Given its immense importance and far-reaching impact, the final timeline for the country’s first human space mission will be announced only after ensuring all specifications for crew and mission safety are met

The final date for India’s maiden human space mission, Gaganyaan, will be firmed up only after the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is convinced that all the required parameters to ensure crew and mission safety are well in place, the chief of the country’s nodal space agency has said.

“Gaganyaan is a technology-intensive programme in which we have to work on launch vehicles, we have to work on the human craft, we have to work on environmental control and life support systems and we have to look at how machines that astronauts’ interface with are created. We have to test them very seriously and successfully every step of the way,” chairperson ISRO, also the chairperson of the Space Commission, S Somnath has told Business Today exclusively in New Delhi.

As a result, Somnath indicated the final timeline may get a bit stretched. The project was announced by prime minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech in August 2018 and Rs 10,000 crore ($1.5 billion) was sanctioned for the purpose. The week-long spaceflight was initially planned for 2021 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of India attaining independence.

However, the programme got delayed due largely to Covid-19 induced lockdowns. The spaceflight will now be launched in 2023, minister of state for the Department of Space, Jitendra Singh had told Rajya Sabha in December.

“As of today, it is not something that has to be done by tomorrow. That kind of hype is not there. We would like to execute the mission in a highly systematic manner,” remarked Somnath.

Somnath was in the national capital to receive the All India Management Association’s (AIMA) outstanding public sector unit (PSU) award for ISRO.

Leaving Nothing To Chance

To make the programme successful, ISRO has identified a series of major tests, with a special focus on ensuring crew safety. This includes returning the crew successfully back to Earth in case of a technical glitch under multiple conditions.

Human space missions involve an amalgamation of several technologies and intense coordination between different teams to significantly reduce the margin of error. The history of space travel has revealed that challenges can unexpectedly arise anytime from the lift-off to the injection stage.

For instance, if there is an emergency when Gaganyaan is over the Americas, it should be possible to safely land the crew in a nearby subscene for evacuation. All these things require a substantive amount of collaborative effort.

“Just imagine if we have a catastrophe in the very first mission, what will be its impact on the entire program? I don’t think it will then ever progress from beyond that point,” said a cautious Somnath.

“Before finally undertaking this mission, we would like to do a sufficient number of stimulation flights with unmanned crew modules under different conditions. We need to create much more than what we already have. We today have the rocket and the spacecraft, but they have to be made human-rated,” he added.

This would involve ensuring machines’ ability to handle contingencies more effectively. ISRO also needs to ensure that the astronauts in the space module can travel comfortably in a shirtsleeve environment. At the time of the re-entry of the module into the Earth’s atmosphere, the astronauts will need to be safely brought back from any part of the globe.

ISRO has finished with the human rating of the rocket, while the module that will transport the crew into outer space is in the works. The unidentified four Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilots handpicked as potential Gaganyaan crew returned to India after completing basic astronaut training in Russia last year. They are currently undergoing mission-specific training in multiple locations within the country.

A successful mission would propel India into the elite club of nations capable of conducting independent spaceflights after Russia, the US and China. It will also allow India to significantly expand its share in the global commercial space sector from the present $7 billion to $50 billion by 2024.