As ISRO gears up to meet a target of two launches a month for the next 16 months, the prime minister, in his Independence Day address, set a deadline to a project conceived over a decade ago, to put an Indian astronaut into orbit. It is an ambitious target establishing India’s living presence in the firmament, but fortunately, some of the key technology elements are already in place. The problem of weight is the fundamental challenge, since a crewed module weights two or three times more than the comsat and remote sensing payloads that ISRO usually launches. The GSLV Mk-III or LVM-3 launch vehicle is capable of propelling a crewed module into orbit, and budgets for launches into 2024 were cleared in June. Future launches will be used to fine-tune the cryogenic engines. Re-entry, a delicate operation that ISRO has limited experience in, since its payloads typically remain in space, was tested in a GSLV Mk-III flight in 2014, and the module splashed down successfully. On July 5, a simulated crew escape system for launch failures was also successfully tested. And fortunately, India has an Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Bengaluru. Specialist inputs will be required for acclimatising astronauts, testing their fitness for space at the time of launch, and for the design of their quarters and life support systems.
The only hardware which remains untested is the crew capsule, suitable for keeping two or three astronauts in good health for over a week. Elements include systems to maintain the environment, provide food and process waste, and deal with emergencies. These are still on the drawing board. The most important element remains neglected: The human factor. An astronaut training centre was scheduled to be set up by 2012 in Bengaluru, but it appears that the first batch of astronauts will have to be trained overseas. It would take years to accustom them to life in zero gravity, which has impacts on a myriad behaviours, from moving around to even eating and drinking.
Following the prime minister’s announcement of a deadline for crewed space flight, there has been some debate about the utility of the objective. While it is true that human space flight no longer signals national prestige, as it did during the Cold War, the project would bump up the entire space industry, forcing it to meet challenges beyond the low-cost launch of payloads, a sector in which it has already excelled. Besides, certain missions are better performed by humans than by robots. These remain far in the future, but the development of human capabilities in space would prime the industry well in advance. The technical knowledge generated in the process would be of use much later, in ways that may not be obvious today.