After almost a decade of flip-flops and speculations over India’s human spaceflight programme, it was on 15th August, 2018 when prime minister Narendra Modi publicly announced an Indian human spaceflight programme in his independence day speech. This announcement initially did not capture the headlines as national media houses put more focus on public welfare programmes and achievements of the present government in its tenure.

Although, gradually as the enthusiasm started building, speculations started taking front pages. “Can India do it?”, “Does India have the capacity?”, “How much funding would be required?” etc. were the questions running through everyone’s minds.

People’s Republic of China was the last one to enter the elite club of countries capable of sending humans to space in 2003. Since 2004, India has been mulling a human spaceflight programme but a number of factors including dearth of funds and sanctions imposed due to nuclear tests in 1998 put the plan on back burner. It was only in 2007 when former ISRO chairman G. Madhvan Nair, who has often pointed out that Indian space programme lacks vision, indicated that the space agency is seriously considering a human spaceflight programme. The cost of the programme at that time was pegged at Rs. 12,400 crore.

Also, in 2007 itself ISRO carried out a Space Capsule Recovery (SRE) experiment which involved putting half a tonne capsule in an orbit of around 600 kms for 12 days and recovering it successfully after it splashed down in Bay of Bengal. This was followed by Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) in 2014 which involved lifting a 3.3 tonne capsule to a height of 80 kms, leaving it in free fall mode and later recovering it after splashdown in Bay of Bengal. ISRO’s efficient and cost effective planning is worth being mentioned here as this experiment was carried out while testing ISRO’s most powerful rocket GSLV Mk III (which slated to become the backbone of human space programme). It is a general practice around the world to send a concrete slab or dummy loads of similar weights to carry out rocket tests whereas ISRO combined two experiments into a single launch.

Recently, ISRO conducted a Pad Abort Test (PAT) which involved lifting a crew module to a height of 2.9 kms and splashing it down in the sea. This is an emergency situation test to ensure that crew remains safe in case something goes wrong and the mission fails.

Dr. K. Sivan, chairman of ISRO in his various interviews assured the nation that he is confident of accomplishing the challenging task in the given timeframe i.e. before 2022 and has full faith in his team. He has also emphasised that this is not an ISRO project but a national project and will take every possible help from industry and academia of the country.

It is inferred that ISRO has great engineering skills up its sleeve but lacks the life sciences skills required to sustain a life in harsh and unforgiving outer space environment. For this purpose, ISRO is said to have roped in Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), Bengaluru which also helped in Rakesh Sharma’s endeavour to space in 1984.

Another pain point in India’s human spaceflight is the establishment of astronaut training facilities which involves developing procedures, procuring equipment, building facilities, commissioning etc. in a short duration. It generally takes 1-2 years for an air force pilot to be certified as an astronaut. A simple back of the envelope calculation reveals that the training facility should be up and ready by late 2019 taking a safe margin since its the first time India would be attempting a space mission with a human life at stake.

To solve this problem, it was initially being hinted that training for astronauts will be held at existing facilities of other advanced nations. At the recently held Bengaluru Space Expo in early september, 2018, Jean-Yvess Le Gall, president of CNES (French space agency) said that France would share the technologies available with it from its previous efforts with ISRO. This is largely being interpreted as helping with the astronaut training. However, there is no firm decision from ISRO yet. Recently, reports have also emerged stating that India is seeking Russia’s help.

Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa has assured the full support of Indian Air Force at every step.

Even after having a bird’s eye view over the progress of human spaceflight mission, the minute details of the mission unknowingly seem shrouded in secrecy with stray hints and speculations emerging time and again. The other highly possible reason is that ISRO is still working out the finer details of the mission and will have public disclosure only after everyone has come on the same page.

Some things that are firmly known for certain are as follows:

  • The GSLV MK 3 rocket will be used for this mission
  • A third launch pad which was already in construction will be used for the mission and will have all the facilities for a human spaceflight which the current two launch pads lack
  • There will be two dummy unmanned launches between now and 2022 to test and certify the technologies and the third launch will take humans to space. These two unmanned tests can be viewed as technology demonstrators or rehearsal missions
  • No living being including animals will be sent on board the dummy launches to test the human survivability
  • The cost of the mission is pegged at around Rs. 9000 crores
  • Three Indian Air Force Pilots are to be selected as the crew for the mission. Although there is a possibility that one of them would be replaced by a scientist. Decision is yet to be taken in this regard.

There are some who argue that interplanetary and human spaceflight missions go against the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of ISRO who once said:

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

ISRO officials and scientists are quoted saying they have already surpassed the vision of Dr. Sarabhai and are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with space powers of the world without sacrificing their priorities of using space first for solving the problems of mankind and then for everything else.

Unlike the controversy of ‘unnecessary expenditure’ surrounding Mars Orbiter Mission, the human spaceflight mission has managed to maintain its sanctity as of today with a lot of positive energy surrounding it.

India as a nation now awaits to hear the historic conversation again:

Prime Minister: “Upar se bharat kaisa dikhta hai aapko?” (How does our nation look from up there?)

Gagannaut/Vyomanaut: “Ji main bagair kisi jhijhag ke keh sakta hoon, saare jahan se achha” (I can say this without a doubt, best in the world)

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