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The ascent begins: On the progress of India’s human spaceflight mission

October 23, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 11:58 am IST

The Indian Space Research Organisation has started a crucial phase of its human spaceflight mission 

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At 10 a.m. on October 21, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) commenced the first uncrewed developmental flight of its ‘Gaganyaan’ human spaceflight mission from Sriharikota, designated TV-D1. The launch vehicle, a single-stage rocket, carried a crew module fit with a crew-escape system (CES) to an altitude of 12 km. There, the CES detached itself with the crew module from the rocket and climbed up to 17 km. In response to a command, the CES separated from the crew module, leaving the module to reorient itself before dropping over the Bay of Bengal. Its descent was slowed first by drogue parachutes and then by the main parachutes. Finally, the module splashed into the Bay a short distance from Sriharikota, where the Indian Navy hauled it out. The CES also splashed down farther down range. The flight tested the CES’s ability to protect the crew in case the rocket malfunctioned, and collected data via sensors to inform future tests. The test’s value will be based on this data. According to ISRO chairman S. Somanath, ISRO has many tests planned to develop confidence that the organisation can safely launch humans to orbit. Even the parachutes used for TV-D1 underwent 16 tests. Such fastidiousness is non-negotiable. TV-D1 was supposed to have been conducted at 8 a.m., when unfavourable weather pushed it to 8.45 a.m. Then, however, the automatic launch sequence held back the launch with a few seconds on the clock. Mr. Somanath subsequently announced that TV-D1 would be postponed. But ISRO personnel were able to quickly identify and resolve the problem, and the launch was rescheduled for 10 a.m.

These checks and balances are expensive, but are in place to prevent greater costs later. Plans for the programme were first readied in 2009 at an estimated ₹12,400 crore. The Union Cabinet granted its approval in December 2018 at ₹9,023 crore assuming first flight by 2022. But the COVID-19 pandemic and other commitments have caused delays such that the earliest the first crewed flight can happen is currently 2025. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on ISRO to launch humans to the moon by 2040. Even with the requisite financial support, this would be a very tight deadline, but as with fastidiousness, contemporary geopolitics has also rendered returning to the moon non-negotiable. Fortunately, with ‘Gaganyaan’, ISRO has indicated how a balance can be struck: plan ahead, boost local manufacturing, test exhaustively, launch when ready. The deadline may be missed, but the mission can be undertaken with confidence while also improving local capabilities.

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