Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a name to India's first human space flight, Gaganyan, and claimed that it would be ready by 2022, the 75th year of India's independence. Four years is rather a short time, one would say, for a mission of such a scale to get ready. The Indian Space Research Organsiation (ISRO), however, is ready for the challenge. For it has been developing technologies since 2004, towards this mission.
K. Sivan, ISRO's chairperson said that most of the indigenously developed technologies required for the mission had already been tested. These include crew module re entry, reusable space vehicle, crew escape mechanism in case of a glitch during launch, a deep space network and even the astronaut's space suit. These technologies have been developed from ISRO's regular annual research and development budget.
There is still, however, a lot of work ahead. Sending humans to space is a critical mission, anything going wrong with it could endanger human life. ISRO has done some work in the Environment Control Life Support (ECLS) system, with the prototype ready. But it still has to test this technology as well as work in the bio sciences area. While ISRO has made a name for itself in satellite launches, it has no previous experience in transporting life forms to space. And with just 40 months to go, not only do these technologies have to be worked out, but also, the crew itself has to be selected.
It is still unclear who the crew will be, though indications are strong that at least one member will be a woman. The crew module is a muffin shaped capsule, with a diameter of 3.7 metres and a height of seven metres. This is the size of a small room, or two compartments of a first class railway coach. ISRO's prototype is for a three-seater launch, though it is still unclear what the crew number will be. Usually, a space voyage has a minimum of three crew members.
The Indian Air Force and ISRO will work together on training the crew, some of the training would be at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine. However, for critical training, the team might go to a space centre in the US or Russia, the pioneers in space travel. ISRO emphasised that nothing was confirmed as yet. It also stressed that decisions will need to be taken quickly, as crew will require at least two years' training.
So what will the flight be like, and what does India hope to achieve from this mission? The budget for Gaganyan is Rs 10,000 crore, a very small sum compared to what the US, Russian and Chinese programmes cost, said minister of state for space and atomic energy Jitendra Singh. However, it is still a big amount and there needs to be some gain from it, apart from establishing India's credentials as capable of conducting space joyrides.
Sivan said that the craft will take off from Sriharikota and get inserted into an orbit 400 km above the earth's surface. The astronauts will remain in this orbit for up to a week, and will perform experiments on microgravity, before heading back home. The present plan is to land the crew module in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Gujarat, which happens to be the prime minister's home state. However, ISRO will also plan for a landing in the Bay of Bengal, as well as one on land, covering all contingencies.
ISRO will also leapfrog on steps taken by previous spacefaring organisations. It will not be sending monkeys and dogs to space before it sends humans. However, it will conduct two test flights, both unmanned, before the actual human flight. The first of these flights will be launched 30 months from now, and the second, 36 months from now.
There is palpable excitement now that a dream is finally taking form. Every space organisation will look at conducting human space voyages as its ultimate goal. After the success of India's Chandrayaan I and Mars Orbiter Mission, this was the next obvious step.
Sivan said that apart from the interest in science this mission will generate, it will also create business opportunities for the private sector, which will have to make the various components, and generate 15,000 jobs, 13,000 of them in the private sector.