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Ajey Lele | India and human space mission

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-05-2014 Ajey Lele

Thirty years back, India’s first and so far the only astronaut Rakesh Sharma was visiting outer space on a spacecraft of the erstwhile USSR. During the last three decades, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has made significant and commendable progress in various space arena like remote sensing, communication and navigational sectors. India also has a unique distinction of having one of the most cost-effective and successful deep space programme and one of its craft has already conquered the Moon and another craft is on the way to Mars.

Interestingly, India’s space programme, which matches with the best in the world in many departments, is found lacking in capability in human space missions. The major space powers like the US and Russia are successfully undertaking human space missions for many decades now. Japan, due to its association with the US and its investments in the international space station, is regularly sending humans into space. China has successfully developed its own capabilities for human space missions a decade back in 2003 and developed expertise to undertake space walks. However, India is not anywhere close to undertake even a basic human space mission. What could be the reason behind this? Is it by design or default? It’s difficult to get a specific answer, but probably it is by both design and default. India’s interests into the human space programme were announced by Isro in 2006. However, for all these years, not much dedicated effort has been found to be made towards realizing this aspiration. Presently, there have been some indications that India has plans to undertake a human mission by 2020.

On its part, Isro should be credited that since the 2006 announcement, it has never made any ostentatious claim about the human space mission. But there has been much talk in the media, both nationally and internationally, about India’s plans for human space mission, mainly based on perceptions and at times based on the extrapolation of some of the actual experiments performed by Isro.

The first indications about India’s possible interest towards developing a human space programme became evident in 2007. It was the successful launch and return of Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1). SRE was a 550kg capsule launched into a low Earth orbit (635km), and was de-orbited and recovered successfully back after more than two weeks in space. With this experiment, Isro was able to test various technologies like navigation, guidance and control, and hypersonic thermodynamics.

The main success of the mission was the demonstration of Isro’s capability to develop the thermal shield technology for the re-entry phase. Success with such technology is essential for planning any human space mission. It may be recalled that the unfortunate death of the first Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla (2003) happened due to the failure of thermal shield functioning in the space shuttle. However, Isro has been totally silent since 2007 on developing the SRE programme further.

There could be few possible reasons why Isro has not taken any major initiative during the last six-seven years to develop the human space programme.

First, India’s space agenda has a major socio-economic bias. Maybe the techno-political leadership of the country has reached an informed decision that human space programme should not be a top priority for the country.

Secondly, India is keen to invest in robotic missions, which are easier to undertake and more profitable in terms of scientific outputs.

Thirdly, for all these years, India was not in a position to develop the heavy-lift launch capability, which is essential for a human mission. This has happened because of India’s failure with the cryogenic technology for many years. Against this backdrop, the recent announcement about the proposed testing of an uncrewed space capsule is a welcome development. This new module, developed by ISRO and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, is a bit different than SRE and more close to what is required for human flight.

In January, India has successfully demonstrated its mastering of the cryogenic technology with the launch of GSLV-D5. Now, the development of GSLV Mark III is the next step of India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle programme. Isro is planning to test the first stage and strap-on motors in the near future by undertaking a sub-orbital flight.

It has been proposed to use this testing opportunity to also test the Crew Module. This module is likely to be injected into the lower orbit and then made to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. It will be guided to land in a specified spot, most likely in the Bay of Bengal. However, it would be a basic step towards the development of India’s human space programme. Isro will have to undertake testing of many other technologies before attempting a human space mission. In general, it has been observed that Isro is making some progress in developing a human space programme, but is not in a hurry, probably owing to the limited advantages of such missions. Appreciably, what is good about India’s overall approach towards a human space mission is that it is not unnecessarily getting swayed by hollow talks of nationalism or prestige or an itch to compete with China.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( IDSA), New Delhi.

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