Why a moon landing still fails, decades after the first success
Yesterday the Indian space agency ISRO tried to do the same with moon lander Vikram, but then with an unmanned mission. Vikram was only two kilometers away from the first Indian moon landing, but then it went wrong. The employees lost contact with the moon lander, presumably due to a crash.
They are two apparently similar missions, with almost fifty years in between: how is it possible that such a moon landing can still fail?
What exactly happened with Vikram is speculation, emphasizes Philippe Schoonejans, expert on space travel at the ESA (European Space Agency). “But I was thinking about it: all Apollo moon landings in the 60s were manned. If unexpected problems can help, Neil Armstrong originally landed at the planned location: first he came above a pitch-dark crater and then above a area with many boulders, the fuel had actually run out, but it still flew on. His human decisions eventually made it right. ”
To save costs, modern missions are often unmanned. But robots are a lot less good at making dynamic decisions, or interpreting in unknown images. “Perhaps that contributed to the failure of the unmanned Indian mission,” says Schoonejans, “there is also little light on the south pole of the moon, there are sharp shadows and in some craters it is completely dark.”
He also has doubts about the Vikram braking procedure:
“Vikram had to brake quickly; 30 kilometers from the surface, the device went 6,000 kilometers per hour. The Vikram brakes first at five, but at last with only one brake rocket, that would be a problem could be for stability. “
Space expert Piet Smolders emphasizes that the moon landing fifty years ago did not go smoothly either. “That was setback to setback before they launched the Apollo 11, don’t forget that.” Even in more recent years, things often went wrong at NASA. “For example in the research on Venus and Mars.”
Because with space technology, a mistake is in a small corner, says Smolders. “There may be something wrong with the software, or the managers do not listen carefully to the people on the floor. The NASA Challenger exploded in 1986, partly because the managers had ignored warnings about the low temperature.”
Schoonejans also emphasizes that setting up a moon landing was and will continue to be complex. “That is not only due to the technology itself. You also have to ask yourself: how do you tackle such a mega-project in an organizational manner? What risks are acceptable? You can never say that there is a 0% risk, then you will never launch anything. But it is difficult to estimate. ”
The fact that Indian space travel is in its infancy also has advantages. “You see that newcomers almost always try to innovate,” says Smolders. “India wants to reach the moon in an energy efficient way. They also build their own communication satellites.”
Both space experts therefore have hope for Indian space travel. “A few years ago they managed to get a satellite into orbit around Mars,” says Smolders. “And they brought a satellite around the moon that discovered water at the South Pole; a big achievement.”
Schoonejans points out that Indian Prime Minister Modi immediately gave his congratulations to ISRO, despite the crash. “I thought that was a good gesture. A lot went well too. For example, Vikram’s mother ship, Chrandyaan-2, did well in the intended orbit around the moon and the first part of the deceleration process went well. These are true successes I think it is best to pay attention to it. “