The saga of tension and high hopes that soared from India’s space station, Sriharikota on July 14, ended in a historic success at 6:03 pm today, when the legs of the lander softly descended on the moon’s surface.

“Sir, we have achieved the moon landing. India is on the moon,” is how the Indian space agency’s Chairman, Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, broke the news to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who of course, was watching the thrilling drama as it unfolded 384,400 km away from earth, South Africa. Modi, who is attending the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, commented that this was an “unforgettable moment” and said India’s success belonged to the entirety mankind. 

With this, India is not only the fourth country to have achieved a soft landing on the lunar surface, but also the first to land on the moon’s icy South Pole. 

Today’s story began at 5:30 pm, when the lander – which had been circling the moon for some days – got ready for the descent. At 5:44, ISRO announcer confirmed the “landing burn” -- switching on the engines onboard the lander. The event committed the ₹615-crore Chandrayaan-3 mission to lunar landing. 

In the 11.5-minute ‘rough breaking’ phase, during which the speed of the vehicle was reduced from 1680 metres per second (mps) to 358 mps, the spacecraft descended from 31 km to 7.4 km above the moon’s surface.  

Success or otherwise was 19 minutes away from that point. 

An hour earlier, the ALS (autonomous landing sequence) system took over the operations, taking it out of the hands of ISRO scientists. The visuals showed them watching the screens with palpable tension. 

But things went on flawlessly. At 5:56, the ‘fine breaking’ phase began – which was when in Chandrayaan-2 things had gone wrong. The craft was 800 m above the surface; touchdown was 3 minutes away. 

At 6:01 pm, a loud applause broke out in the control room, as the lander turned to assume the vertical position. It was 150m above the surface and its speed had come down to 9 metres a second. A minute later, at 19m, two of the four engines were switched off. 

Seconds later thunderous applause broke out in the control room once again. It was the moment for celebration, not only in the ISRO control room, but in the entire country. 

Though there is no longer any competition in Space, India’s success in achieving a soft landing on the moon is inevitably being contrasted with the failure of Russia’s Luna 25, which was on a similar mission. (Russia had achieved lunar soft-landing as long back as in 1976.)

However, it was almost a given that Chandrayaan-3 would be a success because ISRO had learnt a lot from the failure of Chandrayaan-2 and had incorporated corrective measures, covering all conceivable possibilities of failure.