NEW DELHI — India’s first attempt to land on the moon went awry early Saturday when the country’s space agency lost contact with the lander as it neared the lunar site, minutes before touchdown was expected.
“We came very close but we need to cover more ground,” Modi said. “Our determination to touch the moon has become even stronger.”
Launched in July, Chandrayaan-2 had successfully completed Earth and moon orbits and was set to execute a controlled landing on the lunar south pole, a previously unexplored region.
The incident could now set back India’s growing space ambitions, seen as a reflection of the aspirations of its young population.
In the tense moments leading to the descent, a live broadcast from the space agency’s control room showed rows of scientists with headphones sitting in front of computers. About 10 minutes after the lander began its descent, the commentary went quiet as officials talked among themselves with concern. K. Sivan, head of the space agency, announced that communication with the lander had been lost.
Of the 38 soft-landing attempts made on the moon, only about half have succeeded. In April, Israel attempted to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, only to fail in the final moments. India had hoped its Chandrayaan-2 mission would make it the fourth nation to land on the moon after the United States, Russia and China.
Pallava Bagla, science editor of news channel NDTV, said the mission would not be considered a failure. Pointing to Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter, which has a mission life of a year, he said, “Fifty percent of the mission is already successful and functional.”
The orbiter carries eight scientific experiments for mapping the lunar surface and studying the outer atmosphere of the moon.
Experts had warned that landing Vikram, named after the country’s first space agency chief, would be challenging.
“Proper soft landing is the most crucial part of the exercise,” said Patrick Das Gupta, a professor in the physics and astrophysics department at Delhi University. “From an altitude of 21 miles to zero height is the most scary time.”
Sivan had called the landing maneuver “15 minutes of terror” in a television news interview.
The mission has been a source of immense national pride. Social media erupted in support of the space agency and its scientists despite the setback.
“Be courageous,” Modi told the scientists in the control room, in a moment that was broadcast across Indian public television and live-streamed online. “This is not a small achievement. The country is proud of you.”
The success of the moon mission news could have helped take some heat off the Modi government, which is grappling with an increasingly gloomy economic scenario marred by poor GDP figures and high unemployment rates.
India’s first moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, was instrumental in the discovery of water molecules on the lunar surface. The current mission would have looked for the presence of water.
India’s mission comes as other nations and companies are eyeing the lunar surface. This year, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a first, and has plans to land another craft in the coming months.
NASA is desperately trying to return to the moon — and had hoped to do so this year. Last year, the space agency chose nine companies to be eligible to bid on contracts to fly science experts to the lunar surface. At the time, NASA officials said they were pressing the companies to have a real sense of urgency.
“It’s important we get back to the moon as fast as possible,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters this year. “We’re going to take shots on goal.”
Meanwhile, the Trump White House has directed the U.S. space agency to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, an aggressive timeline many think will be difficult to achieve.
One of the successes of India’s space program has been its cost-effectiveness. Chandrayaan-2 cost $141 million, a small fraction of what the United States spent on its historic Apollo moon mission.
India also has begun preparations to send a manned mission to space by 2022.
Christian Davenport in Washington contributed to this report.