'Human mission could take place in 2024': Union minister Jitendra Singh

There will be at least two missions before a human is sent, he said

44-Jitendra-Singh Jitendra Singh | Sanjay Ahlawat

Q What does the success of Chandrayaan-3 signify for India and the rest of the world?

A It is a landmark and the entire nation is excited about it. It is a conquest for India, which started late in this rather sophisticated area of space technology. Today, India reaffirms its position with the capability to take a lead in global issues whether it is space, clean energy or climate concerns. From the scientific community's point of view, the celebration is a reflection of the headway that has been made as far as unfolding the mysteries of the moon is concerned. From a layman's point of view, it might be more of romanticism getting behind those mysteries and fantasies that have enchanted him since childhood with folklore, cinema and songs. From the point of view of science, it is a headway in discovering the actual elements that determine the entire milieu of the moon. For example, Chandrayaan-1 gave us evidence of the presence of water molecules embedded in the mineral elements, which is an indicator of the compatibility or the possibility of human life there. It is in this regard this mission would set out to work.

Q How do you see India taking a lead in space exploration with this success?

A As far as the journey to the moon is concerned, I think it has placed India in the elite league of three or four nations, and also what is often not talked about is that most countries have not been successful in the first attempt. Which means India’s human resource and capability are in many ways ahead of others. What we were lacking was possibly an enabling milieu and I have been saying on behalf of the entire scientific community that we want to thank the Prime Minister. Without him it might not have been possible. The patronage, promotion and freedom that we receive from him is remarkable.

Till a few years ago, Sriharikota and ISRO were banned to the rest of the world. Now the entire world is owning them up in the manner in which they are celebrating, whether it is schoolchildren, housewives, youth or mediapersons. And they could own up the mission because they were exposed to it, as the gates of Sriharikota were thrown open by Prime Minister Modi. When the launching happened on July 14, we had more than 1,000 mediapersons present on the premises. And this is the same Sriharikota which had forbidden mediapersons or anybody else, and therefore there was no sense of belonging to that mission.

On the one hand, the unlocking of the space sector has led to increased funding and private participation. We already have more than 150 startups and some of them have started making good fortune out of their projects. On the other hand, there is a sense of belonging as far as Sriharikota and all its work is concerned.

Q How do you see India’s space technology compared with other countries? There is an argument that we are giving budget allocation to space missions when there are more pressing problems here.

A Our ability to reach out to space is now proven beyond doubt as the prime minister himself said space is no limit. So we have gone beyond space to discover the unexplored areas of the universe. The other part, which I think is quite unique to India, is that we have in the past eight or nine years, particularly after Prime Minister Modi came in, been given the freedom to apply space technology to areas of infrastructure development. If you see from a larger perspective, this is actually going to add to India’s capability to bring ease of living to its citizens.

The budget allocation is not as high as it is being talked about. Chandrayaan is about Rs600 crore whereas some of the welfare schemes cost much more than that. Space technology in the Indian context does not mean just sending rockets. It has today entered virtually every Indian household, ministry and department. [For instance,] in railways for guarding unmanned crossings and railway tracks through warnings about possibility of a potential obstructing agent. If we look at urban development and building smart cities, heli surveys to determine the water underneath for irrigation, mapping of farms and land through the ambitious Svamitva programme replacing the patwari (village registrar) system, and the Gati Shakti programme are using space technology. If you talk about the success stories during the Covid pandemic, it is again telemedicine.

Space technology has been optimally utilised in the past eight to nine years in infrastructure development, which is not seen to this extent even in countries like the UK or the US where it is more confined to experimentations and sending rockets and spaceships. This is particularly an achievement for a developing country, as it not only proves cost effective but also hastens the pace of development.

Q ISRO has been working on a limited budget and there have been cost constraints for some of the missions. Do you feel the budget allocation should be increased?

A Even though I agree with you that ISRO was constrained of funds to an extent, we made up for that with human resource because the passion and commitment was so much. If you see the archive pictures of Dr Vikram Sarabhai and ISRO scientists carrying rocket parts for assembly on a bicycle, you will understand that they were adamant about going ahead. So we made up with our passion and commitment for what we did not have monetarily.

Having said that, if we want to compete and do what we believe in and march ahead in the global competition, I agree funding has to be increased. And I think the decision of the prime minister to unlock the space sector and throw it open to the private sector is a step in that direction. We have more than 150 private startups in three or four years supplementing the funds. The move to set up the Anusandhan National Research Foundation, recently passed by Parliament, sets aside Rs50,000 crore to promote research and development in the next five years. Of this, about Rs36,000 crore is going to be raised by private sources, whether it is philanthropists or industry.

If we have to go beyond this, we cannot be tied down by the constraints of funds. It cannot be a limiting factor and if that has to be done, we cannot leave everything to the government resources because it has its own limitations. All of us have to synergise. The era of working in silos is over and the demarcation between private and public is gradually going away. If you see the space sector in the US, a lot is being handled by the private sector. We are also moving in the same direction because we are now in a position to accept global competition and live up to global standards.

Q How tough is lunar landing for a human or an unmanned spacecraft?

A The lunar landing has happened and we have seen that it has to be very precise and monitored very minutely. In the case of the earlier mission of Chandrayaan, in the last few minutes it did not happen the way we expected. The pace, velocity, gravitational balances have to be taken care of. This time, we took care of all concerns based on the past experience, also adding on with technological upgrade. So it has happened very smoothly. Of course, there are certain sensitive moments for any scientific mind. For me, it was the moment when Chandrayaan was to get out of earth's orbit and head towards the moon’s orbit. I was watching it anxiously because it is like changing track while driving a car and you have to take care there is no mishap when you are doing it. And that happened successfully in the middle of one night when it left the earth’s orbit and then took a trans lunar route and finally entered the moon’s orbit. Then it kept descending and came to the innermost orbit. The last few minutes were obviously watched very closely, and the added stress was that the entire world is watching.

Q When can we expect a human mission?

A We will have at least two missions before we send a human being. We will have the first mission possibly in September or early next year, where for a few hours we will send an empty spacecraft that will go up and come back into the waters to see if we are able to control its safe return without any damage. If that is successful, then we will have a second trial next year by sending a robot called Vyommitra. There will be no risk of life here but it will come back in the same route and brought out with the collective effort of multiple agencies as if they are bringing back the human beings safe to the surface. And if that is also successful, we will send the final mission, which will be the human mission. This could possibly take place in the second half of 2024. Initially we had planned it for 2022, but it got delayed due to Covid. In fact, when the lockdown happened, some of our potential astronauts undergoing training in Moscow for different exposures had to be called back.

Q How do you see India emerging as a space power?

A To an extent, we have already emerged as a space power and the rest of the world has started expecting us to take the lead. During the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to Washington, DC, the entire bilateral agreements were technology driven. And within technology, it was the space sector dominating. For example, India became a signatory to the Artemis Agreement, where more than two dozen countries are signatories and the US had been persuading India. The US has also approached India to send its astronaut to the International Space Station, which means they value India's resources. So we are not only placed equally, but in certain ways we are also looked upon as leaders. The ascent of India has begun through the space sector.