The son of a farmer in Tamil Nadu, Sivan has risen up the ranks to head the country’s apex space agency

There is a lot of din and clutter at Antariksh Bhavan – the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bangalore — which is in the midst of a major renovation work. Its chairman, K Sivan, 61, operates out of a makeshift spartan cabin these days as his office is getting renovated. The son of a farmer in Tamil Nadu, Sivan has risen up the ranks to head the country’s apex space agency. The prime minister’s August 15 announcement that India will undertake human space flight by 2022 has thrust both Sivan and the ISRO into the limelight, he admits. The organisation, with 17,000 employees of which 12,000 are scientists, is gearing up for the mission.

Sivan speaks to ET about the ambitious mission and what India will gain from it. Edited excerpts:

On The Importance of A Human Space Mission

The mission is not just about sending a man to space. It will provide us opportunities to explore new technologies. New science will emerge out of it. It will enhance our scientific and technological capabilities. It will be an inspiring new national project, which will not be confined to just the ISRO but will include other institutions also, including industry.

On The New Capabilities This Project Will Help Build 

This project will have many parts. Astronaut training is one. Some institutions will have to build capabilities on how to recover the astronauts safely from the sea, where they will land. We need to learn many things — like how to build a habitat module (in which astronauts will live and work), life support systems, space suits. It is not just an engineering pursuit but a big science project with a strong technological and biological component to it. This will be a national project that every Indian and India will feel proud about.

On The Technological Spin-Offs Of Such Projects 

Most such projects bring in many technological spin-offs that one does not realise in the beginning. We developed lithium ion battery for our rockets and spacecraft. Now it is finding very good application in electric vehicles. We developed fire-resistant chemicals. They are critical — the chemicals protect the space vehicle from getting engulfed by fire, making it a fire-retardant vehicle. Such chemicals will be useful in the petroleum industry, safeguarding workers from the fire. A human space programme will involve many such technologies that will take our scientists to the next level. 

On The Critical Steps To Be Taken For A Human Mission In 2022

Before sending humans to space, we will undertake two missions without humans. These two missions will be very important and will offer us a lot of learning. We hope to undertake the two missions by 2020, and they will be six months apart. To keep humans safe inside the spaceship, environment control systems are being developed. We have already tested the crew escape system. The spaceship will see a lot of impact from micro-meteorites. We will have to develop systems that will protect it from this impact.

On The Prime Minister’s Surprise Announcement

We were expecting the announcement to come someday. But it getting announced on August 15 was a big surprise.

On The Project Execution And The Cost Involved

I am confident that the project cost will be under `10,000 crore. We are now putting together a project management team. The system and the team leader have not been finalised. At this stage, it is very difficult to say how many people will be part of the project. But everybody here will contribute to make it a success. 

On The Challenges Ahead

We have already crossed many milestones and surpassed many challenges. We have been working on the research and development and many difficult stages, like crew escape system, have already been crossed. We are not anticipating any further challenges. The question is now of good and smooth execution.

On The Role of Industry & Scope For Global Collaboration

Industry will have a lot of scope for participation, especially in building infrastructure like control centre, launch pad, etc. We see them playing an important role in many technologies that will go into the module. We have had a few discussions around global collaborations, but nothing has been finalised. Everything that is required can be done by ourselves. But we also have to reduce the time and cost of development. We are still exploring this. And this is not limited to just the US, Russia and China (the only three countries that have sent human space missions so far).

On Plans For A Space TV Channel And Other Outreach Programs

We want to improve our outreach capacity to build lot of enthusiasm around our space mission. We want to create a month-long training programme for children to come to our labs and learn about our space missions. We also want to launch ISRO TV, which will not be focused just on space but science at large. It will be available in local languages. The attempt will be to inculcate scientific temper in the country. These plans are still in the works and details have to be worked out. But we hope these to be ready early next year.