A year and a half from now, India will attempt the historic feat of launching one of its citizens into space. More than 35 years have elapsed since April 02, 1984, when Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, a serving fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF), was launched into space on board the Soyuz T-11 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a spaceport in Southern Kazakhstan in the erstwhile Soviet Union (now Russia). Rakesh Sharma spent a week aboard Salyut 7, a Soviet space station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), thus becoming the first and the only Indian citizen to foray into space. However, next year’s launch will mark the first human spaceflight mission conducted by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
ISRO has been keen on sending an Indian citizen into space since 2006, when it held a national conference on the subject. It claimed it could perform such a mission within eight years if given the go-ahead and adequate funding. However, successive governments in India have been ambiguous about the goal – allotting some money to enable ISRO to continue investigating the technologies and concepts essential for the mission, but not according formal approval to the proposal of a manned space mission. However, on the occasion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address to the nation in 2018, things changed. The Prime Minister declared that by 2022, “some of our young boys and girls will unfurl the Tricolour in space”. His announcement gave the human spaceflight programme a sudden welcome impetus.
A few months later, on December 29, 2018, the Union Cabinet approved the Gaganyaan programme with a budget of Rs 10,000 crore. Gaganyaan has the aim of demonstrating Indian human spaceflight capability to LEO with a mission duration ranging from one orbital period to a maximum of seven days. The stipulated deadline, as earlier announced by the Prime Minister, is August 15, 2022, being the 75th anniversary of Indian independence.
Value for Money
ISRO till now has been involved solely in unmanned missions. It has earned its reputation of being the world’s leading “value for money” space agency thanks to its unmanned workhorse – the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The PSLV was ISRO’s first operational launch vehicle, capable of deploying a 1,600-kg satellite in a 620-km sun-synchronous polar orbit or a 1,050-kg satellite in Geo-synchronous or Geo-stationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The PSLV can claim the credit for some of ISRO’s most spectacular triumphs including the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and the Chandrayaan-1 mission, India’s first lunar probe. On December 11, 2019, the PSLV completed its 50th flight with the successful launch of ten satellites.
Despite the limited notice of 48 months, ISRO is confident of meeting the human spaceflight target. It has stated that it intends first to launch two unmanned proving missions – one in December 2020 and the other in June 2021. They will be followed by the manned mission, planned for December 2021, several months ahead of the deadline. However, this year’s COVID-19 crisis may have introduced an element of doubt about this timeframe.
According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international record-keeping body, the term ‘spaceflight’ applies to flights that transit beyond the Kármán line. The Kármán line is an imaginary boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, 100km above sea level.
The world’s first human spaceflight was by Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961. His Vostok 1 spacecraft completed just one LEO before it was brought back to the Earth safely. Within weeks, he was followed by Alan Shepard of the United States on May 05, 1961. However, Shepard’s Freedom 7 spacecraft only reached an altitude of 187 km and did not complete a full orbit before returning to the Earth 15 minutes after lift-off. On October 15, 2003, Yang Liwei of China was launched into space in the Shenzhou spacecraft and completed 14 orbits of the Earth. China thus became only the third country in the world to achieve human spaceflight capability. ISRO hopes to make India the fourth.
Following the Prime Minister’s address of August 2018, ISRO has been in mission mode. Its situation is similar to that in which the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was, following President John Kennedy’s dramatic announcement before a joint session of the US Congress on May 25, 1961, of America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. ISRO too has been given a specific mission and a clear deadline. So what are its plans?
GSLV – the Big Guy
A major advantage ISRO has is that it already possesses a rocket large and powerful enough to launch the human spaceflight mission – the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV Mk I is an expendable launch system that first flew on April 18, 2001, and was later upgraded to the Mk II variant. These two variants were used for a total of thirteen launches between 2001 and 2018. Although some of the early launches were failures, ISRO has tasted consistent success in the last five missions between 2014 and 2018.
The similarly named GSLV Mk III is actually an entirely different launcher with twice the lifting capability of the GSLV Mk II. It is a three-stage launch vehicle with two solid strap-on boosters, a core liquid booster, and a cryogenic upper stage. It was designed to launch a four-tonne satellite into Geo-synchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) or about ten tonnes to LEO. Apart from communications satellites, the GSLV Mk III launched the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on its mission to the far side of the Moon. It will be the launch vehicle for the Indian human spaceflight programme.
The GSLV Mk III first flew on December 18, 2014, and has carried out a total of four missions, all successful. However, these were unmanned flights. Most crucially, the rocket now needs to be human rated, that is, certified as capable of safely transporting a human being into space. It implies that all systems of the rocket and its Gaganyaan capsule must be robust with numerous backups and redundancies so as to ensure a near-zero predicted failure rate.
The two missions ISRO plans to build and launch before the manned mission are expected to validate the human rating of the GSLV Mk III. To this end, the second mission in June 2021 will carry onboard a humanoid robot named Vyommitra that will mimic a human crewmember’s reaction to space travel. Technologists will, therefore, be able to test the crew capsule and its life support systems as realistically as possible without endangering human life. The unmanned missions will operate at a distance of 300 to 400 km from the Earth and remain in orbit for about seven days each.
Four potential astronauts – all male IAF test pilots – commenced their basic training course at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia in February 2020. The course will last up to 15 months and includes biomedical training, physical toning up including winter and sea survival training and a study of spacecraft systems. The four will also be given an experience of short-term ‘weightlessness’ on an Il-76MDK aircraft. Once they return to India, they will receive module-specific training.
It is, however, likely that only one of the four will be launched on the first Gaganyaan mission. Space missions still have a significant element of risk and since the first crewed launch is merely to demonstrate a capability, it makes no sense to risk the life of more than one human being. A single astronaut for the mission would follow the trend established by the Soviet Union, the United States and China where the first manned space mission consisted of only one astronaut.
Gaganyaan at a Glance
The Gaganyaan spacecraft is being developed by ISRO and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It consists of a service module and a crew module, together known as an orbital module. The orbital module’s volume is eight cubic metres (diameter 3.5 m and height 3.58 m). Its dry mass is 3,735 kg and its launch mass is expected to be around 7,800 kg. The service module is powered by two liquid propellant engines. The crew module is large enough to accommodate up to three crew members.
The orbital module has already undergone an un-crewed experimental flight on December 18, 2014. It has necessary life support and environmental control systems for one or more human beings. Only the space testing process is left. In the event of a catastrophic emergency during the first or second stage of the GSLV rocket burn, the newly designed Crew Escape System will provide the astronauts the ability to exit their stricken spacecraft and return safely to Earth.
Making Haste Slowly
ISRO is unfazed by the limited notice it got to execute this complex mission because, over the years, it has been developing and testing several different parts of the whole system. For instance, on July 05, 2018, it successfully carried out the first of a series of tests of the Crew Escape System. This test demonstrated the safe recovery of the crew module in case of an emergency at the launch pad. Earlier, on December 18, 2014, ISRO carried out the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) that validated the re-entry technologies envisaged for the crew module, including the performance of the parachute-based deceleration system till a safe splashdown. ISRO also plans to deploy a pair of space communication satellites together called the Indian Data Relay Satellite System (IDRSS) in geo-stationary orbit during 2020-2021. The IDRSS will ensure reliable communication between the astronauts and ground mission control throughout human space missions.
Various Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) laboratories are simultaneously working on other essentials for the flight. The Defence Bio-Engineering & Electro Medical Laboratory (DEBEL) is making the space suits and designing an emergency survival kit, which the astronauts will require in case of a delayed recovery after they return to the Earth. Even the menu for the astronauts is being carefully designed by DRDO’s Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) in Mysore. And every item that will be on the manned Gaganyaan flight will first be tested for functionality and quality in space conditions during the two unmanned flights.
The Final Countdown
On D-Day, at the designated time, the Gaganyaan orbital module with its human crew will be launched into space from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh by the GSLV Mk III rocket. The module will take just 16 minutes after lift-off to reach the intended LEO position of 300 to 400 km. After its planned flight duration of between one orbit and seven days, it will commence a longer and slower return journey, followed by re-entry and splashdown perhaps in the Arabian Sea. The crew module will be equipped with three sets of two parachutes each that will open in pairs to reduce the rate of descent to the desired value. Although one parachute in each set is sufficient for safe recovery, the other is provided for redundancy. First, a set of two small pilot parachutes will open and extract the larger drogue or central parachutes. And lastly, it will be the turn of the massive 31-metre diameter main parachutes to arrest the rate of descent. The parachutes are expected to reduce the speed of the crew module from about 216 m/s to less than 11 m/s at splashdown.
Then, if all goes well, the nation will rightfully celebrate the first successful space launch of an Indian citizen onboard an Indian spacecraft.
Space Station Bharat
From a technological point of view, the Gaganyaan mission is just the first step and of limited significance. It will simply prove that ISRO has the capability to conduct human spaceflight. But what happens next is more important. A parallel could be drawn with the Pokhran-II nuclear test explosions of May 1998 that demonstrated India’s capability to build fission and thermo-nuclear weapons with yields of up to 200 kilotonne. The tests became strategically significant only when India subsequently built a sizeable nuclear weapons arsenal and a variety of compatible delivery systems.
The logical follow-up programme of the Gaganyaan mission, therefore, will be a home-grown space station, capable of harbouring a crew for 15 to 20 days at a stretch. Over the years, several space stations have been deployed by the US, Russia and China, but the International Space Station (ISS) is currently the only one that is operational. It is slated to be decommissioned by 2030. For its part, China has commenced the third phase of its Tiangong manned space station programme, scheduled to be completed by 2022. It is expected to have an orbital lifetime of over ten years and a capacity of three to six astronauts at a time.
On June 13, 2019, Dr K Sivan, Chairman, ISRO, made it clear that India would not join the ISS and would rather build its own space station. He stated that India’s space station will be deployed in five to seven years after the Gaganyaan project. The station is expected to have a capacity of up to three persons and will be placed in LEO of 400km altitude, similar to the Gaganyaan mission. The programme would need sanction by the Indian government and this is expected only after the successful completion of the Gaganyaan mission.
An important requirement for building the space station would be a more powerful launch vehicle capable of lifting larger payloads. However, designing and producing a new rocket in the envisaged timeframe is out of the question. The only feasible option would be to upgrade the GSLV Mk III launcher to the extent possible.
Another prerequisite is that ISRO needs to master space rendezvous and docking technology. The agency has already been working on it for some years. Rendezvous requires a precise match of the orbital velocities and position vectors of the two spacecraft, allowing them to remain at a constant distance. It is then followed by docking which brings the two spacecraft gently into physical contact so they can then be coupled together into one larger structure. Space docking is essential to permit transfer of humans from one spacecraft to another and to refuel and replenish the space station.
ISRO plans to conduct a space rendezvous and docking experiment called Spadex later this year. Two experimental modules will be launched by a PSLV and made to dock with each other in space. For the space station, the Gaganyaan capsule will itself be upgraded with rendezvous and docking capability.
It is likely that the Indian space station project will have a limited objective of mastering the necessary technologies and demonstrating the capability. It will serve only for short duration habitation, extending up to a month or so. At present, India’s astronauts can only be trained abroad. However, ISRO has proposed an outlay of Rs 2,700 crore to establish an astronaut training centre at Challakere in Chitradurga district of Karnataka. This would need two or three years to be set up once formal approval is accorded.
ISRO will also attempt some exciting unmanned exploratory missions over the next few years. The first of these will be the Aditya-L1, India’s first solar mission, in 2020 itself. In 2023, ISRO hopes to launch its Shukrayaan-1 orbiter mission to study the dense, hot atmosphere of Venus and its surface. The next mission, possibly in 2024, will be Mangalyaan-2, intended to study the red planet’s surface, morphology, mineralogy and atmosphere. Before that, there is the Chandrayaan-3 lunar exploratory mission likely in 2021. Chandrayaan-3 will be very similar to the partially successful Chandrayaan-2 mission. However, it will only have a lander and a rover without an orbiter.
Considering the number of ISRO’s future missions, the fact that it has only two functional launchpads at Sriharikota, home of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, could be a bottleneck. Although the second launchpad will be used by Gaganyaan, it will first be suitably augmented for human spaceflight missions. ISRO has therefore begun preparatory works for setting up a third launchpad in the coastal hamlet of Kulashekhrapattinam in the Thuthukudi district of Tamil Nadu. ISRO is also trying to acquire new technologies and techniques to keep abreast of the rest of the world.
A Walk on the Moon
Only twelve human beings, all American men, have landed on the Moon’s surface and since 1972, no astronaut has reached the Moon. However, NASA is currently building and testing a new launcher and capsule for its Artemis mission, scheduled to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. It is the first part of a plan to set up a long-term lunar colony. Russia too would probably have attempted to land a cosmonaut on the Moon had it succeeded in developing the capability. China certainly intends to do so and is moving relentlessly towards that goal. And it has long been one of ISRO’s dreams, if not a formal target, that an Indian should walk on the lunar surface too.
However, ISRO and the country’s top leadership will need to carefully consider the cost-benefit ratio before deciding whether or not to go ahead. A mission date in the 2030s may be technologically feasible. But first, ISRO needs to prove its ability to safely land an unmanned module on the Moon. The Chandrayaan-2 mission came agonisingly close to doing so, but ultimately failed. ISRO will be hoping that Chandrayaan-3 fares better. Unless ISRO can demonstrate a credible lunar soft landing capability, a manned mission to the Moon must remain just a dream.
Some believe that in view of the spectacular progress in Artificial Intelligence and robotics, the need for human spaceflight is becoming less compelling. But all said and done, it does demonstrate a capability and is, therefore, a matter of national pride. The entire country will be hoping for a successful human spaceflight mission in December 2021. And if it succeeds, Gaganyaan will probably be only the first of many human spaceflight missions planned and conducted by ISRO.