Last month, China launched its Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket into low Earth orbit, carrying the final module for the Tiangong space station. The significance of the completion of China’s space station was somewhat lost, however, as much of the attention was taken away by the uncontrolled re-entry of the Long March 5 B’s main body.
While the International Space Station (ISS) continues to be the largest human-built structure in the Earth’s orbit, it is a product of collaboration between Canada, Japan, Europe, Russia, and the United States. After Russia invaded Ukraine, however, cooperation between Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) and the ISS partners seems increasingly strenuous. The head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, has stated that Russia will end the ISS partnership by 2028. Other partnering countries have also indicated that operation of the ISS will cease by 2030.
China’s Tiangong (meaning “heavenly palace” in Mandarin) space station consists of three modules and can host a crew of six. While it is much smaller in size compared to the ISS, it is the only space station operated independently in the Earth’s orbit. China’s space station symbolizes the advancements of the country’s human spaceflight program, and having an independent space station allows China to exert more significant influence in outer space.
India is on track to place its first astronauts in orbit by 2024. As India’s human spaceflight program advances, it is only natural that India will want its own space station. The question is, how should India go about it?
The State of India’s Human Flight Program
India’s human spaceflight program officially took off in August 2018, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Gaganyaan program, which set the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) the goal of sending India’s first astronauts into space by 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed the initial plans, pushing the first crewed flight to 2024.
Little is known about the future of India’s human spaceflight program after ISRO completes the first set of crewed missions. However, the snippets of information that have been revealed give us an idea of what the Modi government and ISRO have in mind. For example, in 2019, Dr. Kailasavadivoo Sivan, then the chairman of ISRO, said that after Gaganyaan, India would place a space station in orbit by 2030. The space station, Sivan said, would weigh between 15 and 20 tons and sustain a small crew for 15 to 20 days in orbit. Sivan also noted that the space station would be fully indigenous.
Building a fully indigenous space station has some advantages, such as innovating long-term space habitation technologies and strengthening the domestic space industry. An indigenous space station will also give India the highest degree of autonomy in space.
But the option also comes with several disadvantages. First, India will have to acquire technological know-how in areas where other countries have already gained expertise. This would make an indigenous space station very expensive. And second, based on Sivan’s description, India’s space station would be more akin to a space lab than a space station. A small station limits the activities that can be performed onboard while also limiting its diplomatic utility.
Therefore, the ideal option for India is to find suitable partners for building a space station.
A Quad Space Station?
Since 2018, the Quad, an informal partnership between Australia, Japan, India, and the United States, has become a prominent forum for the four countries to discuss and collaborate on strategic issues such as cybersecurity, maritime security, and the development of advanced technologies. Cooperation on space issues is not significant at present, but the Quad countries have a strong potential for future collaboration on large-scale space projects.
India’s bilateral cooperation with the United States, Japan, and, more recently, Australia has increased sharply in the past decade. Some prominent projects include the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite, a $1.5 billion project set to launch in 2023. India and Japan are currently collaborating on the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission, under which the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and ISRO will send a Moon rover by no later than 2025. Space collaboration between India and Australia is minimal but will likely increase in the coming years.
The best possibility for India is to collaborate with Japan and Australia as space station partners. Japan currently operates the Kibo module of the ISS, which gives it significant experience constructing space habitation infrastructure. India and Japan have similar space policy goals and share similar technological capabilities, which allows them to forge a symmetric partnership. Since Australia does not have the technological capabilities of India and Japan, it will likely function as a minor partner.
Direct cooperation with the United States is unlikely, as NASA’s space policy priorities aim to reach the Moon and beyond. The U.S. government has instead awarded initial contracts to private companies to develop commercial space stations, which may one day replace the ISS.
Tough Choices for Human Spaceflight
The path that India takes to continue its human spaceflight program ultimately depends on how policymakers view India’s space program. Human spaceflight is politically popular but may not offer the economic or scientific benefits to recoup the costs of investment. On the other hand, strategic considerations are also important while making decisions regarding the human spaceflight program. While China can complete over 40 space launches each year, India can barely manage to carry out 10 launches. India’s policymakers must ensure that the human spaceflight program does not syphon off funds from strategic necessities.
India and its Quad partners must gradually increase the degree of cooperation before collaborating on a space station project. Indeed, some might argue that it is too early to think about a space station program. The real danger, however, comes from entering a program without giving it much thought.
This article is based on a discussion document written by the author.