Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Moon Odyssey

As I write this, the count down is not yet begun, yet,all the news channels are showing detailed coverage on the preparations for the launch of India's first Moon Mission- "Chandrayaan." The event is seen as a proud moment in India's space mission history. Hopefully things would go well. Needless to say I am curious and excited like many others at the developments, even though this comes 60 years after the first lunar mission ever and nothing new with the 'experiments' the lunar probe is going to conduct.

The events sets the time back in the memory lane. In corner of the old shelf at our ancestral home, was lying this book with a blue colour cover. "Kaikeyiyude Peruviral" , the title might sound like a piece of Ramayana, but in fact it was one of those publications from the Kerala Shashtra sahitya Parishad - A non Govt Organisation,a unique one to its credit.

Mom being an primary school teacher in charge of Science Exhibitions and preparing students of Quiz etc, had a strong liking to accumulating knowledge.In fact she used to have notebooks with lots of info scribbled down, what she gathered from newspapaers and the diff extra cariculam books that she came across as a teacher. Soon after she started her career, she had taken up a membership of Parishad book club. It was one of its kind in India, they published monthly magazines (Eureka and Shashtra Keralam) . Also if you were a member of the Book Club you would get to buy fantastic books at a nominal yearly cost. My elder brother was the chief beneficiary of all these as he was good in Quizzing.

I was quite lucky that by the time I was born I had already a good library at home. (Some more books got added as prizes won by brother in competitions)

In short , the blue coloured book described above was one of those Parishath publications. It had picture of a hand on the front cover as indicated by the title. The book was about the aborted lunar mission of 1970 - Appollo 13 ( which later was made into a movie)

Let me try to recollect from the book as much.. I still remember the graphical anatomy of the Saturn rocket with its different stages well detailed ( A "Mukhya pedakam "-Maain Vehicle and " Chandra Pedakam" - Lunar Vehicle and the strap on rockets ,Booster rockets, fuel tanks etc. ) Now you get a good idea of the structure of the rocket itself . And this really helps to understand the sequence of the events about to unfold later.

And, I still remember the names of two of the three astronauts. One Mr Hays,Mr.Swgert and one more person whose name I dont remember now....

The blast off of the rocket with the splendor of a million stars was well described. The Earth that moves away from the rocket in the eyes of the inmates and getting increasingly smaller with each minute as the the rocket leaps into the space.. Crossing stratosphere, entering into space etc... well described to make you feel you are the one of those in the rocket.

Each stage separated at the predicted time, boosting the velocity each time, till it reached the terminal velocity for an extended tangential path towards the moon. With each stage the vehicle was getting lighter and fuel was preserved. It was text book launch till this point of time.

And then, as the inmates were feeling relaxed after the critical take off , as the rocket was tracking its predicted course with all the readings in those sophisticated devices indicating that everything was normal, then there was it....!

Half into the space ,a deafening noise from nowhere, and suddenly the alarms started hooting.. The panic grips.. Far away from the earth, somewhere in the outer space, three men are left alone to deal with a near death situation, Dependent only on their will power, the instruction books they had, and the still un broken radio link with master control room at their disposal..

A systematic check reveals that one of the fuel tanks which had Compressed Oxygen is leaked and the tank is empty as the entire oxygen molecules got escaped into free space. Not left with enough fuel , it was sure that the lunar mission is to be aborted.

But nobody knew what more could be the impact. Time was running out and equations has to be worked out with the new set of variables. NASA steps into war footing. And then it was known, with the amount of fuel left now,it is impossible to turn the cruising ship back.It simply was not enough to change the momentum in reverse. Situation was almost slipping away from hands..

And then ,the mainframes at NASA works out another method. Yes, it may be difficult to turn the ship back against its course. However, if it carries on and takes advantage of the Gravity of the moon. It can come around the moon without lose of momentum and can easily break away from moons gravity with much lesser fuel.

And it was decided to try out that only option. Since the possibility was not envisaged before, it was not a tested and proven solution.Time was running out and Clock demands the the theory is put into action immediately. The three men inside the vehicle were guinypigs in space..

And the danger was not just that. As the ship circles around the moon, it had to loose contact with earth as Moon would block the radio channel. And during this phase the three men and their impaired ship is left to on its own.. There was moments of tension filled- silence in NASA. And as the ship comes around the moon and established radio link once again there was a sigh of release and loud cries at the control station on earth.

And then the vehicle sets its course towards the earth making sure that it falls into the gravitational range of earth and finds eventually its way back..And lands in (Atlantic....???? I am not sure)

It was a great moment. May be one even greater than the successful Appollo mission one year earlier.For, it was a fight against destiny and man won it with the aid of science.

That was the book all about... Worth reading for anyone, young or old.. I first read it in my 5th standard,I would have read it at many a time later. enjoying the thrill of travelling along with those astronauts, marvelling at the ability of man to invent tools to conquer the world, His will power and skills to deploy science to defy nature.. A book ,Worth reading even now..

And as a tail piece , one might wonder why the title refer to Kaikeyi- If one is familiar with story of Ramayana, it all started with King Dasharath who happened to be in a war field along with his wife Kaikeyi in a chariot.It was a treacherous ride and suddenly Kaikeyi observed that one of the major pivotal nails has got loosen and fallen away. The King was busy riding the chariot not knowing the danger. Smart and Courageous she is, Kaikeyi puts her thumb into the hole meant of the pivot and thereby rescuing the chariot from falling apart- The author of the book wonders , who was that kaikeyi who saved Appollo 13 from falling apart in the deepest corners of the distant space..!!!

Hope the Chandrayan wont require a Kaikeyi this time around.

Good Luck to India's Heavenly Aspirartions..!!