India mulls options on human space flight programme

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan. File photo

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan. File photo  

India is weighing the pros and cons of going in for collaboration for its ambitious human space flight programme but a final decision would be driven by the extent of technological gains accrued to New Delhi from it.

Different models are possible in undertaking the proposed mission, first mooted nearly a decade ago, Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation K. Radhakrishnan told PTI.

Mr. Radhakrishnan, also Secretary in the Department of Space and Chairman of Space Commission, said there is a lot of discussion globally on collaboration in human space flight programmes (not India—specific, but general in nature).

“So, then, we should decide what we have to do in this area. There are different models available,” he said.

One possibility is to have a human being (Indian) flown in Soyuz (Russian rocket) or some other system. “It’s like paying the money, getting into it, conduct a small experiment and come back. That’s one part of it,” he said.

Another model is to make a crew module indigenously and use a man-rate vehicle (rocket) of a foreign space agency, and the third option for India is to develop the rocket and associated technologies on its own and undertake the mission.

“All these things are there. The question is how much technology you will earn, what benefit you will get out of it (in case of collaboration). One has to weigh it because you (India) must have a long-term programme for it (human space flights). We are not doing for the sake of doing it (the human space flight mission) actually,” Mr. Radhakrishnan said.

“The question is when you take it (the programme) into future direction, how does it help you,” Mr. Radhakrishnan said.

All these models are possible. We are not closed on any of these options. But one has to study as to how does it lead you to the future,” he added.

Asked if ISRO would initiate discussions with US and Russian space agencies for possible collaboration, he said, “All these discussions will take place,” and added that the entire space community is generally interested in such programmes (internationally).

On whether India is open to collaboration on this programme, Mr. Radhakrishnan said “there are no hard positions on this. But one has to look at it.” “We have to weigh pros and cons. Finally, (the decision depends on) what benefit India gets in the immediate term and in the long term.” Even as it weighs options, ISRO is busy working on critical technologies needed for this complex mission.

The programme envisages the development of a fully autonomous orbital vehicle carrying two or three crew members to about 300 km low earth orbit and their safe return.

Three major areas that ISRO needs to master are, environmental control and life support (ECLS) system, crew escape system and flight suite and it’s currently working on them, under pre-project studies for which the Government sanctioned Rs 145 crore.

ISRO conducted initial studies for four years from 2002 to examine the technological challenges for the programme, then called manned space mission, and Indian capability.

In 2006, about 80 senior scientists from across the country who attended a meeting convened by ISRO, were highly appreciative of the study conducted by the space agency and unanimous in suggesting that the time is appropriate for India to undertake such a mission.

Since then, the Space department has been engaged in pre-project activities to study technical and managerial issues related to undertaking the mission with an aim to build and demonstrate the country’s capability.

At the time, the preliminary estimated cost for the proposed mission was Rs 10,000 crore spread over a period of eight years, including setting up mission-specific facilities.

Subsequently, it was scaled up to Rs 12,400 crore in 2007-08.

ISRO officials indicated then in private that the mission could take place in 2015-16 time-frame if every thing went as planned but the space agency had never committed itself on the likely dates, always maintaining that seven to eight years are needed once the project is taken up.

Even today, the project, per se, is yet to be taken up though work on various technologies is underway.

The twin-failure of the home-grown rocket, GSLV, last year -- one with indigenous cryogenic engine and stage, and another with the imported Russian one -- has certainly put the clock back by two-three years.

Asked if one could expect the human space flight only towards the end of this decade, Mr. Radhakrishnan refused to commit a time-frame.

“See, it takes its own time. You have to have that time. You have to have your vehicle (rocket),” he said.

Bangalore-headquartered ISRO said its PSLV (rocket) cannot be used for such a mission as it does not have capacity and GSLV-MK II has a limitation that it can take only two persons. GSLV-MK III which is under development certainly can take three persons with some more space left.

“When you have to take up human-rating activity, you have to decide on which vehicle. So the vehicle has to be (first) proved for unmanned flight. We are at that stage now. So, we have to decide whether GSLV—MK II or MK III that we will do this human rating,” he said.

“Then, we can have the mission. Without a vehicle, talking about a mission has not much of a challenge actually,” the ISRO Chairman said.

ISRO says it has to have a couple of good flights of GSLV before it could talk about the mission per se. “First priority is to have GSLV flight with indigenous cryogenic and meeting the mission requirements,” he said.

The next GSLV flight is scheduled only after April next year. Mr. Radhakrishnan said, the human space flight mission can take place seven years from the project’s start, which he would not be able to say right now.

“Let’s not talk about the mission, per se. But critical technologies we are working on,” he said.

He said a number of mission-specific facilities, such as one for astronauts, mission control centre and launch pad, need to be established.

The selected astronauts would have to undergo a training course for two-and-half-years.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:08:36 PM |

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