Burden of power: On India’s astronauts and the Indian space policy

Scientific exploration, not superpower status, should drive India’s space programme

February 28, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 09:17 am IST

Prasanth Balakrishnan Nair, Ajit Krishnan, Angad Pratap and Shubhanshu Shukla — these Air Force pilots constitute the final shortlist of candidates from among whom India’s astronauts for its human spaceflight mission, a.k.a. Gaganyaan, will be selected. The announcement, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an official visit to Kerala, fills the last real unknown about the ambitious mission, which aims to send an Indian crew to low-earth orbit onboard an Indian rocket. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has signalled that, setting aside the risk of unexpected delays, it expects to conduct two test flights of the human-rated Launch Vehicle Mark-3 rocket in 2024 and 2025 and the crewed launch in 2025. The Union Cabinet approved Gaganyaan in 2018 at a cost of ₹10,000 crore. Since then, the ISRO centres and their collaborators in industry and academia have worked to bring the mission’s various components together while also negotiating delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ISRO’s commercial commitments. Now, with the astronauts’ names in the open, India is truly in the last mile.

It would be naive to believe an undertaking of this scale can be completely free of political capture, but Gaganyaan cannot be altogether politically motivated either. Among other things, the Indian Space Policy 2023 requires ISRO to “carry out applied research and development of newer systems so as to maintain India’s edge in … human spaceflight” and to “... develop a long term road-map for sustained human presence in space”. ISRO has also flown a bevy of technological, research, and commercial missions with sufficient support from the Centre to render them immune to political accountability, and Gaganyaan has been no different. But going ahead, it should be different, with justification that is amenable to public scrutiny and debate while seeding a culture of space exploration that is truly democratic, rather than being motivated seemingly by geopolitical aspirations. Similarly, while a road map is being set — accommodating Mr. Modi’s “directive” to ISRO to land an Indian on the moon by 2040 — the endeavour must be to give Gaganyaans present and future an identity rooted less in “India’s edge”, which when maintained for its own sake becomes a vacuous thing, and more in the fundamental act of creating new scientific and societal value. Other countries, including China, may be technologically ahead, but India must keep the focus on scientific exploration and expanding human horizons, and not on achieving some ‘space superpower’ status.

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