Inside India’s ambitious mission to put its astronauts in space

Great spectacle.
Great spectacle.
Image: REUTERS/Stringer
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Sullurpeta, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is an average Indian town with a busy local market area, rudimentary tea and coffee shops, and an occasional cow roaming the streets.

Located on the country’s eastern coast, a little over an hour’s train journey north of the bustling city of Chennai, Sullurpeta is the gateway to the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) main rocket launch facility: the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, or the Sriharikota Range.

Those employed here might live a dull countryside life, but are keenly aware of the importance of the work they do, a man in his fifties, who introduces himself as a space engineer tells me.

Their work itself is not conspicuous, though—one must look closely for the unimpressive mural of a shooting rocket near the town’s entry point.

The main road to the launch centre leads through a causeway on a now half-dry Pulicat Lake. Near the facility’s main gate, construction workers—all local villagers—have just finished refurbishing the vehicle park; others sluggishly work on three rocket miniatures newly placed in front of the gate.

But all this is merely the deceptive calm before the storm.

In August, prime minister Narendra Modi announced that, in about four years, India will launch Gaganyaan, its first manned space mission. If successful, it would make India only the fourth member (after Russia, the US, and China) of an elite club of nations with indigenous manned space programmes.

Sullurpeta’s scientists and engineers have been preparing for a decade for this historic mission.

Why a manned mission?

Gopalan Madhavan Nair, ISRO’s former chief, says the idea of a manned space mission works from a long-term perspective.

“(Human spaceflight) is not a prestige-building mission. It will enable ISRO to achieve higher levels of reliability in launch and satellite technology. This will enhance the capability of observing galactic phenomena and the earth. Spin-off benefits, especially in medical science, will be of significance,” Nair says.

It is a natural evolution of what the country has achieved so far, according to Mylswamy Annadurai, the man behind several satellite and planetary missions, who has served as director of the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bengaluru. It will let India contribute to international spaceflight as space exploration needs to be a collaborative effort among nations, he says.

“Globally, there is a need for several national crewed vehicle programmes. Since the American Space Shuttle is grounded, the Russian Soyuz is the only vehicle capable of carrying humans to space. Human spaceflight would cease without it,” Annadurai argued.

In the future, he believes, India should take part in the construction of an international lunar base, an idea promoted by both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Wing commander (retired) Rakesh Sharma, the only Indian citizen to have been to space till date, agrees.

“Humans will go back to the Moon anyway. Only a handful of nations will take us there. If India becomes a full-fledged space power by having all the capabilities of the developed space-faring countries, then its voice cannot be ignored while international policies dealing with space governance issues are being drawn up,” Sharma says.

50 years in the making

On a calm morning in early July this year, a 14-tonne unmanned prototype capsule flew down on parachutes to safely land some three kilometres into the sea. The entire test, from lift-off to landing, lasted just under five minutes, but for the engineers managing it, this was a great deal: the emergency escape system, a critical technology for a manned spaceflight, worked almost flawlessly.

This, however, wasn’t the only key technology to have been tested for Gaganyaan (Sanskrit for “sky craft”). The ISRO team has, among other things, tested prototypes of the crew module, a space suit, and the launch vehicle, the GSLV Mk3 rocket.

The decade-long preparations—and Rs173 crore (about $23.5 million) spent so far—apart, the manned spaceflight programme marks a milestone in ISRO’s evolution over 50 years.

India’s space ambitions sprouted in the 1960s. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the country’s space programme and ISRO founder, formulated its main objective: self-reliance in space technology to meet national development goals.

By the 1980s, ISRO had constructed two satellite systems: the Indian National Satellite System (popularly INSAT) that served mostly telecommunications, broadcasting and meteorological purposes; and the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellite system that monitors resources, does Earth science and reconnaissance.

The programme has dozens of real-life applications: weather forecasting, monitoring the borders, crops, and forests, mapping resources and fishing zones, urban planning, ATM connectivity, search and rescue operations, anti-terrorist and anti-spy missions, disaster warning, and telemedicine.

Given India’s size, building the national space programme was a necessity, as all these services are as basic as air, water, shelter, education, and food, says Susmita Mohanty, CEO of Earth2Orbit, a Bengaluru-based consulting firm and space startup. “In a world of constant political bullying and embargo regimes, it makes perfect sense for countries to be technologically independent and self-reliant,” Mohanty says.

ISRO says it has received around 270 patents and transferred over 300 technologies to industries. This includes electronic systems, speciality polymer materials, and mechanical equipment.

“Materials used in rocketry have applications in medicine. And I am not talking about developed countries; it happens here, in India,” says Arun Ram, a space journalist and the Chennai resident editor of The Times of India newspaper.

Ram cites the example of APJ Abdul Kalam, a rocket scientist and former Indian president, who helped develop a new type of a coronary stent, a device placed in arteries to supply blood to the heart. The material used for its production was high-grade rocket steel. Kalam’s work on military missiles also led to the development of ultra-light callipers, which helps polio-affected patients walk.

Thus, for a long time, India used its space capabilities for the benefit of common citizens. “Nobody in India questions the need of launching satellites anymore,” says Ram.

Yet, India’s space programme failed to fire people’s imaginationAfter all, Sarabhai had stressed that the country didn’t fancy competing with the advanced economies in planetary exploration or manned spaceflight.

However, in recent years, ISRO has begun rewriting its founder’s vision.

In 2008, it put a probe, Chandrayaan-1, on the lunar orbit. It became the first spacecraft to discover water on Moon. It was a breakthrough for ISRO’s ambitions, too. “We graduated from a regular space-faring nation to the prestigious league occupied by NASA, ESA, and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency),” says Annadurai, the mission’s project director.

Six years later, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) hit the headlines not just because of its effectiveness but also because it was the first time a probe was placed in Mars’s orbit in the very first attempt.

The mission was also praised for its low cost: an equivalent of $74 million, compared with the $671 million NASA spent on the MAVEN orbiter launched around the same time. (To be fair, Mangalyaan was primarily a technology demonstrator while MAVEN was far more technologically advanced.)

Now, Chandrayaan-2 is scheduled to launch early next year after being delayed twice. Two other projects, a sun study spacecraft and a Venusian orbiter, are also in the pipeline.

Challenges galore

ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan has said that conducting two unmanned and one crewed mission, taking three astronauts to a low-earth orbit for about a week, would cost around Rs9,000 crore (around $1.2 billion). This is higher than ISRO’s entire annual budget of $1.1 billion (for 2018).

Clearly, it won’t come as cheap as MOM.

Sivan’s figure, though, is just a little lower than what China spent on its early Shenzhou missions.

Before any flight happens, ISRO will have to put all the technologies to work together and test them to reach the desired accuracy. The most important pieces it still doesn’t have are the life support system and heat shields for atmospheric re-entry. And modifying the launchpad in Sriharikota, building a mission control centre plus selecting and training the crew seems to be the easy part.

According to the plan, the astronauts will have to be ready by 2022. “I feel it is all doable with a slight time overrun, if at all,” Sharma says.

ISRO’s Gaganyaan astronauts will be initially trained abroad. Sharma agrees it is a sensible way to crunch time schedule before building indigenous infrastructure. “Final training, specific to spacecraft systems, can then be done in India,” says Sharma, who flew aboard the Soviet Union’s Soyuz T-11 on April 02, 1984.

Meanwhile, India’s space engineers are not losing their focus on good old satellites either. “We will have to place new generations of hardware up on the orbit. The government alone will require us to send over 40 satellites in the next three years. Previously, we made two or three per year. Now it has grown to about 10,” says Annadurai.

The agency lacks human resources for all these, so it badly needs the industry to step in.

Recently, ISRO announced it will let private companies integrate 27 large orbiters. It is the only way to get enough manpower, says Mohanty. “ISRO should have begun privatising routine activities such as satellite fabrication and PSLV rocket assembly at least a decade ago. It should focus on R&D and new areas such as planetary exploration and human space flight. Plus, some of its budget should be allocated to providing a robust financial ecosystem to support entrepreneurial ventures leading to job creation and innovation.”

Meanwhile, attempts to monetise ISRO’s expertise have borne fruit, too. Antrix Corporation, the agency’s commercial arm, has found favour in the global satellite launch market and kept the revenue counter ticking. Since 1999, it has placed in orbit 239 foreign satellites for customers from 28 countries. For the financial year that ended March 31, 2017, Antrix reported an income of Rs1,991 crore (pdf).

Launching manned missions is just the beginning of a new chapter for ISRO. It opens up interest in space that could help attract more youngsters to its fold and help the agency find its apogee.

Sullurpeta, then, might finally outgrow its small-town status.

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