An artistic rendering of ISRO's Human rated orbiter vehicle in space

Sending an astronaut to outer space would be a golden feather in ISRO’s cap

On July 5, the ISRO carried out a technology demonstration that holds key to prospects of a manned mission to space.

On July 5, the Indian Space Research Organisation carried out a technology demonstration that holds key to prospects of a manned mission to space. According to ISRO, this crew escape system is an emergency escape measure designed to quickly pull the crew module along with astronauts to a safe distance from the launch vehicle in the event of a launch abort. This test was first in a series conducted by ISRO which qualified the crew escape system. In all manned missions to space, the crew module—container that houses astronauts—is installed on the rocket’s uppermost stage. ISRO’s latest test, called pad-abort, checks whether an escape system installed on the crew module can take it away to safety should the rocket malfunction on the launchpad itself.

The implications of this test are huge. The idea of having an indigenous manned mission to space is fascinating. The plan to send an astronaut to outer space has been a dream of scientists working in the Indian space mission, and a wish of a billion. Only three countries have managed to send manned missions to outer space—the US, Soviet Union/Russia and China—showing the magnanimity of such missions.

India wishes to be a part of this elite club; it desires to be seen by others not as an ‘emerging power’ but a ‘rising power’. Achievements in outer space are a marker of great power status. The Cold War space race, which later turned into a space rivalry between the US and Soviet Union, showed both the ‘constructive’ as well as ‘destructive’ potential of outer space.

The securitisation of outer space and emergence of areas like space security—having an impact on national security—have led to a situation where outer space is increasingly seen as a ‘strategic domain’. Thus, any feat in the area of outer space is crucial. At a time when both the US and Russia are reconsidering sending astronauts to outer space and the Moon, India is making the right move by planning a successful manned mission under its belt as soon as possible.

But it is still quite early to write substantially about the manned space mission, as it can take at least 4-5 years to be materialised successfully. ISRO would need huge money and manpower for such a mission to succeed. The success is necessary because India, unlike the US, erstwhile USSR or contemporary China, doesn’t have the luxury to learn after committing mistakes. Being a resource-scarce country, there are many who still question the very premise of spending huge sums of money on manned space missions, when the same money could be used for other developmental purposes.

There is nothing new about this line of questioning, as people have been raising such questions since the genesis of the Indian space program itself. Yes, investing in a space program is an extremely costly affair, but the benefits of outer space outweigh its costs many times over. These range from a country becoming a space power to advances in science, technology and even medicine. The reason being that, for manned space exploration, new items and materials are needed to be produced, which can work in zero gravity. For that to happen, a fundamental change is needed within the industries that produce such items and materials. India is looking for the same fundamental change, because once ISRO starts working on its manned mission program in full throttle, industries that are working in the production of space-related materials right now would be even more incentivised to produce better quality products to meet the upcoming needs of a manned mission to outer space.

In addition, an indigenous manned space mission would eventually lead to a huge expansion of the Indian space program. The standard of higher education in the field of aeronautical engineering, aerospace engineering and physics would be impacted positively, and would get a major boost as well. One could also ask whether the manned space program is just for getting an image boost or to show the international community what India is capable of?

The answer is no. Yes, a mission like this would certainly attract the attention of international community and work as an image booster, but primarily it would give a self-belief to our engineers, scientists and India as a nation that it can achieve a feat like that. That is why ‘self-perception’ becomes an important component while realising self-potential by states in the international system.

The Indian space program has come a long way since the first sounding rocket was fired from Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram in 1963. Sending an astronaut to outer space would be a golden feather in ISRO’s cap.