The first Indian manned spaceflight mission was approved by the Union Cabinet in December 2018. It envisages sending three astronauts into space in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for up to seven days and bring them back to Earth. For the first time India will launch its manned mission to space, making the country fourth in line to have sent a human into space after USSR (now Russia), the USA and China. The purpose of the mission is to enable Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to achieve higher levels of reliability in launch and satellite technology. A number of national scientific institutions and private industrial houses would help ISRO in undertaking this ambitious mission.
The history of India’s unmanned mission starts with the launch of the first sounding rocket from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in November 1963, even before ISRO started. The first Indian spacecraft ‘Aryabhatta’ was developed and launched in 1975, which was used to conduct experiments in X-ray astronomy, aeronomics and solar physics. It remained in orbit for 16 years. Another major landmark was the launch of the first launch vehicle SLV-3 with a capability of placing satellites weighing up to 40 kg in Low Earth Orbit, which had its first successful fight in 1980. After numerous developments and satellite launches, in 2008 India launched Chandrayaan-1, our first mission to the moon. The lunar orbiter is best known for helping to discover evidence of water molecules on the moon. In 2013, India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft, which is now orbiting Mars and sending back scientific data.
Gaganyaan mission of ISRO, planned for 2022 or earlier, is an indication that there is a marked strategic shift in India’s approach to space. The spacecraft is being developed by ISRO. It consists of service module and crew module, collectively known as the Orbital Module. It will have a diameter of 3 metres and a height of 10 meters. It would weigh about 3.8 tonnes. It will orbit the Earth at about 400 km altitude for up to seven days with three person crew on board. The crewed vehicle is planned to be launched on ISRO’s Mk III, the three-stage heavy-lift launch vehicle in December, 2021, as announced by K Sivan, ISRO Chairman. The plan is to first launch two unmanned missions, in January 2021 and July 2021, to test the launch vehicle and other systems well before the actual manned spaceflight.
The Orbital module would take 16 minutes to reach its orbit. During their period of stay in orbit, the astronauts would carry out a series of experiments, particularly microgravity experiments. After the specified duration in space is over, the descent would take 36 minutes, as care would be taken to avoid the vehicle heating up while heading back to Earth. At 120 km from Earth, the service module would detach, allowing the crew module to prepare for its journey towards Earth. According to the plan, the module will fall into Arabian Sea, but alternative sites are also possible.
Tentatively, the budget for this mission has been pegged at Rs. 10,000 crores, all inclusive. This includes Rs. 173 crores already spent on development of critical technologies for human spaceflight. ISRO will receive assistance from the French space agency (CNES) in terms of expertise in various fields including space medicine, astronaut health monitoring, radiation protection and life support. To put the Gaganyaan mission in perspective, we will briefly review the history of manned spaceflight, ISRO and India’s space programme. The major milestones in manned spaceflight start with the first person who went into space in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin of USSR (now Russia). The first person who orbited the Earth was John Glenn of the USA in February 1962. India sent its first person into space in April 1984. He was Rakesh Sharma of the Indian Air Force. He went into space along with cosmonauts from USSR.
There are a number of benefits accruing to India due to the Gaganyaan project. The first benefit is the collaboration between agencies, both government and private, required for the success of this mission. It will help to develop closer collaboration in future high technology missions. The next benefit would be the training in the use of advanced technologies required for this project, as it would help to undertake more complex missions in the future. Another benefit is that the project would provide employment to an additional 15000 persons, most of them in agencies providing support to ISRO for this project. A future benefit of the successful execution of this project is that it will inspire students to take up science and technology as acareer, which will help India to become a technological powerhouse.
ISRO’s announcement about its manned space mission highlights the progress made by ISRO. It points to the process of maturing of ISRO as a global player in the space arena. ISRO has already launched its Chandrayaan-2 mission on July 22, 2019, and despite the failure of the soft landing module of the mission, the lunar orbiter is well in place orbiting the Moon. It has plans for a Venus mission and Chandrayaan-3 in 2023 and 2024 respectively. It also plans to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle to enable low cost access to space. This will be similar to an aircraft, as it combines the operations of a launch vehicle and an aircraft. ISRO has also planned a solar mission, Aditya-L1, which will be India’s first dedicated scientific mission to study the Sun. ISRO’s human spaceflight mission will thus be another milestone in India’s space journey. Its success will mean that India’s attractiveness will increase as a partner in the commercial sector for satellite launches. It will also boost India’s status in the world in the sphere of science and technology.