The grand ambition of sending a manned mission into space by 2022 has spin-off benefits far beyond the bragging rights that will accrue to the fourth space superpower

by Raj Chengappa

Rakesh Sharma was in his cottage in the Nilgiri Hills, in Tamil Nadu's idyllic Coonoor hill station, watching the telecast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He sat up and cheered when Modi said, "We have a dream, our scientists have a dream. We have resolved that by 2022, when India celebrates 75 years of Independence, or maybe even before that, certainly some of our young boys and girls will unfurl the tricolour in space I feel proud to announce that very soon, as part of our manned space mission, we will be sending an Indian into space. This will be pursued by our esteemed scientists, and we will proudly be the fourth such nation to have launched a successful manned space mission."

Sharma's record of being the first and only Indian to travel in space- when he orbited the Earth for a week aboard a Soviet spacecraft in April 1984-is soon likely to be broken. But he feels both relieved and elated. As he puts it: "It was an immense relief to hear the prime minister. I have been waiting an announcement of this kind for 34 years because we have not had a manned space programme since I went up. I am extremely thrilled that it has finally happened." Does it bother him that he is soon likely to be upstaged? "No, not at all," he says promptly (see Our First Man). "The more the merrier."

In Bangalore, at the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and at space centres dotted across the country, there was a spontaneous outbreak of joy at the prime minister's announcement. Since 2006, when ISRO formally submitted a proposal for a manned space mission to the central government, its scientists have been eagerly awaiting just such an announcement. As Dr K. Sivan, chairman of ISRO, says, "The prime minister has given us a huge gift. We have been perfecting technology demonstrators all these years for the manned space mission, and this gives us the confidence that we will deliver on the deadline of 2022 that has been set for us." Mission Gaganyaan, as the prime minister has termed it, plans to put three Indians in orbit for a week around the Earth.

Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty

For ISRO, a successful manned space mission will put it in the league of space giants-the US, Russia and China (the most recent entrant into this exclusive club). Since it was established in 1969, ISRO has delivered like few public sector institutions have in the country. Over the decades, it has mastered the sophisticated and complex rocket and satellite technology needed for space-faring nations. Today, it has achieved a degree of mastery over all major rocket types-solid fuelled, liquid fuelled and cryogenic-and has also built some of the heaviest launch vehicles in the world. It can boast of injecting state-of-the-art, made-in-India satellites into orbit for a variety of tasks, including communications, meteorology, navigation and military. In recent years, it has entered the field of space exploration by sending unmanned spacecraft to orbit the Moon and Mars-succeeding in its first missions while keeping costs low. Manned space missions are the next logical step for ISRO, an opportunity to build expertise in the human-space interface-one of the trickiest technologies to master. Sivan believes it will take Indian science and technological advancement to a much higher plane. As he told INDIA TODAY, "This is not just an ISRO project but a national one, as we will require many agencies, institutes and entities to demonstrate their capability and strength to make it a success." (See interview)

Yet, there are sceptics-and rightly so-about the government's motives and thinking in clearing a manned space mission. "Sending Indians into space is the most silly and idiotic idea, especially 50 years after Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon," veteran space scientist V. Siddhartha is said to have told the BBC. His point: robotic missions can now do many things that astronauts do, without the risk involved in sending humans into space. Kiran Karnik, a reputed space and information technology expert, is concerned that there is too much rhetoric about prestige and glory. He believes that a manned mission is worthwhile if there is a long-term plan to prepare for humans to escape the devastation caused by catastrophic climate change or a nuclear war or even to shift environmentally harmful industries to the Moon or other parts of the solar system.

Illustration by Nilanjan Das

Meanwhile, multi-billionaire private investors have entered the arena, arguably taking some of the sheen off ISRO's achievements. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin have demonstrated awesome space prowess in a short span of time. SpaceX has bagged an order from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop a capsule to dock with the International Space Station as a replacement for the space shuttle. Tesla CEO Musk has announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and now the wealthiest man in the world, has described Blue Origin's goal as "millions of people living and working in space". His company is readying a rocket called New Shepard, which will have a crew module with large windows offering his astro-tourists magnificent views. And Virgin Galactic is close to validating a sub-orbital launcher that will offer a ride in space for 250,000 dollars.

ISRO's Sivan, though, is unfazed by the dazzle of these private ventures or the criticism from sceptics about India's plans. ISRO, he believes, has already developed a wide range of capabilities that would make the manned mission cost-effective. The current estimate for the mission is Rs 10,000 crore, which is said to be half the cost of funding such a venture internationally. Both the American and Russian governments have again started investing in sending humans into space while the Chinese too have expanded their plans. So it is not as though robots are likely to replace humans soon. Sivan also says that ISRO has progressively farmed out its technology and hardware to India's private industry. In rocket launchers, close to 60 per cent of the parts are manufactured by private aerospace ventures, the figure is 50 per cent for satellites. He believes that the manned space mission will give a boost to the country's industrial growth and spark technological spin-offs that would benefit the public. Importantly, without cutting-edge challenges, ISRO scientists would languish and fall behind in the new-age space race. The manned mission will also inspire our young to take up science in far greater numbers, he says.

So what will it take to put our men and women into space? For one, it needs a large rocket that can lift a capsule weighing the equivalent of five Maruti-Suzuki Ciaz cars. ISRO, in recent years, has perfected its heavy lift launcher, the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III. But while it has been designed to inject large satellites into orbit, the launcher will now have to be human rated. Former ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan points out that when you talk of human space flight, the launcher must have a reliability of 98 per cent or above, or only two failures in a 100 launches. Apart from building redundancy for all its critical parts to make the launcher fail safe, ISRO also has to modify the Mark III launcher to accommodate the crew module. Even the launch pad would have to be modified to allow movement of astronauts (or 'Gaganauts', as they are likely to be called) to the spacecraft.

Particularly critical for ISRO is to develop a crew escape system to prepare for any emergency from the launch phase onwards. After all, the crew would be sitting on over 400 tonnes of highly flammable fuel at launch; if there is a malfunction, they need to eject with lightning speed to a safe distance. This July, ISRO successfully validated such a system when a capsule similar in weight to the manned space orbiter was ejected to a height of 2.7 km at the Sriharikota (SHAR) launchpad and then, using parachutes, floated down for a gentle splashdown. ISRO is also developing special sensors fitted to the rocket control systems that would warn them in advance of a failure and command the crew module to eject from the launcher. The reliability of such a system has to be as high as to allow a failure rate of only one in 500 launches.

The biggest challenge for ISRO will be developing the orbital module and training the humans who will man it under extreme conditions. The orbital module is divided into two systems: a crew module that houses the astronauts, and a service module that maintains the speed and orientation of the spacecraft using rocket motors apart from the power supply generated from solar sails. In the crew module, the major challenge is to maintain the internal environment so as to make it comfortable for the three astronauts during their week-long sojourn in space. That will require the temperature to be maintained at a pleasant 20 degrees centigrade even when the outside temperature is minus 60 degrees or even colder. Also to regulate the atmospheric pressure as it hurtles at speeds of 7 km per second in orbit at a height of 400 km above Earth. Scientists will have to find space to store food and water in the capsule, apart from managing human waste-a taxing challenge in zero gravity conditions with everything floating around. For the first flight, India may seek help from the Russian or American space agencies who have expertise in the management of manned space flights.

On the return journey, the service module housing the motors will be used to slow the speed of the orbiter, correct its angle of descent before detaching itself from the crew module. The most critical part is when the crew module has to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere when it is likely to experience temperatures of around 1,000 degrees centigrade or the boiling point of steel. ISRO scientists mastered the re-entry technology to keep the astronauts cool and safe when they carried out a Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) in December 2014. A mock crew module was sent up using a GSLV rocket and was made to experience both the high temperature and g-forces it would encounter on its descent. Its surface was coated with ablative carbon composite tiles that enabled it to withstand the extreme temperatures and splash down in the Bay of Bengal without damage. Space scientists had already perfected the capsule recovery experiment in 2007 in which parachutes would open to slow it down to a safe velocity for a sea landing. They tested the recovery capability in the CARE experiment too. In the next two years, they will work on upgrading the re-entry and recovery system.

Of course, the biggest task of all will be selecting and training astronauts to handle the rigours of a sojourn in space. Choosing Indian Air Force pilots like Rakesh Sharma is an obvious option. But Sivan says that ISRO will cast a wide net. Some 500 candidates are likely to be shortlisted before they are narrowed down to 10 members or so who will be trained. The training will involve handling the g-forces they are likely to experience at the launch and on their return journey and also operating in zero gravity conditions. India does not have facilities for such rigorous and focused training, such as centrifuges to experience g-forces and aircraft to simulate zero gravity conditions. It will take a couple of years to acquire these. Sivan has indicated that for the first manned flight, ISRO may enlist the help of a foreign country to train the astronauts. When it comes to food, India's defence laboratories which had prepared meals for Sharma's flight are ready to serve an improved menu with a distinctive Indian flavour.

With human lives at stake as well as the country's prestige, ISRO is working towards making India's first manned mission risk-free. They are aware of the fatalities that have taken place in space. Even the US has had several major accidents that have killed astronauts, including Kalpana Chawla, when the space shuttle she was flying in with six other crew members blew up on its return journey in 2003. So, before it actually launches our astronauts into space, ISRO will conduct two unmanned missions as dress rehearsals to validate all the critical technologies. The plan is to launch the first Indian manned mission in December 2021.

Every astronaut has their own special experience to share. If all goes well, three Indian astronauts will have more stories to tell. In her first flight in space, Kalpana Chawla recalls that her defining moment was "the sunrise and sunset that happen every two hours. It is almost as if everything is in fast forward. It is totally dark. Then dark to violet, to orange and red and then it's sunrise. And then sunset again soon with a moon whose crescent is razor sharp and the colour dusty silvery. Gosh, I enjoyed every moment there." Sunita Williams recalls how on her first space walk she had to climb to the top of the space station which is pretty high. "I could not get over the feeling that I might fall," she said. "I had to stop myself and say, up here you don't fall, you just float next to it." Rakesh Sharma's advice to those who are about to break his record: enjoy the ride while it lasts.