Prospects for the Indian Human Spaceflight Program

Out of a population of nearly 1.3 billion, only four indian nationals have received training for a designated spaceflight mission and only one of them actually made it. Next week marks the 30th anniversary of Rakesh Sharma’s eight days in space as part of the Soviet’s Interkosmos program in 1984. He never went back and despite announcements in 2006 that the Indian Space Research organisation (ISRO) would engage in Human Space Flight (HSF), now in 2014 there is no prospect of an imminent launch of an Indian astronaut by ISRO. However, a single successful rocket launch early this year suggests that ISRO may finally be making some headway.

The 2006 announcement was probably triggered by the October 2005 success of the second Chinese spaceflight with astronauts. But India was not ready to go it alone. During the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to India in December 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed that would put another Indian in space using Russian spacecraft in 2013 followed by another in 2015 aboard Indian launcher. That MoU agreement was abandoned in 2010. In December 2013, following a series of statements in the media emanating from the Indian Air Force about India’s manned mission to the Moon, ISRO issued its own statement emphatically asserting that it had no plans for manned Moon mission.

However, quietly in the background ISRO has been working on the development of an astronaut training program and an astronaut crew vehicle. Since March 2009, ISRO has had a MoU with the Indian Airforce’s Institute (IAM) of Aerospace Medicine to conduct basic research on Human Physiological & Psychological requirements for human spaceflight crew and developing IAM’s existing facilities to cater to ISRO’s HSF as a pre project research & development activity. ISRO has also entered in to agreements with Bangalore based third party to initiate the development on spacesuits and a Mysore based company to develop a space food menu for Indian astronauts.

Mid January 2014, ISRO announced its intention to flight test its astronaut capsule in a suborbital flight without a crew in the summer of 2014. The flight is designed to test dynamics of the launch vehicle as well as the effectiveness of the crew capsule especially its thermal protection system during reentry. ISRO demonstrated its ability to launch and recover a 600kg module in 2007. The capsule was de-orbited and recovered from the Indian ocean twelve days after launch. In addition to basic microgravity experiments, ISRO was able to test its navigation, guidance and control systems. Known as the Space Recovery Experiment (SRE), the recovered SRE module is now a key exhibit in ISRO’s space museum in the cradle of the Indian Space program, St.Mary Magdalene Church located within the grounds of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala.

So why has ISRO’s not made any substantial progress in its HSF? A fundamental requirements for HSF is a heavy launch vehicle. ISRO does not have one. For human spaceflight a launch vehicle needs to carry at least 5 tonnes to low Earth orbit. ISRO’s highly reliable and extremely successful PSLV in its most enhanced configuration PSLV-XL can lift only about 3.8tonnes to low Earth orbit. ISRO is resolving this shortcoming in two steps. The first step was completed successfully in January this year and the second is due in a few months time.

On January 5th ISRO launched a 1.8tonnes communication satellite GSAT-14 to geo- transfer orbit using not the PSLV-XL but the GSLV-Mk2. Significantly, the third stage of the GSLV-MK2 used a cryogenic engine that ISRO has been developing for years. Following spectacular failures in the past, January’s launch was an impeccable success finally confirming ISRO’s competence with cryogenic technology. Sometime around May or June this year, ISRO will conduct a test flight of the GSLV-Mk3. This launch will be a sub orbital flight test of the GSLV-Mk3 with a passive cryogenic upper stage carrying the empty crew capsule. The launch will test the flight coefficient of the GSLV-Mk3 and the re-entry characteristics of the crew capsule. Once that flight is successful, all the pieces will be in place. ISRO will have a capability to launch 10 tones to low Earth orbit.

How India’s HSF program will develop is unclear. The timetable will depend on the success of the GSLV Mk3 flight scheduled for the summer and further test flights too. In a recent interview, the former ISRO chairman Professor UR Rao, stated that it will take India about another five years before it is ready to launch its first astronaut from Indian soil.

Why should India participate in HSF? Setting aside the question of cost and the ability of a developing nation to fund it, there is a deeper profound reason to do so. Human history is a history of a cycle of brutal war and conflict. Although reduced, it is still prevalent in the world today. The nature of our twenty first century global, digitally interconnected world ties all of us to each other as never before. The International Space Station (ISS) has had a human presence continuously since 2000. It is only possible because of international collaboration. Apart from the enormous value of the science conducted aboard the ISS, bringing peoples of different nations together here on Earth is probably its greatest achievement. The more we compete and collaborate for example, on the sports ground, science labs, board rooms and in space, the less will do so on the battlefield. International collaboration is essential for our civilisation’s grand ambitions in space, India representing such a large part of it, cannot be absent.

Rakesh Sharma and his backup Ravish Malhotra trained to fly aboard a Soviet space station in the spring 1984. Since Sharma flew, Molhotra was never called up. After a period of commanding an airbase in India Molhotra left for the private sector heading up an international aerospace company. Paramaswaren Radhakrishnan and Nagapathi Bhat started their astronaut training in the US to accompany an Indian satellite aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in November 1986. But the catastrophic explosion of Challenger during launch on 28th January 1986 ended their hopes of spaceflight even before the primary/backup selection took place. Both returned and continued to work for ISRO until their retirement and live now live in Thiruvananthapuram (formally Trivanderum) and Bangalore respectively.

No humans have left Earth orbit since 1972. Speaking in 2013, Sharma pointed to the collaborative opportunities that emerge from national space programs. In the midst of the cold war, American and Soviet astronauts symbolically shook hands 200km above the Earth in July 1976 as part of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. The next time humans leave Earth, Sharma says ‘they should not do so as Americans, Indians or Chinese, but as people from planet Earth’.

Each nation that has launched humans in to space, started with men and then included women. Two years after the first man, the Soviets put the first woman in space in 1963. The gap for the USA between the launch of its first astronaut and its first woman astronaut was 22 years. The Chinese took just 9 years. As the worlds largest democracy, would it not be fitting that the first Indian astronaut was a woman?


Author Profile

Gurbir Singh is a UK based space writer.  He is the publisher of and author of the book Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester

Notes – First published in April 2014.