Sunday, July 29, 2007

It's not over

"After liftoff there is no room for adjustment," says the middle-aged Indian gentleman with the prodigious handlebar mustache. "A fraction of a second and everything is lost." My companion, an engineer with the Indian Space Research Organisation, checks his watch compulsively as we wait for the agency's latest rocket, bearing an INSAT-4C communications satellite, to rise from its gantry and streak across the cloudy sky over the Bay of Bengal.
Operating on a fraction of NASA's budget, the ISRO has turned itself into the Energizer Bunny of space programs – it just keeps launching and launching and launching. Since 1975, the agency has lofted 43 satellites into orbit, 20 of them from Indian soil. An extraordinary string of successes – 12 consecutive launches without a failure – has attracted European and Asian investors looking to capitalize on the growing demand for satellite communication and reconnaissance. A few big deals could turn the ISRO into a moneymaker, boosting India's prestige and helping deflect criticism that the space agency's rupees would be better spent alleviating the misery of roughly 300 million Indians who live below the poverty line.
The launch site, situated on the island of Sriharikota off the east coast of India and surrounded by natural barriers of water and sand, could be the lair of a James Bond villain. Security is obsessively tight at the complex, which is about 50 miles from Chennai, the closest major city. For the mid-July launch, some 900 armed guards surrounded the site to secure the area for convoys of officials, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Over the course of two months, I applied formally to watch the launch but was rebuffed, so I decided to show up unannounced. No luck. With a broad smile, the dapper press officer informed me that foreign journalists were strictly prohibited. In case I had a problem with that, a guard holding an assault rifle stood nearby.
Denied access to the inner sanctum, I take an 8-mile detour to the nearest village, Ataganathippa, and claim a spot along the road with a clear view of the launchpad, amid an audience of ordinary people – farmers, fishermen, day laborers, and my rocket-engineer acquaintance, who has brought along his family. Jeans-clad engineering students from the local community college chat excitedly about how the new satellite could reduce the price of cable television. Suddenly a bright flash erupts in the distance. Huge plumes of smoke boil up from the ground, and a loud rumble rolls across the water. In a matter of seconds the rocket rises above the horizon and a group of young boys shouts, "Jai Hind! Jai Hind!" (Victory to India!) Climbing steadily, the rocket disappears behind a bank of clouds. The crowd is motionless, anticipating the engine's fading rumble.
But it doesn't fade. There's a thunderlike crack. Then chunks of flaming debris begin a slow, tumbling descent, tracing red trails back to Earth.
"That's not supposed to happen," says the engineer, his voice tense with disbelief. Fifteen minutes later, a nearby car radio crackles: "The launch has failed." Ground control issued a self-destruct order when the rocket veered off course and threatened to crash. "It's not over," declares my companion. "God willing, we'll have another crack at the next launch." The crowd, now silent, slowly drifts away. A hard wind blows, scouring the sky clean.
– Scott Carney

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