Rakesh Sharma (Centre) created history by becoming the first Indian to fly in space, along with Russia's Yuri Malyshev (R) and Gennady Strekalov (L) on the Soyuz T-11

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is roping in Indian Air Force pilots to identify the first set of astronauts for a human space flight. IAF pilot Rakesh Sharma is the only Indian to have travelled in space. He flew aboard the Soviet rocket Soyuz T-11 in 1984. Kalpana Chawla, one of the seven crew members who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, was an American astronaut of Indian origin.

ISRO tested on Thursday a crew escape system (CES), which is a capsule that ejects from a rocket if it explodes on the launch pad.

The CES is a series of technology building blocks that ISRO is developing for an eventual mission to carry astronauts to space. It is a crucial emergency escape measure designed to quickly pull the spacecraft that houses the astronauts to a safe distance from the launch vehicle in the event of a rocket explosion.

ISRO has so far built a capsule that can re-enter from space, space suits, food for astronauts in collaboration with Defence Research and Development Organisation, and is working on an astronaut-training facility on the outskirts of Bangalore.

However, the agency also needs to build the right environmental control facilities that can house three astronauts in the capsule.

So far, the government, which has granted Rs 145 crore to do initial studies for a manned mission to space, is yet to approve the project that could potentially cost over $2 billion. “This is a developmental activity that eventually will be used for a human spaceflight,” said AS Kiran Kumar, former chairman of ISRO. He said a human space flight is an expensive proposition and lots of space faring activities could be done through robotic missions or unmanned flights.

India has been working on human space flight for over a decade, but it still does not have a rocket powerful enough to carry astronauts into space.

ISRO is operationalising its most powerful launch vehicle the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (GSLV-MK-3) later this year. This rocket could potentially carry around eight tonnes spacecraft to lower earth orbit. However, it has to be human rated or make it so safe that the possibility of error could be one in a million.