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Capsule recovery
The Gaganyaan capsule prototype used in the abort test is recovered from the ocean after splashdown. (credit: ISRO)

ISRO develops its agenda for the future

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On October 21, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully tested the Crew Escape System (CES), part of its progress on the human space travel program called Gaganyaan. ISRO will be analyzing the data generated during the entire mission and is expected to undertake three more such tests to validate various technologies required to ensure the crew safety.

It is obvious that no head of state would make such announcements without first checking with the space agency about the feasibility of such programs.

India’s Gaganyaan mission is behind its original schedule. India’s first human space mission, to an orbit of about 400 kilometers, was originally expected to happen during 2022 to commemorate 75 years of Indian independence. Covid-19 has been one of the main reasons for this delay. There was also some delay in acquiring some important technologies from Russia, Europe, and the US. It is now expected that the mission may happen by 2025. However, given that this is a mission involving humans, ISRO is taking extra precautions. The chairman of ISRO has made it clear that the schedule is secondary, and they are following a very methodical approach towards development of every system. Broadly, it could be said that about 50% of the job is completed. Four astronauts have been shortlisted, who have already undergone a very rigorous training lasting for around a year in Russia and now are sharpening their skills at the Indian astronaut training academy.

On October 17, while taking stock of the progress made on Gaganyaan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed ISRO to pursue some new and ambitious goals. He has asked ISRO to prepare a roadmap to establish an Indian Space Station by 2035 and send an Indian to the Moon by 2040. Also, ISRO has been called upon to work towards interplanetary missions like a mission to Venus and a Mars lander.

It is obvious that no head of state would make such announcements without first checking with the space agency about the feasibility of such programs. Since the beginning of the 21st century, ISRO has been working on a major space agenda. India’s Moon mission, for example, was conceived around 2003. At that time, Indian president Dr. APJ Abdul—Kalam a renowned rocket scientist himself—had told ISRO scientists that exploring the Moon through Chandrayaan would electrify the entire country. He was instrumental in pushing ISRO to ensure that when Chandrayaan-1 entered lunar orbit it dropped the Moon impact probe (MIP) on the lunar surface. As envisaged by him, the success of Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008 did galvanize the entire country.

Subsequently, India achieved success with its first mission to Mars, launched in 2012. The recent success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, particularly the feat of soft-landing of the lander and rover system on the lunar surface, has significantly increased ISRO’s global admirers. With this backdrop, it appears that the proposals like space station and reaching Venus are doable.

During 2006 and 2007, a feasibility study began on the capability of India to conduct a human space flight. The proposal to have a space station was first projected during 2019 by the then-chairman of ISRO. He had mentioned that the proposed space station could weigh up to 20 tons, where astronauts might stay for up to 15 to 20 days. The proposal was to have this station in place by 2030. However, since the Gaganyaan program has been delayed, it appears that the timeline has been shifted to 2035. After ISRO becomes successful with its Gaganyaan program, it would be required to leapfrog. They need to ensure that Indian astronauts are able to undertake spacewalks, develop expertise on on-orbit servicing and assembling structures in space, undertake docking experiments (robotic and manual) in space, developing a robotic space arm, and have a vehicle capable of transporting tons of cargo to low Earth orbit. In addition, the establishment of the space station itself would demand development of various new technologies.

With the recent success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, India has demonstrated its capabilities in the domain of space. However, it is also important for ISRO to do some soul-searching before preparing a roadmap for the future.

Around 2014 and 2015, the Advisory Committee for Space Science led by former ISRO chief Prof. U R Rao made a recommendation for a mission to Venus to understand the evolution of the world. During 2017 complete preliminary studies for the project Venous funds were released. There also has been some collaboration with the Japanese space agency JAXA in 2016–2017 to study the Venus atmosphere. By 2019, around 25 science payloads, including proposals received from international agencies, have been shortlisted. At present, there is no clarity about exactly when this mission would happen. There is a launch window available during December 2024 and the next similar window would be available in 2031.

In another two years’ time, it is expected that India would be able to put an Indian in space. This Gaganyaan mission is meant for carrying humans to an altitude of around 400 kilometers, but an Indian astronaut would be required to travel a distance of nearly 400,000 kilometers to reach the Moon. India’s ambition is to have an Indian on the Moon by 2040. It is a bit premature to discuss this subject now. A lot of work needs to be done to make this ambition a reality.

With the recent success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, India has demonstrated its capabilities in the domain of space. So, India's ambitions for the future are just. However, it is also important for ISRO to do some soul-searching before preparing a roadmap for the future. The time has come for ISRO to move beyond technology demonstration missions. This is not to say that ISRO has not done any science during its missions to the Moon and Mars. But they could have done more provided there was a more powerful launch vehicle available. The Apollo 11 mission was completed in eight days, while in the third decade of the 21st century ISRO took 40 days just to reach the Moon.

Today, ISRO can carry only limited payloads to undertake scientific experiments over the Moon and Mars. India’s Mars mission could carry only around 15 kilograms of payload, while the rover for the Chandrayaan-3 mission was 26 kilograms in weight. Today, India’s LVM-3 (GSLV Mk III) can carry up to four tonnes to geostationary orbit and up to six tonnes to a low Earth orbit. This is one area where ISRO needs to excel more. What ISRO needs is a more capable vehicle for undertaking more substantial missions to the Moon and Mars. Ambitions to reach Venus and establish a space station need a heavy-lift launching system. ISRO needs to give a major push to the already undergoing programs like the development of semi-cryogenic technology.

There is a lack of clarity about the exact trajectory of India’s Moon and Mars programs. India did a very successful mission to Mars in 2013–2014. For the second mission, would India be using the next available launch window during 2024 or would look for a 2026 launch? This indicates there would be a gap of more than ten years between two successive missions. The same happened in the case of India’s Moon program too, with a gap of 11 years between the first and second missions.

There is also no clarity about what are the next steps in India’s Moon program: would it be again a rover and lander mission, or ISRO is planning for a sample return mission? There could be some learning from China’s space program. They are following a very systematic approach towards developing their lunar and space station programs. In August, Russia's Luna-25 lander crashed into the Moon. However, Russia will be continuing its lunar exploration efforts since they already have a proper plan in place for future missions. NASA’s lunar exploration program, the Artemis plan, is another case to learn much from. ISRO needs to develop a step-by-step approach for its future journey in space. It’s possible that ISRO has such a pan, but has not announced it. However, in today’s world when you expect international collaborations and increasing participation of private industry, it is important to make your plans public, with schedules.

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