Will COVID-19 delay ISRO’s Aditya, Gaganyaan and Chandrayaan-3?

ISRO chief says decision can be taken only after lockdown is lifted

[File] India has already inked agreements with Russia and France for assistance in the ambitious project | PTI ISRO had planned a busy calendar, with around two dozen launches | PTI

Three astronauts docked at the International Space Centre (ISS) on Thursday after taking off on a six-hour flight from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The flight went as per schedule, though because of the ongoing COVID-19  pandemic, there were tweaks in the protocol, with the traditional pre-flight family meeting and press conference being modified to just  an email presser.

However, the pandemic might cast a doubt on the dates of India's ambitious human space flight programme—Gaganyaan. 

The first of three flights in the mission is slated for this December. The first two flights are unmanned, only the last, scheduled for 2022, will be a human flight.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been in lockdown since March 25, like the rest of India. "We, too, are working from home," ISRO Chairman K. Sivan told THE WEEK. "We cannot take any decision at this stage. We will have to wait for the lockdown to be lifted," he said.

Sivan added that all research and development and manufacturing were at a standstill, and only the work that is possible to be done from home, and through video conferencing, was being carried out.

Even the astronaut training of the four test pilots of the Indian Air Force has stopped in Russia because of pandemic restrictions.

ISRO had planned a busy calendar, with around two dozen launches, including Gagagyaan flight 1 in December 2020 and Aditya, India's first solar probe, scheduled for a summer launch. Also, Chandrayaan-3, though pushed to 2021, would have required a lot of work, both at the technical end, as well as the manufacturing.

Over 100 manufacturing units, big and small, in the private sector, are contracted to manufacture components for ISRO’s missions. All of them are shut. The manufacturing is massive, with rockets, satellites and scientific instrumentation having to get ready.

For Gaganyaan, there is a lot more work. Apart from R&D in every department, from space food to landing parachutes, a lot of which the Defence Research and Development Organisation has been doing, these components have to be manufactured, too.

It isn't just the delay due to lockdown. With the country pressing all available funds into dealing with the economic impact of the pandemic, there might be a recalibration of what is absolutely necessary right now. The country's strategic sector has never lacked for want of funds in the past, and ISRO is the master of the game when it comes to frugality. 

But in the light of the extraordinary situation created by pandemic, the call to review expenditure is getting loud. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh recently said the country should put on hold projects like Gaganyaan and the Central Vista redevelopment.

Meanwhile, the GISAT-1 launch, which was mysteriously called off on March 4, a day before take-off citing an ambiguous "technical reason", appears to be postponed indefinitely. The rocket was rolled out of the launch pad to the Vehicular Assembly Building, and its satellite removed from it.