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India to build new launch pad, plans for crewed launches

Srinivas Laxman, Indian Space Correspondent
Mar 17, 2015, 16:31 UTC

Sen—The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has set an ambitious goal of launching nearly 60 missions in the next five years. To meet this growth, it is building a third launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India’s main spaceport located in the eastern coast of India, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chennai, the capital of Tamilnadu.

Though this project has been in the pipeline for quite some time, it took a concrete turn when India’s minister of state for science and technology, Jitender Singh, formally announced it during a session of the Indian Parliament on Friday Mar. 13.

He said that the new facility will increase the frequency of launches and also cater to the needs of future launch vehicles. Though he did not specify the number, ISRO officials who spoke to Sen said at present there were two to three missions each year which perhaps could go up to five and six once the new launch pad becomes operational.

Whilst the new launch pad will give India more launch capacity for unmanned missions, the new site will be capable of launching future crewed missions. An official of the space agency said: "This new launch pad will be man-rated because ISRO has planned manned missions. It will have a crew ingress and egress system," while pointing out it will also have its own vehicle assembly building.

Singh said that the construction of the pad will kick off after the design of a new advanced launch vehicle is completed, and the GSLV Mk 3 (Geo synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) becomes operational. The GSLV MK 3, also known as LVMk 3, capable of ferrying four-tonne class of communication satellites, had its successful maiden flight on Dec. 18, 2014.

The nearly USD $200 million (Indian) human space flight programme, which has been considerably delayed, is now awaiting the formal approval of the Union government.

The new USD $1.9 billion launch pad will also be used for the reusuable launch vehicle mission. A technology demonstrator of this mission is slated for lift off from one of the two launch pad in the next few months.  

The launch pad covering a three-kilometre area will be larger than the existing ones. When the project was first mooted, different sites were evaluated in southern India. But, considering safety issues, and based on other operational reasons, it was finally decided to locate it at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre itself. 

This decision to build it at the space centre has triggered some amount of opposition from people residing in other parts of southern India, especially those in Tamilnadu, as they say that the centre was being accorded a "favoured status," and their regions were being ignored by the government as well as ISRO.

Denying these charges, the ISRO official said that within the space agency various options are being studied to design the launch pad at the space centre. Once this is finalised the process of issuing tenders to private contractors will be initiated. "After this formality was completed the building of the launch pad will begin," he said.

There is a sense of urgency to build the third launch pad because foreign customers are now in a queue to have some of their satellites launched by the highly-proven four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) at the earliest opportunity. 

Once the new facility gets into operation, in a way the space centre will surpass Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre with regards to its facilities. The Kennedy Space Centre has two launch pads—launch pad 39A and 39B which were used during the Apollo missions to the Moon and space shuttle flights.

NASA has leased 39A which is now undergoing modifications, to SpaceX for 20 years. Launch pad 39B is being modified for launching Nasa’s Space Launch System in 2017. The other launch pads are in the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The European spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana in South America has six launch pads catering to the Ariane-5, Soyuz and Vega missions.