by Kabir Upmanyu

A time-frame has been laid out and the clock is ticking. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing on the occasion of Independence Day this year that an Indian astronaut, be it a man or a woman, will go on a space odyssey by 2022 on board the 'Gaganyaan', all eyes are on how the country is going to achieve this within a span of four years.

The preparations imperative for such a manned mission – way more complex than unmanned missions that India has already successfully carried out (Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan) – not just relate to designing and building the spacecraft, but also the gruelling training that the selected astronauts have to undergo.

However, the candidate selection process hasn't started till now, and there is also no permanent astronaut training facility in the country.

So in this context, we ask two experts in the field on what it would take to be the second Indian to travel into space and how long could the training process tentatively take.

Several Years of Gruelling Preparations

Calling the training process for an astronaut a long one, retired NASA astronaut Steve Swanson – who has to his credit almost 200 days in space and over 26 hours worth of spacewalks – tells The Quint that two basic requirements for the job are a “background in engineering or science”, along with some amount of “experience in an operational environment”, like being a pilot or a scientist in a remote environment.

…once they are selected as an astronaut, the specific training on how the spacecraft [operates] begins, along with training on how to perform rendezvous (flying one vehicle to another and docking while in orbit), and how to do spacewalks. This usually lasts about two years, but can depend upon the complexity of the spacecraft and what other tasks are required.

Following this, the training for the specific flight in question starts, which Swanson says can take another one to two years depending on what exactly the mission is. Understanding the exact profiles of the mission, working with people on the ground at the flight control centre, and training for many off-nominal situations including emergencies, are all part of this stage of the preparations.

One issue we have is that there is no good way to train how to work and live in the microgravity environment (floating). So, we try to always have a flown crew member fly with a rookie crew member to help them adjust quickly and efficiently to this new environment. Although this is not necessary, it is very highly desired.

Concurring with Swanson, retired Air Commodore Ravish Malhotra – who served as the backup cosmonaut for Rakesh Sharma, the only Indian to travel in space – points out the need for astronauts to rigorously undergo both theoretical and practical training, alongside having a thorough familiarity with systems on board the spacecraft.

Saying the training will take around two years, Malhotra recounts his own experience:

During our training, we were imparted zero gravity training in an aircraft specifically modified for the purpose. By doing an over-the top manoeuvre, a period of zero gravity was achieved for about 35 seconds.

The Million Dollar Question – Is 2022 a Realistic Deadline?

While the training of astronauts for the 2022 ‘Gaganyaan’ mission is yet to take off, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been developing and testing several technologies required specifically for the manned space mission, as this Indian Express article points out.

In fact, such a mission has been under discussion since 2004. In December 2014, ISRO successfully tested an experimental flight of the GSLV Mk-III (or LVM-3), the launch vehicle suited for a manned mission, along with an experimental crew model. This was followed by the LVM-3’s first ‘development flight’ in June 2017, and later by the successful testing of the crew escape system in July 2018.

However, many more tests will need to follow and many more technologies will still need to be developed before the mission could be flagged off. Underlining the difficulties involved in the whole process, Steve Swanson narrates the effort it took for SpaceX to shift from an unmanned to a manned mission:

… SpaceX developed a cargo vehicle for the International Space Station (ISS) and it flew its first mission in 2012. Very soon after, they started work on a human-rated version of that vehicle and rocket to take astronauts to the ISS. We are hoping this will happen next year, which is seven years later.

And as for getting an Indian astronaut ready to be in space by 2022, Ravish Malhotra points out “it certainly would be a very tight schedule in case the astronauts need to be trained at our own facility.”

“The facility needs to be set up, training procedures need to be finalised and last but not the least, candidate selection requires to be done,” he says.

All-in-all, it looks to be a tough four years ahead for ISRO.