Is ISRO Up for PM Modi’s ‘Indian in Space’ Challenge Without Cutting Corners?

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S.Rakesh, Chairman-cum- Managing Director, Antrix Corporation said the low-cost small rocket requires a dedicated launch pad with a simple vertical launch mechanism.

Fifty-seven years ago on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history by completing a single orbit of Earth in approximately 108 minutes. This was the first human visit to the space.

The only Indian citizen to visit the space till date is the former Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot who flew aboard Soyuz T-11, launched on April 2, 1984, as part of the Intercosmos programme. This visit was curtsy the erstwhile USSR.

Now, India proposes to send the first Indian human to the space on Indian spacecraft some 61 years after Yuri Gagarin’s visit. An announcement to this effect was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his speech on India's 72nd Independence Day celebrations. He wants India to celebrate 75 years of Independence, by hoisting the Tricolour in space. For this, he is proposing to launch India’s first manned space mission by 2022.

It’s good to be ambitious, but also important to be pragmatic. Is the Prime Minister both ambitious as well as pragmatic? Only time can tell. However, at this point in time, some broad assessment could be made to appreciate the feasibility for this mission.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Sivan has expressed confidence that the agency will be able to ensure an Indian with a Tricolour in space by 2022. Actually, ISRO has been toying with the idea of manned mission (or human mission) to space since 2004. Since then, in a slow but systematic fashion, ISRO has been taking some important steps towards achieving this target. As things stand today, the GSLV Mark III vehicle could be used to send Indians to space.

Till date, basic vehicles which are known for taking humans to space are the Russian vehicle called Soyuz (a 1960s design that remains in service) and the American space vehicles that belong to the genre of space shuttles and space planes. The Russian model consists of the orbital and service modules which are single-use and are destroyed upon re-entry in the atmosphere. Here, the astronauts could be said to get “dropped” on Earth. The space shuttle is a system, which is launched from a rocket launcher, then operates in the space as a space plane and behaves like an aircraft after it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and lands on a runway along with the astronauts.

With regards to India, there is no clarity yet about which of these systems they propose to develop. Interestingly, ISRO successfully tested its first Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), on May 24, 2016. This given indication that India is keep to develop a space shuttle like the Americans. However, for making this project successful, for five years around 600 scientists were working together. This achievement by ISRO is praiseworthy, but there are many more steps required to be taken to make an operational space shuttle which could carry astronauts. Hence there is a possibility India could opt for a Soyuz-type design at least for the initial launch during 2022.

ISRO has also carried out a successful test in respect of Crew Escape System on July 5, 2018. This system ensures the safety of the astronauts in the event of a launch abort. Another critical technology which ISRO has tested recently is the astronaut flight suit. Today, what India knows very little is about technologies required to undertake human travel and stay in space. In addition, there could be various other space technologies which would be required to be innovated for such missions.

Today, knowing ISRO’s track record, Modi has set a major challenge for them. However, it needs to be kept in mind that now ISRO has very less scope for failures. At present, none of their systems required to take humans to space, have reached to a level of maturity where they could be directly used for the 2022 space launch with humans. The basic rocket system GSLV Mark III is showing lot of promise but yet to achieve the critical, fully operational status.

A basic unit for launching humans in space is yet to evolve and so the case with other related systems. Also, we are to begin the process of training astronauts. All this indicates that four years is really a very tight time slot. Modi has thrown a "humans in space challenge” to ISRO which the space agency has to achieve without cutting any corners.

(The author is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal)