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Rakesh Sharma was the first Indian in space, 30 years ago this week, flying on a Soviet spacecraft. When will India launch astronauts on its own?

Prospects for the Indian human spaceflight program

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Out of a population of nearly 1.3 billion, only four Indian nationals have received training for a designated spaceflight mission and only one of them actually made it. This week marks the 30th anniversary of Rakesh Sharma’s eight days in space as part of the Soviet’s Interkosmos program in 1984. He never went back and despite announcements in 2006 that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would engage in Human Space Flight (HSF), now in 2014 there is no prospect of an imminent launch of an Indian astronaut by ISRO. However, a single successful rocket launch early this year suggests that ISRO may finally be making some headway.

ISRO has been working quietly in the background on the development of an astronaut training program and an astronaut crew vehicle.

The 2006 announcement was probably triggered by the October 2005 success of the second Chinese spaceflight with astronauts. But India was not ready to go it alone. During the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to India in December 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed that would put another Indian in space using Russian spacecraft in 2013, followed by another in 2015 aboard an Indian launcher. That MoU agreement was abandoned in 2010. In December 2013, following a series of statements in the media about India’s manned mission to the Moon, ISRO issued its own statement emphatically asserting that it had no plans for human moon mission.

However, ISRO has been working quietly in the background on the development of an astronaut training program and an astronaut crew vehicle. Since March 2009, ISRO has had a MoU with the Indian Air Force’s Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM) to conduct basic research on human physiological and psychological requirements for human spaceflight crew, and developing IAM’s existing facilities to cater to ISRO’s HSF as a pre-project research and development activity. ISRO has also entered in to agreements with a Bangalore-based third party to initiate the development on spacesuits and a Mysore-based company to develop a space food menu for Indian astronauts.

In mid January of 2014, ISRO announced its intention to flight test its astronaut capsule in a suborbital flight without a crew in the summer of 2014. The flight is designed to test the dynamics of the launch vehicle as well as the effectiveness of the crew capsule, especially its thermal protection system during reentry. ISRO demonstrated its ability to launch and recover a 600-kilogram module in 2007. The capsule was de-orbited and recovered from the Indian Ocean twelve days after launch. In addition to basic microgravity experiments, ISRO was able to test the capsule’s navigation, guidance, and control systems. Known as the Space Recovery Experiment (SRE), the recovered SRE module is now a key exhibit in ISRO’s space museum in the cradle of the Indian Space program, St. Mary Magdalene Church, located within the grounds of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala.

So why has ISRO not made any substantial progress in its human spaceflight program? A fundamental requirement for human spaceflight is a heavy launch system. ISRO does not have one. For human spaceflight, a launch vehicle needs to carry at least 5 tonnes to low Earth orbit. ISRO’s highly reliable and extremely successful PSLV in its most enhanced configuration, PSLV-XL, can lift only about 3.8 tonnes to low Earth orbit. ISRO is resolving this shortcoming in two steps. The first step was completed successfully in January this year and the second is due in a few months time.

On January 5, ISRO launched a 1.8-tonne communication satellite, GSAT-14, to geosttaionary transfer orbit using not the PSLV-XL but the more powerful GSLV-Mk2. Significantly, the third stage of the GSLV-Mk2 used a cryogenic engine that ISRO has been developing for years. Following spectacular failures in the past, January’s launch was an impeccable success, finally confirming ISRO’s competence with cryogenic technology. Sometime around May or June this year, ISRO will conduct a test flight of the GSLV-Mk3. This launch will be a sub orbital flight test of the GSLV-Mk3 with a passive cryogenic upper stage carrying the empty crew capsule. The launch will test the flight coefficient of the GSLV-Mk3 and the re-entry characteristics of the crew capsule. Once that flight is successful, all the pieces will be in place. ISRO will then have a capability to launch 10 tonnes to low Earth orbit.

How India’s HSF program will develop from there is unclear. The timetable will depend on the success of the GSLV-Mk3 flight scheduled for the summer and further test flights as well. In a recent interview, former ISRO chairman Professor UR Rao stated that it will take India about another five years before it is ready to launch its first astronaut from Indian soil.

The next time humans leave Earth, Sharma says, “they should not do so as Americans, Indians, or Chinese, but as people from planet Earth.”

Why should India participate in human spaceflight? Setting aside the question of cost and the ability of a developing nation to fund it, there is a deeper profound reason to do so. Human history is that of a cycle of brutal war and conflict. There is still much now, but relatively less. The nature of our 21st-century global interconnected world ties all of us to each other as never before. The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously inhabited since 2000. It is only possible because of international collaboration. Apart from the enormous value of the science conducted aboard the ISS, bringing peoples of different nations together here on Earth is probably its greatest legacy. The more we compete and collaborate on the sports ground, in science labs, at arts festivals, in business, environmental management, and space, the less we will do so on the battlefield. International collaboration is essential for our civilization’s grand ambitions in space; India, representing such a large part of it, cannot be absent.

Rakesh Sharma and his backup, Ravish Malhotra, trained to fly aboard a Soviet space station in the spring of 1984. Since Sharma flew, Molhotra was never called up. After a period of commanding an airbase in India, Molhotra left for the private sector, heading up an international aerospace company. Paramaswaren Radhakrishnan and Nagapathi Bhat started their astronaut training in the US to accompany an Indian satellite aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in November 1986. But the catastrophic explosion of Challenger during launch on January 28, 1986, ended their hopes of spaceflight even before the primary/backup selection took place. Both returned and continued to work for ISRO until their retirement and live now live in Thiruvananthapuram (formally Trivanderum) and Bangalore, respectively.

No humans have left Earth orbit since 1972. Speaking in 2013, Sharma pointed to the collaborative opportunities that emerge from national space programs. In the midst of the Cold War, American and Soviet astronauts symbolically shook hands 200 kilometers above the Earth in July 1975 as part of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. The next time humans leave Earth, Sharma says, “they should not do so as Americans, Indians, or Chinese, but as people from planet Earth.”

Each nation that has launched humans into space started with men and then included women. Two years after the first man, the Soviets put the first woman in space in 1963. The gap for the USA between the launch of its first astronaut and its first woman astronaut was 22 years. The Chinese took nine years. As the world’s largest democracy, would it not be fitting that the first Indian-launched astronaut was a woman?