The Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) last-minute setback to its plans to place a lander spacecraft near the Moon's unexplored southern pole has come as a crushing disappointment not only for millions of Indians who had closely followed the mission, but also for all those interested in science exploration. That India had created a niche for itself in successful low-cost space shots - in 2013, it sent an operational mission to Mars for the equivalent of US$74 million (S$102 million), about a tenth of what it cost America - fired scientific imagination, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi added to the thrill by pointing out that India's real-life Martian adventure cost less than the similarly themed Hollywood film Gravity.
ISRO had wisely moderated expectations by saying that the final quarter-hour of the 48-day flight would be "15 minutes of terror". Unhappily, that proved right. The lander Vikram was to have touched down at 4.25am Singapore time last Saturday. It had been descending for 12 minutes but three minutes before landing and at 2.1km above the lunar surface, it lost contact with Earth, while Mr Modi and scientists looked on from the control station. Success would have made India the fourth country to place a spacecraft on the Moon after Russia, the United States and China. Focus now shifts to making best use of the orbiter, which is working well, and carries eight of the 13 payloads; the others were on the lander and rover.