ISRO is developing the technologies necessary for an indigenous human spaceflight programme

Kiran Kumar said Isro’s immediate priority is to meet the basic needs of communication, navigation and remote sensing.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) facility at Sriharikota is in a flurry of activity as the Indian space agency gears up for the maiden launch of its heaviest rocket yet, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk III). The rocket has been thoroughly tested, and the launch delayed to make sure that the mission will succeed. The most notable aspect of the mission is that the rocket will use an indigenously developed cryogenic engine.

ISRO chairman AS Kiran Kumar confirmed that the GSLV rocket is the most likely candidate to take Indians into space. "In principle, it will be the GSLV Mk-3 or its variant that will be human rated in future," Kumar said. ISRO has plans for a mission carrying a crew of two to three members, but the mission is pending approval from the Government. The expected cost of the mission is expected to be between 3 and 4 billion US dollars. ISRO has also indicated the possibility that the first Indian to go to space on an Indian launch vehicle could be a woman.

Kiran Kumar said ISRO’s immediate priority is to meet the basic needs of communication, navigation and remote sensing. "First, we have to ensure all this is done adequately, there itself, we are trying to push the envelope and then (we have to undertake) more frequent launches so that we provide the requisite number of satellites in orbit for meeting all these requirements,” he said. "So, that is still happening, not yet happened. That will remain the bigger priority," he said. According to him, work towards such a mission would continue. "As and when the approval etc. comes, then we will take it up in a bigger way. At this point, priority is not that," Kiran Kumar said.

The crew module. Image: ISRO.

The crew module. Image: ISRO.

Even though a mission has not been sanctioned, ISRO is working on the technologies needed to support manned spaceflight. In April, Kumar had said, "We need to get the approval for that programme, till that comes we are working on some critical technologies, like environmentally-controlled laboratory, flight suit. We have also done some re-entry experiment. Certain technology elements we will continue to develop until the country is ready for taking up this as a full-fledged programme. For this (the human space flight programme), the requisite priority has to be there, funding has to be there, then only activities will happen."

The technologies necessary for human space flight are being developed as part of pre-project activities of a Manned Space Programme, with a budget of Rs 145 crore. On 18 December, 2014, ISRO sucessfully tested a crew module with a GSLV MkIII flight. The re-entry characteristics and the recovery of the crew module was successfully demonstrated. Other major initiatives identified as part of the pre-project includes an Environmental Control & Life Support System (ECLSS), a Crew Escape System (CES), and a flight suit for the Brahmanauts.  The ECLSS and CES are expected to be completed by 2017.

The GSLV-F05 launch. The GLSV MK III is similar, but with an Indian made cryogneic stage. Image: Isro.

The GSLV-F05 launch. The GLSV MK III is similar, but with an Indian made cryogneic stage. Image: ISRO.

ISRO is developing the capabilities for building capacity for the future. From 2014, ISRO has not taken the help of any other country or space agency for developing the capabilities related to human spaceflight. While ISRO has concrete plans for Chandrayaan-2, a mission to the Moon that includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover, the agency has confirmed that there are no concrete plans for a manned Indian mission to the Moon.

A question posed in the Lok Sabha in 2015 asked if ISRO was working on a manned spaceflight mission, and if the space agency had plans for building a space station. The PMO replied that "Indian Space Research Organization does not have a plan for manned space mission in the immediate future. However, ISRO is working on few enabling technologies like space suit, environment controlled crew module etc." At that time it was noted that India is not working on building a space station, as it was not a priority at the present.

The rough outline for the first manned mission by India has remained the same, since it emerged from a discussion of eminent scientists in 2006. A crew module on a GSLV variant would take two to three Indians into a 400 km high Low Earth Orbit. After spending two to seven days in space, the crew would return to Earth. Development of indigenous life support systems is one of the key aspects of the mission. The mission could also test capabilities for docking with a space station, aborting the mission in case of an emergency, an external robotic manipulator, and provision for extra vehicular activity.

The RLV-TD, is a first step in developing India's Space Shuttle

The RLV-TD, is a first step in developing India's Space Shuttle

So far, the planning commission was releasing details of five year plans of the space agency, with an outline of all the important missions. The eleventh five year plan was released in 2007, and the twelfth was released in 2012. The period covered by the plans end in 2017. While the eleventh five year plan gave some importance to manned missions and identified a manned mission as being important for a number of reasons. At that time, there were plans for a manned mission by 2020, including a space station. However, the 12th plan took a step back from manned spaceflight, and focused instead on a number of satellite related technologies, including commercial launches, an Indian GPS system, increasing the number of transponders for communication, and deploying more earth observation satellites.

Former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair had indicated that the priorities of ISRO were not right after the successful launch of the Mangalyaan mission. According to Nair, ISRO was better off focusing on a manned mission. "My personal opinion is: this (Mars mission) is not a big priority project for us. We should have concentrated more on qualifying the cryogenic engine (for GSLV-Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) and make our manned mission initiative move forward," Nair said.

With inputs from PTI

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