Four astronauts selected for India’s first human spaceflight will start their mission-specific training in India by May or June, the government said on Thursday, with the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots almost at the end of their generic space training in Russia

In his August 15 speech in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would send a human mission, Gaganyaan, to space in the 75th year of Independence. With the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the mission is likely to get delayed.

“Due to Covid pandemic and subsequent budgetary guidelines, programmatic milestones of Gaganyaan Programme are reassessed and are as follows; First unmanned flight: December 2021 Second unmanned flight: 2022-23 Manned flight: After successful completion of the above two flights. ISRO is making all efforts to make up the schedule delays due to Covid,” minister of state for department of space Jitendra Singh said in a reply in the Lok Sabha.

Currently, the astronauts are undergoing generic space training such as survival in snow, water and steppe, parabolic flight, orbital mechanics and Astro-Navigation at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia.

For the India leg of the training, the astronauts will be familiarised with India’s crew module and systems. The training will include the simulators of India’s crew module and flight hardware and software, Unnikrishnan Nair, director, Human Spaceflight Centre, has said.

An expert team has been constituted to define the training curriculum. It will include training in at least three types of simulators. The independent training simulator will familiarise the crew with the electrical and mechanical user interface and train them in “off-nominal” conditions. The crew module mock-up training simulator will train them in procedures within the crew module, where the three member crew would be seated. The mission simulator will train them in flight hardware and software.

“Once they are back from Russia, they will then receive specific training in India for which the simulators have been defined. These are the areas where the industry will be contributing in a rich way to realise the simulators. Each one is more and more complex in terms of the training imparted to the astronauts,” Nair said.

In Russia, the astronauts received a 12-month training on Astro-Navigation, extra-vehicular activity, heat tolerance, how to adjust with depressurisation and working in depressurised modules and gravitational tolerance. They are also being trained for abnormal descent in winter, water, and steppe conditions.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is in the process of human-rating its systems to ensure that there are enough redundancies to make the rockets safe for crew members. An inter-agency certification board has been constituted for providing human-rating certification for the mission, according to the Lok Sabha reply by the government.

The space agency has already tested the liquid-fuel Vikas engine and the cryogenic engine to be used for the mission. The solid booster engine and the crew escape system will be tested by the space agency this year, the government said. The fabrication of hardware for the ground test as well as the unmanned mission is at an advanced stage. A national-level Gaganyaan Advisory Council has been constituted for planning and coordination for the mission, according to the government.

The Indian Navy has been identified as the lead agency for recovery operations such as getting the crew back after they return to Earth, it said.

The pandemic has also delayed other big-ticket missions that ISRO planned for the year, including India’s first solar mission – Aditya-L1 – scheduled for mid-2020. Apart from the solar mission, ISRO was to also send a lander-rover mission to moon either by 2020-end or 2021 beginning.

The agency is yet to set a date for its third mission to the Moon. The government green-lit the third mission soon after the lander-rover of the Chandrayaan 2 mission crashed and lost communication just 2.1km from the surface.