Why the Chandrayaan-2 moon landing try knocked my emotions out of their orbit

Commentary: Every time I watch a major space effort like the one out of India Friday, I feel an intense rush of stress -- and hope for humanity.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
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Indian Space Research Organization employees watch the live broadcast of the Vikram moon lander's soft landing on Friday. I felt their stress. 

Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

In the span of about an hour Friday afternoon, I felt elated, proud, shaky, tearful and a little heartbroken. That's a lot of feelings for 60 minutes, but it's the kind of emotional galaxy I traverse every time I follow a major space event. 

Friday's flood washed over me as I watched a livestream of India's attempted historic landing on the south pole of the moon. India had hoped to join an exclusive club of moon soft-landers that includes the US, China and the former Soviet Union, but the Indian Space Research Organization lost touch with its Vikram lander when it was just 1.3 miles from the lunar surface. On Sunday, the ISRO announced it had pinpointed the lander's location, but its fate remains a mystery.

When I tuned in to mission control early to see the tense engineers alongside the wide-eyed Indian students who'd been invited to watch the landing live, I felt an immediate swell of pride. Not just for India, but for humanity. Yes, that's a lot of people to be proud of, but there's nothing that expresses human potential like scientific achievement. And space in particular... it's so full of promise, a vast symbol of a world without limits. That's a world I need to be reminded of right now. 

The rushing river of live comments next to the YouTube video heightened the emotional stakes and made me feel a part of something far bigger than the daily concerns that crowd my tiny corner of Earth. Many responses were in a language I don't speak, but enough were in English (and emojis) that I could see how invested we all were no matter which oceans surround us: "We will do it." "All is well." "Victory." Rows of symbols showing smiles, upturned thumbs, prayers hands and flexed biceps. Then sad and tearful faces as it became clear something had gone wrong. "God is checking our patience," wrote one commenter as viewers waited in suspense for an update.

Last month, after editing a CNET piece on SpaceX's successful Starhopper hop, I confessed to the writer, Amanda Kooser, that I sat at my desk for a few minutes with tears in my eyes once the event ended.  

"I have a position I take up when I watch a space milestone unfolding," shared Amanda, who also covered Friday's Chandrayaan-2 mission. "I hold my hands like I'm in prayer, my fingertips tapping together in a fluttering clap as I whisper, 'Come on, come on, come on, you can do it, you can do it' like a mantra. This is when I feel the tiny supernovas in my heart, the weight of every mission, from Sputnik to Apollo and beyond, riding on the wings of a spacecraft, on the flare of a rocket, on the legs of a lander. For me, this is when science is indistinguishable from love." 

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Amanda has written about Mars avalanches and the inner workings of next-generation rockets. I've slept through lunar eclipses, and if asked to name every planet in our solar system in a pinch, I might miss one. But on Friday, as the problems Vikram's lander might have encountered became more clear, I wanted to reach through my laptop screen and give every one of those worried-looking ISRO engineers a hug across time and space. And a thanks, for giving us otherwordly hope and Earthly connection, if only for an hour or two.  

"Their life's work just coming down to a few moments," Claire Reilly, another of my CNET space-loving colleagues, messaged me as we watched. "You can see it on their faces." 

Indeed you could. The anticipation, the determination, the disappointment. But just as when another newcomer to the space scene, Israel's Beresheet lander, missed its moon attempt, people from India's prime minister on down responded with the kind of encouragement we all need to hear in the face of our own moonshots. "Success is not final, failure is not fatal," one tweeted. "It is the courage to continue that counts."

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Originally posted Sept. 6.
Update Sept. 8, 11:18 a.m. PT:  Adds that the ISRO has located the lander on the moon, but its fate remains unknown.