpaceX's Starhopper, spaceflight opportunities open for Texas MORE have offered accolades to the people of the ISRO. The moon landing attempt was a noble effort, even though it likely has failed this time.  

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The most poignant tribute came from SpaceIL, whose Beresheet lunar lander crash-landed last April, “This mission broke ground in many ways and we congratulate @isro for all that they achieved. Space is hard. We know that from first-hand experience. We also know that you will use this to work even harder and achieve even greater successes down the road.”

Therein resides the lesson, taught many times before in the history of space exploration in the form of exploding rockets and crashed space vehicles. Rocket science is a synonym for something that is really difficult to do for a reason. But the knowledge won by every failure can be used to create the inevitable success.

Chandrayaan-3, a version of the Chanrayaan-2, has been proposed but not yet funded. It will contain a larger version of the Vikram now on the moon but out of communication. It will be a joint venture between ISRO and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. As a signal that the apparent loss of the Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram lander will not put a halt to India’s lunar exploration program, the Indian government should announce that the mission will be funded and launched at the earliest practical opportunity.

As a side comment, sometime after Beresheet was lost, SpaceIL announced that the next mission would be sent to a “different destination.” That destination to date has not been announced. The Israelis ought to revisit that decision. If the Beresheet’s loss is not followed up with a second attempt to land on the moon, that failure will stand as a stain on a nation whose growing expertise in high technology has become a marvel to the world.

When President John F. Kennedy announced that America would land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth, the grand total of NASA’s manned spaceflight experience consisted of the suborbital 15-minute hop by Alan Shepard. The next eight years featured numerous failures, including the horrific Apollo fire that took the lives of three astronauts. But the race to the moon culminated in that one small step that took place on July 20, 1969.

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In the words made immortal by the movie “Apollo 13,” Flight Director Gene Kranz said, “Failure is not an option.” He spoke true for the task of bringing home the crew of the third mission to the moon in a crippled spacecraft. But, in a sense, failure is always an option when trying what some think is impossible. Indeed, a failure only remains so if it is used as an excuse to give up. Failure becomes success when perseverance and courage are applied to make it so.

Making failure into success is one of the lessons of Apollo. The lesson should be taken to heart, not only by the scientists and engineers in India and Israel who have reached for the moon. but by NASA and her commercial space partners, now proposing to pick up where Apollo left off. Failures will happen along the way and, perhaps, astronauts will give the last full measure of devotion in the quest to expand humanity into space. The ultimate prize will be all the sweeter for what it cost to gain it.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”