ISRO's CARE crew capsule floating in the Andaman Sea after its unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014. Image credit: ISRO

Apr 9, 2015 Will India's human spaceflight program take off?

Sen—On Nov. 7, 2006 an important meeting was held at the sprawling headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bengalaru to begin discussions on the possibility of India launching a manned spaceflight program.

The meeting, which was not publicised, was attended by nearly 80 top Indian scientists and also heads of various scientific institutions. Following on from this meeitng, 13 scientists from ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the Satish Dhawan Space Centre and ISRO headquarters visited the Institute of Aerospace Medicine to discuss further what the country would need to do to develop human spaceflight capability.

In the months which followed the ambitious project evoked a lot of enthusiasm among the select few who were aware of it.

On Jan. 10, 2007, ISRO launched what was designated as the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1) and recovered it on Jan. 22, 2007 from the Bay of Bengal. The launch of the unmanned capsule, which weighed nearly 600 kg, was described as a dress rehearsal for a manned flight.

A few months later, on Aug. 9, 2007 G. Madhavan Nair, the ISRO Chairman at the time, announced in public that India was embarking on a human spaceflight program.

Initially, the plan envisaged its first flight lifting off in approximately around 2017.

Not only this, Nair also announced with a degree of confidence that a full-fledged vyomanaut (the Indian word for astronaut or cosmonaut) training centre equipped with all facilities would be established in an area covering nearly 140 acres not too far from the Bengalaru International Airport. He said that the centre would also train potential astronauts from neighbouring countries. According to Nair, Bengalaru would be the right choice for setting up the training centre since the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, which would play a key role in selecting and training the crew, was also located there.

The total cost of India’s human space flight program was estimated at nearly USD $1.2 billion, while the cost of establishing the vyomanaut training centre was budgeted at USD $160 million.

Although the Indian government has already sanctioned more than USD $15 million for carrying out various studies relating to the program, it is yet to commit to the project.

Some details of what the human spaceflight program might consist of were outlined in a document of the government of India’s Planning Commission of the 11th five-year-plan period (2007—2012), which stated: "The major objective of the manned mission programme is to develop a fully autonomous manned space vehicle to carry two crew to an altitude of 400 kms low earth orbit and return them safely to earth after two to seven days."

A significant point made in the report was that the manned vehicle would have a rendezvous and docking capability with the International Space Station. 

However, only a passing reference was made to the program in the 12th five-year-plan (2012-2017) which stated that "the broad directions for the next decade would include the human space flight programme." 

Eight years have passed since the project was first announced and it is still awaiting the green light from the government of India.

Speculation was rife that the government would give its thumbs up to the program during the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 2011. But, much to the disappointment of ISRO, it did not happen.

In March 2008 India signed an agreement with Russia stipulating that Russia would train Indian vyomanauts in a modified Soyuz capsule. Signed by Nair and his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Perminov, it further laid down that both the countries would jointly design and build the spacecraft for the manned mission.

The participation of Russia was significant because India’s first vyomanaut, Rakesh Sharma, flew in a Russian spacecraft during a joint Indo-Russian manned space mission in April 1984. However, the important Nair-Perminov pact was dropped in October 2010 for unexplained reasons.

Even while awaiting the government’s much-delayed approval, a well known Indian TV channel, Headlines Today, scooped a story on Dec. 27, 2013—about a month-and-a-half after India launched its ground-breaking mission to the Red Planet—that ISRO and India’s ministry of defence had signed a memorandum of understanding for a manned mission to the Moon. According to the channel’s story the defence ministry had tasked the Indian Air Force to "identify the qualitative requirements for the crew." However, on Jan. 2, 2014, ISRO issued an official statement strongly denying that there were any plans for a manned lunar mission. 

Speculation among a section of scientific circles is that the story cannot be totally baseless because the channel had quoted top air force officers. After all, why would these officials go on camera saying that India was planning a manned mission to the Moon? If it had no foundation were not these officials, with a military background, not risking their reputation and careers?

Then on Dec. 18 2014 the human space flight programme crossed an important milestone when an entirely new powerful rocket designated as Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) in its maiden flight carried an unmanned 3,775 kg crew module to an altitude of 126 kms. It was designated as the Crew module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment—referred to as CARE.

After separating from the rocket it began a guided descent for an atmospheric reentry. Thereafter parachutes deployed and the crew module splashed down in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast off Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The module had 200 sensors to monitor various parameters of the flight.

S. Unnikrishnan Nair, project director for ISRO’s human spaceflight program, has been quoted as saying that "the flight (Dec. 18 2014) will give tremendous confidence in the design and provide important inputs for proceeding with the development of a manned capsule."

Rakesh Sharma remarked that the mission was "a great start and a significant step towards implementing a human spaceflight program." He stressed that it should not be  "stop-start-stop" project.

Three-and-a-half months have passed since the successful flight and there hasn't been any indication when the government might clear the project. Experts wonder whether ISRO has been successful in convincing the government about the feasibility and importance of such a mission.

If the human spaceflight project becomes official government policy, the LVM3 will likely be the launcher for crewed missions, though it could still take about ten years from getting the green light before India can launch their own vyomanauts into orbit.

To some the objectives of the mission need to be further defined. For example, what is the roadmap of the mission—its main role and purpose? Is it merely to low Earth orbit and back or will it someday stretch to the Moon, asteroids and Mars? If it only to low Earth orbit it makes no sense because India has no plans of participating in the International Space Station. Is it to compete with China in its human spaceflight program?

Within ISRO itself opinion is divided about the feasibility of the manned spaceflight program. While one group says that if India has to prove its technological strength, there is no other alternative but a manned flight program. To back their argument they say that three persons—Rakesh Sharma from India, and Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams—both Indian-Americans took off on a space mission from Russia and the US. Furthermore, two ISRO scientists, P. Radhakrishnan and N. C. Bhatt were selected for a NASA space shuttle mission, but the plan was cancelled following the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986. They had been set to fly aboard Challenger in September of that tragic year.

By citing these examples, the pro-manned mission lobby believes it is time India launched its vyomanauts from its own launch pad and with its own rocket. 

The counter argument is that the cost of this project is prohibitive, and if implemented it would eat into the budget of other important programs such as the second mission to Mars with a lander and rover. A situation similar perhaps to the rivalry between Houston and Pasadena!

When asked to comment for this blog, an ISRO official confirmed to Sen that the human spaceflight program has not yet been cleared by the government.

However, in anticipation of the government’s green signal, he said that the space agency was now in the process of evaluating critical technologies related to the program like the space suits and life support systems.

"We are currently eagerly awaiting the government’s approval and hope it comes soon," he added.