The two uncrewed missions preceding the crewed flight are also yet to take place. They are now expected to launch mid-2024. Preparations for the mission are underway

BANGALORE: Gaganyaan, India’s first human spaceflight mission, seems to be in a state of limbo, following multiple delays due to the pandemic. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is yet to issue a revised timeline of the project, which aims to launch a crew of three astronauts to an orbit of 400 km for three days.

The project was conceived in 2007 and formally approved in 2018 with a budget of Rs 10,000 crore. The first crewed mission was set to be launched in December 2021. Two uncrewed missions, in December 2020 and July 2021, were to be undertaken before the final launch.

Despite the government claiming that there would be no delays due to Covid, the first uncrewed flight was rescheduled from 2020 to 2021 and then again to 2022. The dates were once again revised to late 2023 or early 2024, announced Union minister of state for science and technology Jitendra Singh in September this year.

In the second uncrewed flight, the “female-looking robot” developed by ISRO, Vyommitra, will carry software that will mimic basic metabolic functions and will monitor changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and other such parameters.

This robot was first displayed by ISRO in a 2020 show. Only its upper half was on display, with its back circuitry exposed. The robot was undergoing pre-flight ground tests at the ISRO Inertial Systems Unit in October this year.

Singh said that the first crewed flight will be launched in 2024, three years after the initially announced date.

Then, on 15 November, Singh said that the test flight, without humanoids or crew, will take place only in mid-2024. There is also no confirmed information regarding the number of astronauts that will be on the mission and the duration of it.

The preparations for the mission, though, have been underway— from the Pad Abort Test in 2018 and improvement of the Sriharikota launch pad in 2019 to the latest parachute airdrop test on 19 November.

Meanwhile, the agency has been working on facilitating access to space for private start-ups by helping realise a number of MoUs signed with a group of companies.

India’s first private launchpad was inaugurated by ISRO officials within Sriharikota Monday, while earlier this month, the country’s first private rocket was launched from an ISRO launch pad.

The agency is also working on Chandrayaan-3, which is scheduled to attempt another landing on the lunar south pole In June 2023.

Who Will Fly The Spacecraft?

Twelve male Indian Air Force pilots were shortlisted in 2018 to be part of the crew. They underwent physical and psychological tests at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Bangalore. Four pilots from this crew were then selected to undergo further training in Russia’s Glavkosmos facility in January 2020. The training was completed the same year.

An astronaut training facility was established in Bangalore in May this year. Here, the four astronauts will undergo theoretical training, physical fitness, simulator work, flight suit training, microgravity familiarisation, flight systems training, recovery and survival, flight simulator, aeromedical training, and, according to ISRO, yoga.

In 2020, the then-ISRO chairperson K. Sivan said that although all four shortlisted candidates will go through extensive training procedures, it is likely that only one will fly on the maiden mission. Recent reports say that at least two astronauts will be sent on the mission, while the ISRO website says three.

The duration of the mission is also unclear. The space agency’s website says it will be a three-day mission but news reports say the flight will be in space for five to seven days.

The astronauts’ flight suits will be designed by the Defence Bioengineering and Electromedical Laboratory in Bangalore. Their spacesuits and shock-absorbing seats have been supplied by the Russian maker NPP Zvezda.

Mysore's Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) will provide Indian-cuisine-based foods for the flights.

Gaganyaan’s Structure

To fly humans to space for the first time, ISRO needs to develop mission components such as crew modules, revamp and restructure its ground systems, and improve its launch vehicles. All parts involved in the mission have to be made safe for human flight.

Three sets of launch vehicles and modules will be built as a part of the mission, its testing, and its ultimate launch. Each launch vehicle with its own crew, service, and orbital modules, will be used for the three flights to orbit.

The launch vehicle consists of a liquid core stage with solid propulsion boosters. Above this first stage sits the cryogenic stage, which has been designed in-house by ISRO. Right above the cryogenic stage is the orbital module, which holds the crew module and service module. Above that, making up the tip of the top of the rocket is the crew escape system (CES).

The crew module is the habitable space for crew members. It is a tight structure, at just 3.5m wide and 3.58m tall. The module is surrounded by a thermal protection system as its external layer for safe re-entry through the atmosphere.

It holds the life support system (environmental control, air scrubbers for oxygen, pressure system, food heating equipment, toilets), avionics, and deceleration systems. The service module provides support to the crew module in orbit and contains the thermal, propulsion, and power systems. These modules were developed by Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL), and are designed to also be able to dock with space stations.

Sitting right at the top is the CES, powered by solid motors, which can carry the crew to safety during emergencies. It can operate independently of the rest of the rocket if necessary and was test fired successfully in August.

To Space And Back

The mission will launch on the LVM3 rocket (formerly called GSLV MK-III), which has been fully re-configured. The human-rated version has been re-christened HLVM3.

In January this year, ISRO conducted the qualification test on its cryogenic engine, getting it to burn for 720 seconds at ISRO’s Propulsion Complex (IPRC) in Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu. The human-rated solid rocket booster, which will be used for the crewed flight, also underwent a static test this year.

It will take 16 minutes for the crew to reach space, where they will spend three days carrying out scientific experiments.

The astronauts will go around the earth at an orbit of 400 km. Upon return, the crew module separation will take place at 120 km. It will land by splashing into a waterbody near India, 36 minutes after the separation.

The flight’s descent is controlled by ten parachutes. When the descent sequence begins, the two apex cover separation parachutes will be deployed, which will remove the protective covers from the crew module parachute compartment.

Then two drogue parachutes will be deployed to drastically slow down the craft. This will be followed by three pilot chutes that will immediately give way to the three main individual chutes. These will land the crew module to safety.

The Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment began in 2014 and the last test was conducted on 19 November. Two 31 km-wide parachutes, the largest ever made in India by Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment, are two of the ten parachutes that control the flight’s descent.