At a time when India is yet to master the expertise required to ensure human viability on its missions, a space station could be a futile exercise without a human crew on board

At a time when India is preparing for one of its most ambitious projects, the manned space mission Gaganyaan, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has stunned the global scientific community by announcing plans to set up a separate space station over the next five to seven years. This will be separate from the International Space Station (ISS) already orbiting the Earth, said ISRO chairman K. Sivan. A much smaller module, ISRO’s station would be stationed in a low-earth orbit at an altitude of 400 km above the earth’s surface. This is indeed a big announcement, one that comes only a day after the space agency declared the date for the launch of its other challenging mission, Chandrayaan-2. The second lunar mission is set for launch on July 15 and unlike the first mission in 2008, it has set a much more daunting objective—to attempt a soft landing on the moon.

The stakes are high as Israel recently failed attempting its first landing on the moon. It is the most difficult task ISRO has ever undertaken, Sivan said on Thursday.

So what then led the agency to set a grand target for a space station of its own, when it is cautiously edging closer to fulfilling two of its biggest missions in space history? Government scientists argue that it is the next step to the human space flight mission. If India is to sustain its manned missions, it needs a space station, is the argument. Micro-gravity in space has captivated scientists for decades, and its understanding is clearly important to keep our astronauts safe in space. It is the next big step, and understandably so. Considering how India has recently notched up several firsts through its space missions in the recent past, the scientific community feels it has it to take on the challenge.

Policymakers argue that if India does not start now, it might miss the bus. The results of research conducted now would start trickling in after decades. Any delay may give other countries an advantage, considering the existing ISS is set to retire by 2028. China is all set to get ready its space station in 2022, two decades after it put its first astronaut into space in 2003. But why does India need to be part of this particular space race, and such a huge exercise? Russia, the first to build the world’s crewed space station, had failed in its first two attempts. It took nearly 15 years for the country to fulfil its space ambition when it launched Salyut-1 in 1971, but even then it lost three of its crew member on re-entry. The ISS itself took over 10 years to be built, as scientists and engineers from five space agencies representing 15 countries carried out 40 mission flights to assemble it.

Clearly, there are risks involved. While ISRO has proved its mettle through its historic space missions, it is has not yet mastered the expertise required to ensure human viability on its missions. And a space station could be a futile exercise without a human crew on board.

The cost of the project in ISRO’s pipeline is yet to be estimated. Out of the total budget of ₹9,918 crore allocated to the agency for 2018-19, a major chunk is spent on carrying out missions for space technology, then for space applications that are used by the INSAT satellite system. The existing ISS cost nearly $150 billion and remains the most expensive space set-up ever built. So should India spend more on application-based space technology to improve the lives of its 1.32 billion people or eye a giant leap into space by putting humans into space? The existing ISS, orbiting Earth since 1998, is a multinational collaborative project involving the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 member states of the European Space Agency. If India hopes to take forward the mission, it would be wiser to bring other South Asian countries on board to further international cooperation in space and arrange the necessary resources.