Sending Indians to space isn’t a new idea, but Modi has now fast-tracked the project

For its ambitious projects, including the manned flight, ISRO badly needed moral and financial support.

Was Atal Behari Vajpayee terribly interested in sending an Indian to the moon when he was the prime minister?

This is what K Kasturirangan, the then chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) told me in an interview in January 2003: “...The prime minister once asked me if there would be a meaning in sending a man to the moon and, if so, what were the advantages. This is a long-term vision... I can’t say now (when we can do it). What we are doing now could be the building blocks you need if we decide to have a manned mission... He (Vajpayee) is interested in India doing this kind of thing — he thinks big.”

So Narendra Modi was not the first prime minister to “think big’ when he announced in his Independence Day address on Wednesday that India would send a man — or woman — to space by 2022 or “even earlier”. In fact, he is not even “thinking” as big as Vajpayee, who was imagining an Indian on moon. Modi is only talking about a Gaganyan mission, a basic human spaceflight programme which aims to put two or three people in space to circle earth at an altitude of 300-400 kilometres for up to seven days.

In fact, neither Vajpayee nor Modi can take credit if India’s man-in-space dream comes true. The idea had been part of the country’s space programme since 2004, though the deadline for it has been pushed back several times because of technical failures that are natural in any space programme and the pressure to commercialise satellite launch capability.

Modi fast-tracks project

But Modi is the first prime minister to slap a deadline on the human spaceflight project.

If India can put gagannauts — as Indian astronauts will be called — in space by 2022, Modi can justifiably take credit for fast-tracking the country’s painfully — and sometimes necessarily — slow process in space programmes. If Jawaharlal Nehru could be credited with the setting up in 1969 of the Indian National Committee for Space Research, which later became ISRO, Modi may go down in the history as a prime minister who goaded space scientists into expediting their project to send a man to space, if that happens.

Narendra Modi during the Independence Day speech from Red Fort in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI

Narendra Modi during the Independence Day speech from Red Fort in New Delhi on Wednesday. Image courtesy:

Habitual Modi-baiters are entitled to their daily dose of enjoyment in tearing into every word he utters and rubbishing his talk as pre-election bluster. But their anti-Modi evangelism shouldn’t make them blind to see the fact that his I-Day pronouncement, if followed by the necessary funds and action by ISRO, can make an immense difference to India’s space programme. Putting a man in space wouldn’t be an isolated flash of brilliance; the deadline of 2022 means speeding up the development of a many technologies that will simultaneously have other commercial and developmental uses on ground.

Like Elon Musk, Modi is not talking about colonising Mars. Nor is Modi day-dreaming about building homes and shopping malls on Jupiter. He is only talking of putting people in space, and India is already well into the job of achieving that ability.

Work has been going on to perfect the GSLV Mark-3 launch vehicle that will hurl Gaganyaan into space. Something is already being done about making a controlled “crew module” in which humans can survive in space, and even designing a space flight suit — the outfit a gagannaut will wear. There has been some progress in ensuring re-entry of crew module to earth and a variety of other complex technologies. Only last month, ISRO conducted the first of its tests on a “pad-abort” system which helps return of crew to safety in case of a launch mishap.

2022 deadline tough to meet

Without doubt, plenty more needs to be done. For instance, India must also pick the gagannauts and train them in zero-gravity environment. All this won’t be easy: sending a man to space is not like building a multiplex. Space programmes call for complex designs, skills and pre-launch tests and trials, and can be rushed through only up to a point. Considering where India stands in all this, the 2022 deadline is indeed a tough one.

It imposes a “very, very tight schedule”, as ISRO Chairman K Sivan said. But the skills and devotion that ISRO has exhibited in the past make India more than qualified to have a go at it. While there has been no definite deadline so far, Modi has now injected a sense of urgency into the whole business.

Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV-Mk III). Image: ISRO

Representational image. Image courtesy: ISRO

For its ambitious projects including the manned flight, ISRO indeed badly needed moral and financial support. Modi’s announcement from the ramparts of Red Fort means that ISRO can expect both. In one stroke, Modi has supplied the moral boost. Presumably, this will also result in the necessary funds that ISRO needs. The manned mission could cost something close to Rs 10,000 crore, or even more.

Why sceptics don’t want it

A moral uplift became necessary in the context of sceptics questioning the economic wisdom and scientific utility of a manned mission at this juncture of worldwide development of space science.

Some compare a manned mission to a something as silly as an attempt to reinvent the wheel. A senior scientist once went to the extent of saying it was the “stupidest thing” India could do. Critics also argue that competing with rich nations in doing something they had already done would only amount to satisfying India’s nationalist egos and needlessly showing off technical prowess.

But there is a great deal of merit in the argument of scientists supporting a human spaceflight that reaching that goal means a wide variety of spin-off benefits that will be of use to industry and common man, not to speak of the morale-boosting it means for scientists gets. Such a morale-boosting can’t be measured in kilograms or kilometres. The advantages of gaganyan are too many to ignore.

And Modi’s statement has removed whatever uncertainty there has been about the priority given to the manned spaceflight. That makes an immense difference to ISRO.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

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