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SOURCE: Anantha Krishnan M / MANORAMA ONLINE

The COVID-19 has put brakes on the ongoing preparations for India’s manned space mission Gaganyaan.  Those linked to the project say that similar to other aerospace missions world over, Gaganyaan too will take a temporary hit due to the restrictions in place.

“These are unprecedented times. Nobody could have anticipated this. There are many developments in the industry over which we have limited control. Hence we will take things in our stride and see how we can absorb the delays,” says an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist.

He said the in-house design activities were progressing through the lockdown period.

As space exploration activities get back to the full mode in phases, we shift the spotlight in this edition of ‘Gaganyaan Unplugged’ on Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), a premier wing under of IAF in Bengaluru.

This is the fourth part of Onmanorama’s series on the Human Space Programme (HSP), capturing various aspects of the manned mission, including the roles being by played various stakeholders. The four astronaut-selects for Gaganyaan from Indian Air Force (IAF) who are currently undergoing a year-long training at the Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Russia, are expected to join IAM early next year, to undergo further training at IAM.

Training has resumed at GCTC for the four Test Pilots (TPs) on May 12 after a lockdown from March end. However, their online classes were on during the lockdown period.

Galvksosmos officials say that theoretical classes have begun on the basics of astrogation, manned spacecraft control and in the Russian language.

With Covid-19 virtually rewriting the script of mankind, Gaganyaan training will undergo some changes with new protocols setting in.

Systematic Approach Key

Onmanorama held several interactions with experts in the field of aerospace medicine to understand India’s preparedness for the Gaganyaan mission.

IAM’s role will be very critical for the success of Gaganyaan mission. Many in the know-how of manned space explorations believe that training for astronaut-selects will have to be systematic and in a decent-paced manner.

“Ahead of finalising the four TPs, there were several levels of the selection process. Level-0 was the preliminary one, Level-1 more advanced training and Level-2 was the advanced aeromedical evaluation. However, the levels had to be merged for lack of time and owing to the urgency to send the TPs to Russia. The distinction was certainly lost and we hope it will be a different story in future,” says an official part of the Gaganyaan team from IAF.

He said more than the technology, it is the training given to the astronauts that will eventually do the work for the missions.

“The technology works the same way in space as it functions on earth. If you go by the records and read various studies by NASA, it is estimated that about 40 per cent of the technology made for space doesn’t work. So it is going to be a challenge for India as we do not yet have the expertise to deliver space tech that can cater to human beings,” he says.

Right now the four astronaut-selects are only undergoing generic space training at GCTC.

“The pilots will have to know every system onboard and also every situation that they will encounter. The in-depth system training will happen when they return to IAM. Now they are getting training on Souyz spacecraft and once they are back they will get simulator training on Gaganyaan-specific module,” says the official.

The simulators have to come up at IAF with the help of HAL’s Aerospace Division and ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network.

The astronaut-selects will also get the training for G-forces and motion sickness at IAM, for which some facilities are already up and running.

“IAM has the expertise in the selection of astronauts from 1982, ahead of Rakesh Sharma’s space mission. Over the years, IAM has been doing regular selection-related programmes for pilots and Navy observes. Even when the EU, Japan and Canada gave up their manned space missions, IAM was constantly undertaking various studies in this regard, knowing that India would embrace the manned space mission one day,” says another official overseeing the Gaganyaan mission.

Clarity Needed

Air Vice-Marshal (Dr) Pankaj Tyagi, (Retd), former Commandant of IAM and founder CEO of Space Aviation Medicine and Engineering Creative Solutions Plus (SAMECSPlus) says that the time has now come to clearly define the areas in which work needs to be done to achieve the Gaganyaan’s overall objectives.

“Gaganyaan to me is a bigger programme, while ISRO is only an existing resource, not equipped for the moment to deliver all requirements purely on its own. It must grow in multiple fields requiring time and investment in infrastructure, research and huge funds. Presently it is purchasing minimal required used technological platforms from Russia,” says AVM Pankaj (Retd)

According to him, the components of the space programme can be generally classified into travel, explore, discover, claim and inhabit.

“We are at the travel stage for the moment. After reaching space, what is it that we are going to do is more important and yet to be thought, to get max value for money for the first flight. There needs to be complete clarity on the broad aims of this national programme,” he says.

He says that space expedition by India for the moment means travel – our ability to reach space and come back safely, repeatedly on our platforms from our own soil on our own schedules.

“Exploration is the process of treading new zones yet unknown. Discovering is unravelling new finds. Claiming is creating ownership of your own space. Inhabiting is making a new place one’s home. Observing, understanding, absorbing, adjusting, adapting, optimising are the skills used for all the steps. A strong human-machine combination appropriate for the mission with enough redundancies is the key to success,” he adds.

IAM’s Expertise

For the Gaganyaan mission, IAM has certain expertise and capable of providing training for acceleration stress, orientation issues, stress due to haemodynamic changes, hypoxic stress, space motion sickness and vibration stress. Besides, IAM can also provide the following:

1) Anthropometric dimensions for Indian population of space capsule design.

2) Human engineering inputs for the design of space capsule, including habitable space, control systems and safety.

3) Safety inputs for accelerations, hypoxia, CO2 levels, toxic gases, waste disposal etc.

4) Inputs on systems required for life support in space.

5) Inputs on training required for life support systems.

Interestingly all MD students at IAM are taught approximately 40 hours of lessons linked to aerospace medicines. Experts from Roscosmos and NASA have approved the selection at IAM and said that the institution is cleared to conduct medicals for all future astronauts.

India’s dreams of HSP took wing in 2006 when the Centre wanted to understand the pros and cons of the mission. ISRO began the pre-programme phase in 2006 and in 2009 IAM and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre signed an MoU for the same. The MoU was to build a facility for HSP and also to determine what would get into the selection of astronauts and what kind of training is required to go to space.

After PM Modi announced about Gaganyaan officially on August 15, 2018, the IAF and ISRO inked an MoU for selection, training and other aspects of the Gaganyaan mission on May 28, 2019.

Following are some of the key areas where IAM’s expertise will be put to use as the mission slowly and steadily gain momentum.

• Selection of vehicle and spacecraft

• Selection of vehicle crew and training

• User and technical manuals to be used for Environment Control and Life Support System (ECLSS)

• Human engineering workstation design for the crew module

• Isolation and psychological management

• Human factors considerations in the manned space programme

• Microgravity research

• Gravitational stress management in various phases of space flight

• Clinical space medical and surgical management

• Radiation protection

• Toxicology in space

• Emergency survival system design

• Space station life support system

• Extravehicular activity (EVA) design

• Heat stress management

• Operational space medicine

• Scientific and technical manpower management

• Infrastructure development related to aero-medical support of HSP

Complex Mission

IAF brains hooked to space and aerospace medicine term human spaceflight as an incredibly complex mission, with rockets being only a small part of the story.

“The Ariane-5 first flew in 1998 and has had 103 successful launches, the Falcon-9 first flew in 2010, and the heaviest rocket in the world Japanese H-2A first flew in 2001. Yet none of these could be converted to human spaceflight. The important issue is to sustain life in space, something in which ISRO has no expertise. This requires an incredible amount of research and understanding, as no successful country shares expertise in this area. Even when it does, as NASA shared with Space-X and Boeing, it still takes a large amount of research to integrate systems,” says an official.

Many agree that ISRO has done some amount of research into the human rating of rocket systems, which is a huge positive. However, they feel that the amount of research done towards other essential systems in the two years since the PM’s announcement of the Gaganyaan programme needs scaling up.

“A successful programme is not possible without research. Also, the ultimate aim for Gaganyaan is to enhance the level of science and technology in India, inject scientific rigour and give India her rightful place in the comity of nations. None of this would be achieved without scientific progress,” says the official.

IAM is one agency with some expertise in the area. There are several national agencies with the capability to come up with targeted solutions for Gaganyaan.

“It may be worthwhile to have one lead agency for rocket systems, which rightfully would be ISRO and another for human systems, for which IAM is ideally suited,” says the official.