SATISH DHAWAN SPACE CENTER, India — India is on its way to the moon.
One week after a first attempt was canceled at the last minute, the Chandrayaan-2 mission blasted off at 2:43 p.m. Monday from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on India’s southeast coast, carrying an uncrewed lunar lander and this country’s space dreams.
The 142-feet-tall rocket rose on a funnel of fire, ripping through the air perfectly straight and surprisingly fast, before vanishing into a thick bank of clouds, heading for the south pole of the moon.
“The mission has been successfully accomplished!” blared a message from loudspeakers at mission control.
Last week, Indian rocket scientists abruptly called off the launch less than an hour before liftoff. They had found a “technical snag,” they said. Scientists later disclosed that one of the helium tanks in the upper stage of the rocket had been slightly losing pressure.
But on Monday, all systems were go for the first ever mission to the moon’s south pole. India plans to land a remote-controlled lander softly on the moon’s surface near the pole, which it will then explore with a small, six-wheeled rover.
“The low-pressure issue got corrected,” said Vivek Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, India’s version of NASA. “The mood is perfect.”
“You know in space missions, you can’t go with 99% confidence,” he added. “You should have 100% confidence.”
If successful, India will become the fourth nation — after the United States, Russia and China — to land on the moon, more than 200,000 miles away. It would be a huge leap forward for the country’s ambitious space program, and scientists and defense experts everywhere are watching to see whether the Indians can pull it off.
Within India, the mission has stoked enormous pride, especially among schoolchildren who dream of being astronauts.
Shortly before the launch, a huge crowd of space enthusiasts gathered at the gates. The weather was hot and muggy, around 90 degrees, with thick cloud cover and occasional drizzles. Cameras dangled from their necks and some, like Kaushal Vijay, 8, wore pins saying “I Love India.”
“It’s going to be like a missile going to the moon!” he said. “A lot of fire and noise.”
His mother, Kswetha Vijay, said she had not hesitated to pull her children out of school for the day.
“I feel proud for my kids to see this,” she said.
Huge video screens in the space center’s media room alternated between live images of the rocket standing on the launchpad to shots of scientists and engineers sitting in rows in front of banks of computers at mission control.
The timing for this moon mission could not be more opportune. This weekend was the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on our little neighbor. All the anniversary coverage has uncapped a wave of moon fever around the world.
Indian space officials said the Apollo connection was just a coincidence.
India had planned to do this mission several years ago as something of a joint venture in space with Russia. But after the Russians backed out because of problems in their own space program, India needed to make all the systems itself, which caused a long delay.
The mission includes four components: a giant Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle — Mark III rocket (though it is much shorter and lighter than the Saturn V rocket that lifted the Apollo missions); an orbiter; a lander; and the small rover.
The mission costs less than $150 million, but will take much longer than the relatively straight shot made by the Apollo missions, which cost billions (the presence of humans along for the ride added to the price tag).
The Indian orbiter will conserve fuel by making ever-widening orbits around the Earth before being captured by the moon’s gravity and pulled into lunar orbit. The whole journey will take more than five weeks.
The lander will then drop down from the orbiter. After it touches down on the moon, Chandrayaan’s little solar-powered rover will chug out.
This is scheduled for early September.
The mission has been timed for the beginning of a moon day, so the rover can get maximum sunlight.
Making a soft landing will be the hardest part. An Israeli lander trying to do the same thing crashed on the moon in April.
Indian scientists had built a small cushion into their timing of orbiting the Earth and say the one-week delay will not affect the intended landing date.
But, Singh admitted, “Some of our flexibility will be reduced.”