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Touch & go moments in space missions: Action in space, drama on Earth

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The Times Of India
12th July, 2019 09:49 IST

NEW DELHI: In space missions, the margin for error is almost zero. As India prepares for the big launch of Chandrayaan-2 on July 15, Isro chairman K Sivan has described as ‘terrifying’ the last 15 minutes that will see Vikram (lander) descend on Moon on September 6 or 7. Space programmes from around the world have had several dramatic moments. TOI recounts a few heart-stop moments.


Nasa was in mission mode to land humans on Moon. This was Apollo 10, the mission that preceded Apollo 11 that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

Replicas of cartoon characters— Charlie Brown & Snoopy— decorate top of a console in Mission Control of Apollo 10

Nasa had named the lunar module ‘Snoopy’ from Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanut’ comic. It sniffed out the landing spot for Apollo 11. It named the control module ‘Charlie Brown’, from the same comic, in which he is Snoopy’s guardian. While astronauts Thomas P Stafford and Eugene A Cernan manned Snoopy, John W Young was in Charlie Brown. Everything went as planned. But as Snoopy begins to return to Charlie Brown, Stafford said: “We’re in trouble!” The problem: Snoopy was tumbling. The next few moments were tense as astronauts tried to regain control of tumbling Snoopy. After several minutes, they managed to regain control and they fired the ‘ascent engine’. Snoopy safely returned to Charlie Brown and Stafford declared: “Snoopy and Charlie Brown are hugging each other.”


In 2018, a Russian rocket carrying a US astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station failed. But redundancies worked well to save crew.

Cosmonaut Ovchinin and astronaut Hague are greeted by relatives after emergency landing

Soyuz MS10 launched successfully from Kazakhstan’s cosmodrome of Baikonur. Just two minutes later, the first and second stages of the booster rocket separated. A glitch occurred, and rocket began to plunge back towards Earth. Soyuz capsule carrying Russia’s Alexei Ovchinin and US’ Nick Hague separated from the malfunctioning Russian rocket. It plunged 50km down to the surface, with parachutes slowing its speed. Minutes later it made a dramatic emergency landing. Crew members were rescued.


In 2004, NASA attempted to land a rover— Spirit—on Mars. Rob Manning, leader of the landing team recalls that ‘Entry, descent and landing phase was 6 minutes of terror’.

A couple of days before Spirit’s landing day, Jan 3, 2004, the team discovered a design error. It had found a communication error between rover and lander. Software engineer suggested sending signals manually. Four hours before landing, commands were sent manually. It was customary to play a song in mission support area; that day, they played Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t worry, be happy’. The commands and the song worked. The mission was a success.


On September 24, 2014, 300 days after it was launched, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was to enter Martian Orbit. PM Modi, was at ISTRAC, overseeing the operation. The 30-odd minutes were extremely tense.

PM Modi greets scientists in Bengaluru after MOM entered Mars

4.17am: MOM activated antenna which provided communication link during the Mars orbit insertion.
6.56am: The forward rotation to reduce its speed was initiated.
7.17am: Reignition of liquid engine; telemetry delay of 12-mins kept people guessing.
7.29am: Confirmation arrived that the engine ignited as planned.

Between 7.58am and 7.59am signal from the Canberra Deep Space Network in Australia transmitted that MOM had reached Mars.

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