It Is Really Really Hard to Go to the Moon

India’s first moon mission launch in 2008.
India’s first moon mission launch in 2008.
Photo: AP

India was supposed to launch a rocket today that would send a craft to the Moon’s surface, making it the fourth country ever to do so if successful. But with 56 minutes left in the countdown, everything came to a halt, because of a “technical snag.” It’s hard to get to the Moon.

The Apollo program stands ever taller with each passing day. The last human on the Moon was Gene Cernan, in 1972. The U.S. was not only able to get twelve people to the lunar surface and back safely, but it did so on six separate missions. The Soviets tried and failed to go to the Moon themselves, leaving a legacy of disaster we may never know the full history of. No one else really tried until recently, with China landing a rover in 2013.

The space race between the Soviets and the U.S. was remarkable for several reasons, of course, and perhaps most remarkable for the Soviet Union, since that country put the first man in space less than two decades after being devastated by World War II. Each country was starting from zero, but the Soviets started from almost less than zero.


India’s ambitions have been apparent for some time now, and the new snag comes after an Israeli nonprofit crashed into the Moon in April. On Saturday, it’ll have been 50 years since Neil Armstrong made his famous landing, and nearly 47 years since Cernan did it.

India’s failure is a good reminder that this shit is hard.

Via The New York Times:

“I was alert and up and about and watching what was happening with a hawk’s eye,” said Pallava Bagla, a well-known science journalist who was attending the launch at the Satish Dhawan Space Center, near Chennai. “A beautiful moon was shining down through the clouds and asking the rocket to come to it. But then there was confusion. Everyone was trying to figure out what went wrong. The excitement was very high.”


In the end, Indian scientists announced that nothing disastrous had happened but that the much anticipated launch needed to be postponed because “a technical snag” had been discovered while filling the rocket with cryogenic fuel. They were studying printouts and reams of data, they said Monday morning, and would provide more information as soon as they had it.

India’s mission was called Chandrayaan-2, or Hindi for “moon vehicle.” It was to explore the Moon’s South Pole, where ice exists beneath the surface. It still probably will, though when, the India Space Research Organization—the government-funded group responsible for the launch—could not say.

That the U.S. put a dozen men on the surface of the Moon with computers that had exponentially less power than an iPhone is the coolest thing we’ve ever done.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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AuroraFirestorm (Alcoraiden)

The weird thing is how easy the US makes it look. We put feet on the moon with minimal computing power and now horribly antiquated technology. The fact that countries with very capable engineers and the power of the internet and ridiculously good computers can’t succeed reliably, is a testament both to the skill of the NASA folks back then, and also how utterly lucky we were.

Look, though. Catching a technical issue before launch is not failure, it’s good engineering. Remember Challenger? That is what happens if you launch with technical problems.