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Pad abort test
India’s space agency ISRO carried a pad abort test of a crew escape system for a future human spacecraft in July. (credit: ISRO)

India seeks its own “Gagarin Moment”

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On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history by completing a single orbit of the Earth. Now, India proposes to fly its own astronaut on its own spacecraft by the year 2022. An announcement to this effect was made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his speech marking India's 72nd Independence Day celebrations. India won its independence on August 15, 1947, and would be celebrating its 75th anniversary of that milestone in 2022. Hence, Modi has asked the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to achieve this feat by 2022.

In spite of India’s significant satellite and launch vehicle programs, to date only one Indian citizen has visited space.

The immediate reaction of many after this declaration was a question: can India achieve this in such a short period of time? Others wondered if should India do this and weather India can afford to do this Interestingly, nobody questioned India’s technological capabilities to do so. This speaks volumes about ISRO’s reputation. However, now that reputation is going to be at stake, since ISRO has to successfully complete a major task within a very short timeframe.

Glimpses of times gone by

Only three countries in the world have so far succeeded in sending humans to outer space. The former USSR did it on April 12, 1961, while the US achieved this, a month later on May 5, 1961. On October 16, 2003, China’s space program launched its first human into orbit.

Interestingly, in spite of India’s significant satellite and launch vehicle programs, to date only one Indian citizen has visited space. A former Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilot named Rakesh Sharma flew aboard Soyuz T-11, launched on April 2, 1984, as part of the Intercosmos program.

It is also important to note that past Indian prime ministers have also used the occasion of delivering Independent Day speeches to make formal announcements regarding major space proposals. In 2012, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced plans for India’s first Mars mission.

India has been discussing human spaceflight programs since 2004. A meeting of about 80 top scientists to discuss the issues related to such a mission was organized by ISRO on November 7, 2006. A broad analysis of this mission was carried out during this meeting based on a detailed presentation by ISRO. It was argued that ISRO has already matured many technologies required for such a mission and also identified the technologies which require additional work.

At a policy level, a visible interest in such a program became evident when the eleventh five-year plan was released in 2007 (2007–12). This plan had identified a rationale for a human spaceflight mission. They were looking at the time for a launch between 2017 and 2020. ISRO had sought funding worth ₹12,500 crores (₹1,000 crore is approximately US$150 million) from the government for the entire program. However, the vision of eleventh plan was not evident in the next plan, the twelfth plan (2012—2017.) Here the focus was more on increasing the number of satellites, developing India’s own navigational network, and working various new technologies. The present government, which came in power during 2014, has scrapped the office of the Planning Commission, but gave no hints about reinstating a human spaceflight program. Possibly, because it is an expensive venture, this mission was not finding much of traction with the political leadership.

Pre-project developments

ISRO always knew that launching a crewed mission would be a part of their larger agenda someday. Hence, they were experimenting with various technologies required for such mission within their limited available budget. Over the years, they have already successfully tested a few critical and enabling technologies required for the manned program.

The single biggest impediment to the rapid growth of India’s space program has been the ISRO’s inability to develop a heavy launch vehicle

On May 23, 2016, first successful test of Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) was conducted. It reached a peak altitude of 65 kilometers and then began its descent followed by atmospheric reentry at around Mach 5. The vehicle successfully survived very high temperatures during the reentry phase and landed at a predesignated location in the sea. This test allowed ISRO to validate their capabilities in the arena of thermal protection, navigation, guidance, and control.

ISRO also carried out a successful test of a Crew Escape System on July 5, 2018, with a simulated crew module. Such a system ensures the safety of the astronauts on board in the event of a launch abort. This test lasted for nearly three minutes and simulated the abort of the space capsule during a launch. After the launch, the craft reached to an altitude of 2.7 kilometers and deployed two parachutes to safely bring the module down to a splashdown in the ocean as planned.

Another critical technology which ISRO has tested recently is the astronaut flight suit. Also, media reports indicate that ISRO has successfully tested an environmental control and life support system (ECLSS). There are reports that ISRO is working on space docking experiments and has already completed some ground simulations. Some work is also happening in the sensors arena. In addition, the ergonomic model of the crew module, capable of carrying two astronauts, is being worked on.

Technological challenges

It is widely expected that, for the 2022 mission, ISRO’s objective will be to develop a fully autonomous crewed space vehicle capable of carrying two to three astronauts onboard. The vehicle should have a potential to reach the altitude of about 300–400 kilometers and return back safely to the Earth.

The single biggest impediment to the rapid growth of India’s space program has been the ISRO’s inability to develop a heavy launch vehicle. India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) program has taken a long time to become fully operational. The first developmental mission took place in 2001, but the GSLV Mark III, designed to carry satellites weighing four tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or about 10 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), is yet to become fully operational. On June 5, 2017, the GSLV Mark III-D1 developmental flight successfully put a satellite weighing 3,136 kilograms into GTO. However, more successful launches with much heavier payloads must happen within a year or two. This would prove the space-worthiness of this vehicle and make ISRO confident that they can put this technology in use for human spaceflight. As of now, ISRO does not have a human-rated launch vehicle.

Also, there is no clarity regarding the crew vehicle that could be used by ISRO to put their astronauts in LEO. Pre-project tests of Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) has been successful. However, this is just a baby step towards developing a complete reusable space shuttle. There are requirements for developing major ground facilities for such a vehicle, too. This would involve development of at least two runways which are 4,500 meters long and 90 meters wide. Development and testing of such a vehicle and its ground infrastructure by 2022 appears to be unlikely.

ISRO has only four years to put an Indian in orbit. For such an ambitious mission, it appears that India’s scientific community and their political masters are taking a calculated risk.

The other option with India is to develop a vehicle like the Russian Soyuz. This is a single-use vehicle that would return astronauts to a predesignated landing zone. Some reports indicate that India may accept assistance from Russia, who is presently developing a craft similar to NASA’s Orion spacecraft for missions beyond Earth orbit. For this craft, after the atmospheric re-entry, the astronauts are to be recovered in either in the sea or on the well deck of the ship, depending mainly depending on sea conditions. India has no major experience in spacecraft recovery operations. ISRO, along with the Indian Navy and other agencies, have undertaken a few such efforts in the past, but now they would be required to make significant investments to this field.

Apart from these two main hurdles, ISRO is expected to face various other technological challenges, particularly since ISRO has no experience in human missions. There is not much clarity in regards to Indian efforts in training astronauts. Possibly ISRO has already built a full-scale mockup of the crew capsule. In addition, some work towards developing centrifuges to train the astronauts on the accelerations experienced during launch and reentry could be underway. Not much is known about the proposed academy in Bangalore for astronaut training.

Is human spaceflight worth it?

Is India biting off more than it can chew? The task given by the Indian prime minister to ISRO is a herculean one. ISRO has only four years to put an Indian in orbit. For such an ambitious mission, it appears that India’s scientific community and their political masters are taking a calculated risk. They know that ISRO has already put some structures in place and has a good beginning. Now, ISRO needs to accelerate work on a few more critical technologies to meet the deadline.

India is a late starter in this field and needs to exploit the situation to their advantage. India may require assistance from the US and/or Russia. On the space front, and also otherwise, India has good relations with both nations. However, the challenge for India is manage the project within a limited timeframe. Recently, India has had a bad experience with Russia, particularly in regards to their collaboration in India’s second moon mission program. What was originally a joint mission was delayed by couple of years owing to an almost last-minute withdrawal by the Russians. Now, India is expected to launch this mission as a solo endeavor early next year.

India’s journey towards human space flight appears to be a planned move. It began around 2006–07 period, but there was a techno-strategic pause during the period of the twelfth five-year plan. The Indian government had approved the satellite navigation system project in May 2006. On November 26, 2008, India’s financial capital Mumbai witnessed a series of coordinated shooting and bombing attacks, killing more than 160 people. Subsequently, India focused on development of remote sensing and navigation satellites. India has already launched a communication satellite for Navy and other services are expected to get their satellites soon. In other arenas, India has put an astronomical satellite in place and finished with their first Moon and Mars missions. Probably, as per ISRO’s scheme of prioritization, now the time for a human mission has come. Hence, after receiving the green signal from ISRO, the Indian prime minister must have made the announcement.

It is important for India to ensure that they are not launching a rudimentary craft just for the sake of some achievement. They need to push the envelope further. Since they are sending humans all the way to the space, they should try to test as many technologies as possible, such as docking capabilities, external robotic manipulators, and some aspects related to extravehicular activity.

When there are proposals for settling the Moon and Mars, it is obvious that India should at least take an initial first step of putting a human in LEO.

As a part of pre-project developments during the last couple of years India should have ensured that they also become a part of the International Space Station program. Though some discussions did take place in that direction, India has missed an opportunity here. By now a few Indians could have taken astronaut training possibly even could have been to the ISS. Now, with the potential decommissioning of ISS in the mid-2020s, it is an opportunity that could be lost for India. Should India grab an opportunity, which China is offering to all members of the United Nations, to work on their proposed space station? India’s participation on Chinese space station would have significant geostrategic relevance too.

India needs to invest around $2 billion for this mission. Obviously, there are questions about the utility of human spaceflight. Universally, one obvious response to such a question is that there could be some hidden benefits of spinoff technologies. However, India needs to look beyond this and ensure that they get best return out of their investments.

Should India had invested more towards robotic missions than to opt for a money-guzzler crewed mission? The robotic missions have their own advantages and, particularly for nations like India, it is important to make more investments in that direction. However, when there are proposals for settling the Moon and Mars, it is obvious that India should at least take an initial first step of putting a human in LEO.

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