Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mumbai goes to the moon

  On Monday morning, ``Beyond Moon and Mars, (BMM)'' was among the hundreds of visitors, mostly drivers in white uniforms with placards, hotel reps and a few family members, standing in the arrival zone of the swanky and renovated terminal 1a of Mumbai airport at Santa Cruz. The information board provided the updated flight data, Except for an extremely brief moment, there was a constant flow of pax from the arrival hall, most of them talking on their mobile,

  Spontaneously they, were received by the drivers and hotel reps who immediately grabbed the baggage trolleys and escorted their guests to the vehicles. This is has now become a mechanical process! Some had come with just a lap top to give a presentation and return by their evening flight. There was sense of excitement in the area because three sports people who had won medals at the Asian games had arrived and were giving bytes to the electronic media. 

   The time was 9.25 a.m. and the person whom I had come to receive from Hyderabad should be coming out any moment. But there was no sign of him. Though we are constantly in touch on the telephone,or e mail, this was the first time I was meeting him and I was looking forward to shaking hands with him. Wait, you will know who he is.

    The indicator showed that the Air India flight from Hyderabad was 30 minutes behind schedule. At 10.10 a.m., it said that the flight had finally landed. Five and 10 minutes passed and there was no sign of my friend from Hyderabad. Has he, by chance, missed the flight? Twenty minutes--where is my friend? A panic situation prevaled and I called my good friend, Dhaval Desai, of the prestigious think tank,Observer Research Foundation, and explained the situation. I started breaking into a cold sweat because I was wondering what would be the fate of the evening presentation by my friend organised by the foundation. 

   I tried reaching my friend from Hyderabad on the cell, but it was futile. The enterprising Dhaval atlast managed to access him---he was still inside the aircraft because the plane had not yet reached the parking bay! After several attempts I too at last got to speak to him Yes, he was waiting to disembark!  What a relief!

    I waited and waited and there he was---at last! He is none other than Syed Maqbool Ahmed, the man behind the discovery of water and carbon diaxide on the moon by Chandrayaan-1. He was the project manager of an instrument known as Chace (Chandra Altitudunal Composition Explorer) on board the 30-kg Moon Impact Probe (MIP) of Chandrayaan-1 which crash landed on the south pole region of the moon on the night of November 14,2008. Chace discovered water and CO2 during the MIP's 22-minute flight to the moon after it separated from the mother craft. It had made this sensational discovery even before the other scientific instruments of Chandrayaan-1 had become operational, I felt honoured to shake hands with him. What a moment.

    I know Syed likes to interact with students. So while driving out of the airport, I called my wife Usha, and inquired whether we could drop in for a few minutes at her office, Muktangan a NGO. Muktangan is partnering with the muncipal corporation in running schools. It was a tough day for Usha because she had an open day at Rimanika's (my daughter) school which is JB Petit. Honestly I am scared of these open days! Also she had to attend to our car's insurance. Despite this she said yes, and we went to her office at Worli en route home. 

    Usha introduced all her colleagues, including Sunil Mehta, managing trustee, Paragon Charitable Trust-Muktangan, to Syed. They seemed pretty thrilled and excited meeting the very person who is credited with discovering water and carbon diaxide on the moon through the Chandrayaan-1 mission. After spending a few minutes in the office, accompanied by Usha's helpful colleague, Kinjal, we went to the nearby Globe Mill Passage School which is backed by BMC and Muktangan.

     It was at this moment that Mumbaikars--both young and old--were rocketed to the moon on Monday--a day which one will never forget.

     Originally, Syed was supposed to interact with the youngsters and teachers only for a few moments, but it stretched to nearly 45 minutes. They put a variety of questions to him--about the moon, planets, human space flight and related areas--and he patiently answered all their questions. Pointing to the image of the MIP on my T-shirt he explained the role of this instrument in the Chandrayaan-1 mission. This T-shirt which Rimanika ordered for my birthday certainly had an educational role! Syed was extremely happy with the quality of the questions. A school volunteer, Sanjana Sheth, incidentally a ex-JB ite, came out of the room and asked Syed questions while we were leaving, which he answered in detail. ``The questions were wonderful. They are so intelligent and enthusiastic,'' he told Kinjal.

     From the school to my home in Breach Candy where I introduced him to Rimanika, showed him all that I had connected with Chandrayaan-1 mission---video recordings, books and posters. I also showed him Neil Armstrong's autograph on one of my books about the Apollo 11 mission---``First On The Moon.'' Syed was nice enough to copy his evening presentation about Chandrayaan and Chace to my computer. Thank u Syed. 

    I then took the moonman to lunch at a restaurant close home called ``The Sun.!'' While walking to the restaurant, he telephoned Pradeep Mohandas, my good friend, and secretary of India chapter of Moon Society. Syed was keen that Pradeep should attend his presentation because he writes an informative blog and has a good knowledge of the developments in the space sector. But unfortunately he could not make it because he has to appear for an examination on December 1. All the best Pradeep. Better luck next time!

   A quick vegetarian lunch and we were back home, Briefly showed him the dvd ``The Moon Wtihin Reach,---the Chandrayaan-1 Saga Continuos'' produced by an organisation which is an afflilate of Isro.Syed could only copy part of it on his pen drive,  It was brief because we had to leave for the ppt at the Observer Research Foundation. The time was around 3.30 p.m.

    On the way to the foundation's office, located in the NKM International House at Backbay Reclamation, we stopped at the Saraswathi Temple near JB Petit High School and introduced Syed to the priest who is a good friend of mine. He was certaintly thrilled to see Syed.

      We reached ORF around 4.30 p.m.and met its chairman, the extremely affable Sudheen Kulkarni, in his office. Later, after the ppt Sudheen had an interesting story as to how the mission was named Chandrayaan--none of us knew this aspect. He has worked with former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee and was at the Red Fort on August 15,2003, when he made the grand announcement about the Indian moon mission and christened it, ``Chandrayaan.''  I plan to interview Sudheen about this and write a blog.

    Syed was happy to meet his former colleague from University of Hyderabad, Leena, who introduced him to the audience, after a curtain raiser by Sudheen. The guests included director of Nehru Science Centre, Anil Manekar, who readily agreed to preside over the function, and Nehru Planetarium director, Piyush Pandey.  

    In his ppt at the ORF Syed justified the Rs 386-crore Indian lunar mission, saying it had led to a lot engineering and technological spin offs, created new business opportunities for Isro’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, placed India on par with other global space powers, rejunuvated the mind of the younger generation, triggered a feeling of national pride and was the first step towards embarking on a mission to Mars.

  Also Chandrayaan-1 was the world’s first global effort in launching a mission to the moon, he said. Apart from the five Indian instruments there were six from abroad—two from Nasa, three from the European Space Agency and one from Bulgaria.

  The man behind India’s sensational discovery of water on the moon, said that benefits of the Chandrayaan-1 mission included the availability of spectacular three-d images of the moon and moon mineralogy maps at a five-metre resolution. The audience saw the moon first at a 100 km distance, then 40 kms and finally as close as 25 kms when its craters and other features were clearly visible. The pictures were taken by a camera on board the MIP. Nehru Science Centre, Anil Manekar, remarked: ``We really felt we had gone to the moon and come back safely tonight.’’

  According to Syed one of the important benefits of the Chandrayaan-1 mission was that it had completely scotched suggestions that Nasa’s Apollo manned flights to the moon were faked. ``Such rumours were spread in bad spirit by some eccentric people,’’ he said. ``The Terrain Mapping Camera of Chandrayaan-1 had taken shots of the descent stage of Apollo’s lunar module,’’ he said.

  He attributed the success of Chandrayaan-1 to what he called unbiased selection of projects, a thorough assessment of these projects by experts and more importantly the freedom given to junior team members to freely question their seniors ignoring hierarchy if they had any doubt. ``This is an important aspect of Isro’s work culture which has resulted in the success of many of its missions,’’ he told the audience.

  Referring to the discovery of water on the moon, he said while Nasa’s two payloads on board Chandrayaan-1, the Moon Minerology Mapper and the Mini-Sar used remote sensing methods to detect water, the indigenous Chace on the other hand employed direct measurement which in plain terms meant that it was the actual sampling of the lunar environment.

  According to him one of the reasons behind the success of Chace is because of meticulous planning by the design team in setting the instrument parameters in such a way that the equipment was kept in its ``highest sensitive regime.’’ ``This helped in overcoming the failures faced in earlier attempts employing similar mass spectrometer-based observations by Apollo-era experiments,’’ he  stated.

   Prior to launch the Chace instrument was subjected to severe vibration tests because it had to withstand 22gs during lift off by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) at Sriharikota.

   At the end I had dinner with Syed at the Chaitanya Tower guest house at Prabhadevi not far from the Siddhivinayak Temple, and left for home around 10 p.m.

    It was a memorable day. Thank U ORF for giving me this opportunity!      

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