What’s Next for India’s New Space Ambitions?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What’s Next for India’s New Space Ambitions?


On August 15, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his Independence Day speech that India will undertake its first manned space mission by 2022.  He promised that as India celebrates its 75th year of its independence, there will be an Indian astronaut aboard Gaganyaan, as the Indian manned space vehicle is named, “unfurl[ing] the Tricolor in space.”

The feat would not be without significance for India. A successful mission will make India the fourth country to put humans into space.  The only Indian who has been to space is Rakesh Sharma, an Indian Air Force pilot, who flew on a Soyuz T-11 for almost eight days in 1984.

Leaders from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) used to say that manned space missions was not a priority. But the policy change regarding the human space flight mission is welcome and it is important to rekindle public imagination and get the young generation interested in space in particular and science in general.

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Until now, the ISRO has been busy with more practical applications in outer space that had direct developmental benefits. But in at least one area – satellite fabrication – the Indian private sector is increasingly active, thus reducing to some extent the pressure on ISRO.

ISRO Chairman, Dr. Sivan, has stated that Gaganyaan will be a “national project and not just ISRO’s”, addressing the obvious criticism that is bound to arise about this being a prestige project with little direct benefit. The astronauts who will go up on Gaganyaan will conduct various experiments in space, although ISRO has not yet provided any details.

Despite manned space flights not being a priority, some research has gone on within ISRO, though without any major financial allocation for this. In December 2013, then Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) Director S Ramakrishnan had said that “it would take 10 years for India to undertake human space flight.” The UPA government had sanctioned 1.45 billion rupees ($20.68 million) for pre-launch undertakings. ISRO is also reported to have developed certain critical technologies for the mission and had used about 600 million rupees from its internal R&D budget.

Following the formal announcement by Modi, ISRO hopes that there will be additional funding. There is no cost estimation for the manned space mission, but reports citing internal sources suggest that it will be around 100 million rupees to 120 million rupees.

Dr. Sivan has hinted that the program would be developed entirely by means of indigenous technology and that it will create an additional 15,000 jobs over the next few years. Former ISRO officials have suggested that the mission could use the GSLV Mk III, which is currently India’s heaviest rocket. The GSLV Mk III was previously used to test an early model of the crew module in the Crew module Atmospheric Re-entry (CARE) test (December 2014), meant to validate the functioning of parachute based deceleration system and to understand the re-entry aerothermodynamics.

Regarding astronaut training for the mission, Sivan indicated that the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM) in Bangalore will be used. Separately, senior officials within the Department of Space have suggested that there could be foreign collaboration for this as well.

ISRO has four years to develop all the critical technologies for this mission, but it appears that much of the mission is still in the conceptual stages. Some of the critical technological tests that ISRO needs to prepare are the Crew Module System, Crew Escape System, and Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), but it appears that there remains much more work to be done in this respect.

Indeed, of these, India has so far tested only the Crew Escape System and the crew module re-entry (CARE). The CARE mission undertaken in December 2014 saw the separation of the crew module from the launch vehicle at an altitude of 126 kilometers and it made a re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of 80 kilometers. In July this year, the ISRO conducted a successful technology demonstration of the Crew Escape System, essentially an emergency escape system to pull out the astronauts from the launch vehicle in case of a launch abort.

Apart from that, the latest annual report (2017-18) of the Department of Space indicates that many other sub-systems of ECLSS such as Thermal and Humidity Control System (THCS), CO2 and Odor Removal System (CORS) and Cabin Pressure Control System (CPCS) are being “integrated into Cabin Environment Simulation Chamber simulating the Crew cabin volume and integrated tests are in progress.”

Amid the focus on the details and future prospects, it is important to keep in mind that India’s human space mission is important for a few different reasons. For one, in terms of space technology, this is the obvious next step. India cannot afford not to develop the technological capacity for manned space flight because that will represent a major drawback in Indian space capabilities. Even if the direct benefits of such advancement may not be as great in the short-term, this is a necessary longer-term investment.

Second, there is a competitive aspect to space advancement that is important too. While India was able to develop its own space program so far without reference to others, space is increasingly an arena of competition. India’s quest to undertake human space flight and its earlier Moon and Mars missions are also important in the context of global governance of outer space. These missions prove the growing sophistication of India’s space program and ensures a seat at the high table of global governance of outer space. This is a significant objective too.

Of course, there is a national security aspect too. India is concerned about the budding arms race in outer space and the emerging trends in weaponizing outer space. India will want to ensure that it has the technological capacity if the current trends continue, and manned missions is one possible aspect of this.

Finally, though there is substantial public support for the space program, these kinds of spectacular operations will ensure continued enthusiasm for a vital Indian technology success story. When there are large demands on the national exchequer from various sections, it is necessary to ensure that such support continues. As a corollary, such missions will also help in motivating India’s youth to focus on space and science, which is an example of the inter-generational impact of this initiative that cannot be ignored.

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