A manned space mission has been on the drawing boards of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for more than a decade now.
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Yet the space agency was caught unawares when the Prime Minister announced that India will place an Indian in space by 2022 – in the 75th year of its independence. The announcement has literally put ISRO on notice.
A Tight Deadline for ISRO
For any space agency like ISRO which has fairly mastered technologies relating to designing, fabricating, launching and maintaining a range of satellites, planning a manned mission is certainly the next logical move. That’s why ISRO started toying with the idea of a human space flight way back in 2006, when it held a national conference, and projected that it could pull off such a mission within an eight-year time frame. The cost projected then was Rs 10,000 crore.
Despite the fact that ISRO has been working on certain technologies related to a human mission in pre-project mode since 2006, the 2022 deadline fixed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems ‘very tight’ for the ambitious mission.
The space agency has been working on crew module systems, Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), space flight suits, and a crew escape system. The crew module was flight-tested in the experimental mission (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment or CARE) of LVM3 in 2014, and the crew escape system – called Pad Abort Test (PAT) – was flight-tested in July 2018. These are some of the building blocks for the human flight.
ISRO needs to perfect many more technologies before it is ready to propel an Indian into space, the chief one being a reliable rocket for the human flight. ISRO could launch the mission to Mars in 18 months – from concept to flight – because it had a ready rocket – PSLV – and no additional facilities or safety features were required.
Human Space Flights Have Limited Scientific Goals
For a manned mission, the agency has to get the rocket, GSLV Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3), ready for human flights through a process called ‘man rating’; establish new ground facilities; develop infrastructure for astronaut training; upgrade testing facilities for various systems and sub-systems (for a manned flight, test standards need to be one order higher than present); and garner necessary funding from the government.
Before LVM3 is certified as ‘man-rated’, it will have to undergo several successful developmental and operational flights including, at least two full-fledged flights with crew module (without astronauts).
Conducting a series of LVM3 flights within a short period of four years will involve building so many rockets and preparing for a launch within every few months. This will be a massive challenge, unless ISRO decides to rejig its launch schedules and other key projects.
Human space flights have had limited scientific goals.
Otherwise, the world would not have waited for an Indian orbiting mission to discover the signature of water on the lunar surface, after nearly four decades of man landing on the moon. Human flights are more about extending the boundaries, demonstrating technological prowess and making a political point.
India’s Baby Steps into Space
The history of space exploration globally is intertwined with the Cold War, geopolitics and national pride. Within weeks of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to enter space in April 1961, America not only sent the first American astronaut Alan Shepard Jr, into space, but President Kennedy declared that America’s space objective would be to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
It was in this backdrop in the 1960s that India took its baby steps in space exploration.
That’s why the founder of the Indian space programme, Vikram Sarabhai, had to make it clear that “we do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned spaceflight.” Sarabhai wanted India to use space technology to solve “real problems of man and society.”
Over the decades, Cold War rivalry has been replaced with national pride and a race for techno-political supremacy. China has an aggressive and heavily-funded space programme with commercial, scientific, military and political ambitions. It wants to rival America and Europe by doing everything what they did in space, including setting up a permanent manned mission and sending a Chinese to the moon.
Since its first manned space flight in 2003, China has had several crewed missions. Its plan is to complete building a manned space station – on the lines of the International Space Station – by 2022, the date by which India is supposed to be sending its first human space flight. Clearly, Gaganyaan is far behind in the so-called Asian space race. It is more about national pride and symbolism as articulated by the Prime Minister on 15 August.
(Dinesh C Sharma is Managing Editor, India Science Wire (ISW), New Delhi, India. He can be reached at dineshcsharma.wordpress.com and @dineshcsharma on Twitter. His latest book is The Outsourcer: The Story of India's IT Revolution, MIT Press. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)