by G Hari Kumar

After the successful launch of the South Asian Satellite GSAT-9 (formerly called SAARC Satellite) on board GSLV-Mk II in May 2017, scientists of ISRO centres feel that it was a proud moment to be part of India's space diplomacy initiative and hear praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This bilateral launch to help our neighbours marked the operationalisation of India's most powerful rocket the GSLV Mk-III.

GSLV MK-III Vehicle Development

It is the most capable rocket ever developed by India. It can carry up to 10 metric tons, or about 22,000 pounds, of cargo into low Earth orbit and up to 4 metric tons or about 8,800 pounds into geostationary transfer orbit once it is operational.

The first sub-orbital flight of GSLV LVM-3 lifted off from Sriharikota on 18 December 2014. The launch marked the successful testing of not only the launch vehicle but also an atmospheric re-entry crew module, which separated from the rocket 325 seconds after lift-off at an altitude of 126 km, and descended in ballistic mode, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere (about 80 km above sea level) and splashing down into the Bay of Bengal.

The flight validated complex atmospheric ascent regime of the orbital module, especially its aerodynamic and control features that cannot be conclusively tested on the ground.

Validated new design features which include both Hardware and advanced Software implementation

Performance validation of S200 solid boosters which generate 1.1 million pounds of thrust, making them the second-most powerful solid-fuelled rocket motors currently in service after the strap-on rockets used by Europe’s Ariane 5 launcher.

Successfully tested 2 liquid-fuelled L110 clustered Vikas engines using hydrazine as fuel which ignited when the rocket is already in the air, firing for more than three minutes and ramping up to a peak power of 360,000 pounds of thrust. This was the first time ISRO tested a clustered engine configuration.

1,600 degrees Celsius was the temperature that the CARE module withstood at re-entry into the atmosphere, advanced heat shield technology was employed, further analysis of the data will reveal the actual temperature signature prevalent during re-entry phase.

Re-entry capability is key to sending humans into space. This is a complicated and dangerous maneuver; it is while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere that the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed in 2003, killing seven astronauts, including our own Kalpana Chawla.

Finally, the global space industry is worth more than $ 300 billion. Apart from the regular PSLV business, India has the potential to tap a substantial portion of this large pie once the GSLV matures as a reliable & credible launch platform.

Crucial Component of The Indian Human Space Flight Program

GSLV Mk-III's success is critical for the proposed India's manned space program, as a prelude to this, ISRO successfully tested technologies critical for an Indian manned space mission. Using the Mk-III ISRO launched an unmanned crew module that re-entered the atmosphere 20 minutes later and splashed into the Andaman Sea exactly as planned. The GSLV Mark III is the most powerful rocket built by ISRO, an advanced version of the earlier GSLV-Mk-II rockets that were designed to carry 2,500 kg-class satellites into geosynchronous orbits 37,000 km above the Earth.

A chain of six parachutes helped the cupcake-shaped crew module, the size of a small car, gently drop into the sea about 1,600 km from Sriharikota spaceport from where it had been launched. The 3,775 kg crew module flew to an intended altitude of 126 km. There it separated from the upper stage of the rocket and re-entered the atmosphere to drop into the sea 20 minutes later.

"This was a very significant day in the history of the Indian space program," said then ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan, while observing the launch at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on India's east coast. "ISRO's capability of launching heavier payloads has significantly enhanced."

The crew module, protected by heat shields, successfully tolerated the 1,600ÂșC temperatures during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. A twin system of three parachutes each, designed by the Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), a defence laboratory in Agra, helped slow down the module during its descent. It splashed down about 180 km from Indira Point, the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Indian Coast Guard Dornier from Campbell Bay carried out the initial surveillance and located the crew module and updated the position, a cost guard ship on arrival at the location launched an on-board helicopter for carrying out the pollution test of the area. The cost guard frogmen thereafter recovered the crew module braving the rough and very difficult sea conditions.

GSLV Mark III Manned Flight Sequence

A fully operational GSLV Mark III is designed to ferry 4,000+ kg-class communication satellites into space, will be a three-stage rocket with a solid-propellant first stage, liquid-propellant second stage and a powerful cryogenic third stage powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The vehicle is so powerful that it can effortlessly propel the weight of 3 Maruti Alto 800 cars with a couple of passengers into orbit.

While ISRO scientists say the most critical element of manned space missions, such as - building life-support systems aboard the capsule - remains to be achieved. Scientists have also cautioned in the past that ISRO will need to increase the success rate of the GSLV for manned space flight.

Only the US, Russia and China have active manned space programs, although astronauts from other countries have travelled into space aboard US and Russian space capsules. Rakesh Sharma, India's first Cosmonaut, an Indian Air Force pilot, had flown into space aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule in 1984.

Infrastructure Development

As a natural progression of its endeavours, ISRO has decided to start a Human Space flight program. It has been decided that the entire program will be split into the following phases:

First Phase: design, development and performance demonstration of critical technologies leading to a manned space mission.

Second and Third Phase: would establish the necessary infrastructure, do qualification tests including flight testing with test vehicles, PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mk III and finally demonstrate the first Indian Human Spaceflight.

In the first phase, ISRO has proposed to develop and demonstrate all the major technologies and infrastructure critical for Human Spaceflight Program (HSP) including pad abort test, Orbital Vehicle (OV), Crew Escape System (CES), Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) & Flight Suit, Human rating of Launch Vehicle (LVM3) and realising essential facilities including third launch pad for the development and flight testing of these systems. Mission and configuration studies and technical developmental activities will also be initiated for the Human Lunar Missions.

The first major-milestone activity is “pad abort test” that is planned to demonstrate the performance of crew escape system (CES). This test will play a vital role in establishing the critical abort maneuver of the CES which has to take the crew module (CM) to an altitude of about 2 km and range of about 2 km from the launch pad.

Program & Objectives of  Human Space Program:

Verify the performance/functioning of various motors/systems of Crew Escape System.

Verify the capability of CES to take CM to the required altitude (~ 2 km) & range (~ 2 km).

Demonstrate the deceleration & floatation capability of parachutes of Crew Module.

Validate the crew module recovery from the sea. (First Test completed, needs several more).

ISRO carried out a major technology demonstration on July 05, 2018, the first in a series of tests to qualify a Crew Escape System

The next stage of the crew module test is expected to be conducted for assessing the efficiency of its ejection system enabling the crew to bail out of the module in case of any emergency.

Develop and perfect life support environment system in the orbital module during its flight in orbit.

Redesign Crew Module ergonomics and other functionalities, if necessary, after the first recovery test.

Integrate PSLV 4th stage as a service module for the Orbital Vehicle.

Human rating of GSLV MK III to be completed. Redesigning of vehicle structures including propellant tanks, motor cases, and other important components if necessary.

Qualification tests including stage functional tests of the C-25 cryogenic engine was successfully validated during first operational flight.

Development of intelligent systems to monitor and identify the imminent failure of systems.

Redundancy schemes in all the avionics, control systems, Pyro-Technic systems and mechanisms.

Additional facilities for the structural test are to be developed for conducting these tests.

ISRO is building a state-of-the-art astronauts’ training facility in a sprawling 50-acre piece of land at Yelahanka, Bangalore. It is called Astronaut Training and Biomedical Engineering Centre (ATBEC), it will be used to prepare personnel for flights on board the Orbital Vehicle. The centre will use simulation facilities to train the selected astronauts in rescue and recovery operations and survival in zero gravity and will undertake studies of the radiation environment of space.

ISRO is building centrifugal system to train the astronauts on acceleration aspects, and familiarise them with zero gravity conditions.

Construct water simulators which will be like swimming pools in which astronauts can go underneath to learn to live in zero gravity conditions.

Cabin Environment Simulation System

ISRO recently commissioned a new facility called Cabin Environment Simulation System (CESS) under the Human Space Flight Program. CESS will be used for test and evaluation of space modules under regulated environmental conditions that may arise during various phases of the manned mission. 

CESS consists of a horizontally mounted cylindrical chamber of 2100mm diameter and 1200mm cylindrical length with two tori-spherical dome enclosures–with opening at one end. It has been designed for maintaining an internal vacuum level of 10-2 and insulated such that the outside surface temperature remains within 40 deg C when the internal maximum temperature is at 100 deg C. This large main chamber has been provided with a pumping system to maintain any pressure level between 1.3 mbar to 1200 mbar inside the chamber.


A facility is being developed to have housed all the crew and the astronauts who have been selected to undergo training for the Human Space mission. About 250-odd pilots from the Indian Air Force (IAF), including women, are said to have been screened and the training process–as flying an aircraft is different from going outside the planet’s orbit–will be scheduled after due diligence, once ATBEC is fully functional.

The Indian Human Space Flight Program is an ISRO proposal to develop and launch a fully functional Orbital Vehicle to carry a two or three-member crew into orbit, partial clearance for which was given by the Centre. Tight security will be in force at the centre.


Why should India participate in human spaceflight?

Robotic expeditions to space have a lot of limitations unlike space travel involving humans, studying astronauts in the micro-gravity of space which has been the only means to understand how gravity affects human development and health here on Earth.

India will join a club of the advanced and elite group of human space faring nations thereby enhancing its 'National Prestige'. History tells us that great civilisations were built on exploration.

New cutting-edge technologies & discoveries derived out of human space exploration can be percolated to other applications. Some of the 'Spinoff' technologies developed as a result of human space exploration by NASA & ROSCOSMOS are Calculators, Kidney Dialysis Machines, Cell Phone Cameras, Baby Food, Digital Wristwatches, GPS Technology, Joysticks, Cochlear Implants, Infrared Cameras, Laser Surgery, Pacemaker Batteries, Advanced Computers, Satellite TV, Teflon, Ultrasound, Water-purification systems etc,.

An Indian in space will invigorate and energises the minds of an entire generation of young Indians who will get interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

It will inspire a generation of Indians who will get sensitised to the importance and fragility of our planet.

India must prepare itself in advance for social experimentation and future commercial exploitation of virtually unlimited resources.

In the long run, joint space ventures will serve as an internationally unifying venture.

Human colonisation of outer space will also act as a hedge for India against any type of global catastrophe.

Hari is a historian, author, military enthusiast, cyber geek and an incurable patriot. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN. IDN does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same