by Prasad Ganti
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated boldly on August 15, 2018 that India will have one of its citizens in space by August 15, 2022 when India celebrates its 75th independence day. Sounds very much like President Kennedy’s declaration way back in 1961 of landing an American on the moon before the end of the decade. After a string of Indian space achievements over the last few decades, it sounds very plausible for this goal to be met. Just like American manned moon landing in 1969.
If achieved, India will be the fourth country in the world to do so, behind US, Russia and China. Understandably, other space achievers like Japan, Israel or European Union have not sent people into space. Not because of any failures. But it needs some extension of the non-human space missions and technologies to get there. The thinking is that automated space missions or the usage of robots can help in studying space. No need to risk human lives. Along with the bragging rights, manned space flight does result in development of technologies which can help a developing nation like India. Humans can still add value in space, which robots and automation may not be able to accomplish unaided.
There are more risks involved in a manned space flight than an unmanned one. The possibility of a loss of an unmanned space vehicle is only a financial risk. But the loss of human lives under the glaring headlights of the international media can attract a lot of flak. The first complexity of a manned space flight is the requirement of a life support system aboard the spacecraft. Living quarters, maintenance of an environment with pressured breathing air, drinking water, and food. Since only limited quantities of air and water can be carried into space, there is a need to recycle these elements. At present time, food is not recycled or grown in large quantities in space.
Some of the components and technologies do exist and some are in development. The crew module, which is shaped like a cone with its pointed top chopped off, is attached to a cylindrical shaped service module which contains the equipment for supplying air and water and the recyclers. The air consists of oxygen and nitrogen. The carbon dioxide is scrubbed using lithium absorbers, to remove the lethal gas from the environment.
The launch vehicle called GSLV Mark III (Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle) is already in use. The service module will be jettisoned before the crew module re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. The protection of the space capsule with heat absorbing tiles during the fiery re-entry and the subsequent slowing down using a parachute and the splashdown into the water has been tested before.
The emergency crew ejection system is being built and tested. In case of a disaster during the launch, the system ejects the crew to safety. The training of the crew to use the equipment and to live in the weightlessness of the space for a week, will be conducted in other countries.
The spacecraft itself would be called “Gaganyaan” which means a sky vehicle. And astronauts to be christened as “Vyomanauts” where “Vyoma” means space in Sanskrit. I also heard the term “Gaganauts”.
A billion dollar price tag for a week long human space odyssey may not sound much. But this goal is not set in the atmosphere of a cold war with unlimited budgets. It is set by a developing country where poverty still exists and prioritizing space over eliminating hunger does attract serious questions. Justifiably so. But it will be a giant technological leap for India. Paving the way for future plans like setting up a laboratory or a workshop in space or a base on the moon. Only sky is the limit.