Stampede On The Moon

“India, I reached my destination and you too!" Chandrayaan-3 (India’s Moon Mission) sent its first message upon landing on southern rocky part of the lunar surface on 23rd August 2023.
26 Aug 2023 01:01
Stampede On The Moon
Chandrayaan-3 landed on South Pole of the Moon

India has created history as it becomes the first country to land on the South Pole of lunar surface on August 23, 2023. India’s space agency ISRO is setting new records of sending space missions on shoe string budget; launching 104 satellites in orbit in a single mission and sending mission on Mars on a budget less than a Hollywood film. ISRO is planning to send exploration missions to Venus, Maras and already geared up to launch Sun-mission early next month.

Research and development of space missions was never easy for a developing country like India which was struggling to stand on its feet after 200 years of colonial plundering.

Rocket On A Bicycle, Launched From A Church


ISRO staff carrying rocket on bicycle in 1960s

It was 53 years ago, on November 21, 1963, that a small rocket brought on a bicycle took off from ‘Thumba’ on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram (city in South India), announcing the birth of the modern space age in the country. The sleepy palm-fringed village soon came to be known as Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS) and later became Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC).

Till 1963, the obscure village of ‘Thumba’ in South India’s Kerala province would not have merited a second look. A quintessential fishing hamlet with thatched huts, coconut groves and peaceful sea, it was an unlikely setting for a rocket launch station. However, it did have something that caught the interest of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme—a small church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene that was located on the Earth’s magnetic equator (most ideal for space missions).

Dr. Sarabhai with fellow scientists went to the village to talk to the then-bishop; they were interested in acquiring the church and nearby land for their first rocket launch. Instead of giving them a definite answer, Reverend Peter Bernard Pereira asked them to attend the Sunday mass that week, where he would put the question to the parishioners.


Satellite transported in a bullock cart by ISRO scientists in 60s

Thanks to the Priest’s efforts, permission was granted, the paperwork was done and the villagers relocated to a new site with a brand new church in 100 days flat. The bishop’s home was quickly converted into an office, the church became the workshop, and cattle sheds served as storage houses and laboratories. Undeterred by the little funding and few facilities, a handful of enthusiastic young Indian scientists began assembling their first rocket.

Back then, even rocket parts and payloads were transported by bullock carts and bicycle to the launch pad. It was in these unassuming settings that India staged its first launch—that of a Nike-Apache rocket supplied by NASA in 1963.

Sixty years later, Thumba is the hub of all space programmes helmed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thumba has given India launch vehicles, geo-stationary and  finest remote sensing satellites.

As for the little church that helped India reach for the stars, it now houses a space museum replete with a fascinating array of rockets, satellites and other astronomical equipment

Was It A Space Race Between India And Russia-China Combine?

It’s widely accepted that India and Russia (supported by China) were in a race to become first country to land on the South Pole of the Moon. India launched Chandrayaan-3 (Moon mission) on a leisurely five-week trajectory aiming to land on August 23, 2023.

Russia also launched its Luna-25 mission after India’s launch and targeted to land on the South Pole of the Moon three days ahead of India’s mission. Luna-25, equipped with powerful rockets could reach lunar orbit by using a shorter trajectory; unfortunately it crashed into the moon’s surface, after an engine firing, intended to fine-tune its descent, went awry.  The Russian spacecraft was aiming to land near the intended location of a joint base that space agencies in China and Russia announced in 2021 and agreed to build together.

Three other countries—the U.S., China, and the former Soviet Union—have also achieved soft lunar landings, but none has ever reached the South lunar pole, and that’s not for lack of trying.

The moon’s South Pole is one of the harder places on the lunar surface to land because it is heavily boulder strewn, without the wide, flat expanses. Of the spacecraft that have crashed in the South Pole, none got close enough to try to negotiate the boulder fields; ISRO was able to do so—briefly placing Chandrayaan-3 in hover mode above the surface while it looked for a clear parking spot—is a testament both to the nimbleness of the ship and the deft touch of the engineers in mission control.

Is Russia Lagging Behind in Space Race?

China sent a delegation to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East to attend the launch of Luna-25 which was the first Russian spacecraft to attempt a moon landing since the end of the Soviet Union.

In early 2021, Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly establish an International Lunar Research Station by the mid-2030s. But now, behind the scenes, China already recognizes that Russia is of limited value as a space partner, since the invasion of Ukraine in February last year, Chinese media have downplayed Russia’s role in the lunar base.

Despite the Luna-25 failure, the head of Russia’s space agency declared a “new race to exploit the Moon’s resources has begun”, and there would be a potential crewed Russian-Chinese mission in the future.

In the Sino-Russian relationship, Russia is now well and truly the junior partner. Its ageing technology pales in comparison with the leaps of modernisation we have witnessed in relation to China’s progress in space. Challenging the new rising star in space—India, would also not be so easy for the cash starved Russia.


Jai Kumar Sharma is Consultant Editor of Fiji Sun; he is based in New Delhi

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