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Asia’s Race To Space: Will India’s Manned Lunar Mission Take Off?

India is poised to be a key player in the Asian race to launch a manned space mission. But why hasn’t the Indian government given this project the formal go-ahead?

| June 11, 2011 | Features

AsianScientist (Jun. 11, 2011) - Apart from a race to the moon, there is also an Asian race to launch a manned space mission and India is a part of it.India's space mission

In October 2007, Malaysian doctor Sheikh Muzaphar Shukor flew to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. A year later in 2008, South Korean Yi So-yeon was flown by the Russians to the space station. Both these countries have declared that the ultimate goal of their human spaceflight program is to embark on a manned lunar flight.

A Pakistani woman, Namira Salim, will become Pakistan’s first astronaut when she flies to space in 2012 in Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Apart from these countries, one cannot rule out the possibility of Indonesia and Singapore entering this field as well. Japan and China have already sent people to space.

India's forays into a manned space mission

Astronaut Rakesh Sharma
Astronaut and retired Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, first Indian in space in 1984.

In April 1984, Rakesh Sharma was a part of a joint Indo-Soviet (former) space mission.

However, during the next 27 years after Sharma’s flight, the Indian human space flight program has not taken off.

On October 9, 2007, G. Madhavan Nair, then-chairman of ISRO, announced that India was planning a manned space flight and the launch would take place from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota.

The plan envisages sending a two-man crew in a three-ton spacecraft to the low earth orbit which is up to 2,000 km for about a week. The rocket will be the three-stage Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle. The total cost of the project is about Rs 13,000 crores (US$2.9 billion), with the launch tentatively slated for 2016.

On their return they will splashdown in the Bay of Bengal. The government has already given Rs 95 crores (US$21 million) for pre-project studies and the Planning Commission has estimated that Rs 5,000 crores (US$1.1 billion) is needed for the preliminary work until 2012.

A site covering an area of 140 acres has been earmarked not far from the Bengaluru International Airport for setting up the vyomanauts (Indian word for astronauts) training center at a cost of Rs 1,000 crores (US$223 million).

Despite it being in many ways still a paper project, there is already a tussle between the Indian Air Force and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) regarding the crew selection. While the air force wants its pilots to be on the space mission, the space agency on the other hand believes that its scientists should be on the flight. This issue has yet to be resolved.

Though a lot of exercise is being carried out at ISRO relating to the manned mission, it is, however, of little significance because the government has not yet given its formal approval.

Designs for India's First Manned Space Mission
Designs for India's First Manned Space Mission (Source: ISRO).

Indian space leaders speak up

It was hoped that the government would take advantage of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin to give the green signal, but the announcement did not happen.

The first Indian in space, Rakesh Sharma, has expressed disappointment that the government is dilly dallying over this program.

“I am amazed that they have not yet cleared it," Sharma told this correspondent sometime back.

Ashok Maharaj, a Guggenheim fellow in the division of space history of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, described the project as an "investment for a stronger India."

Addressing a NASA seminar on human spaceflight at Washington in April 2011, Maharaj estimated that it will take 12 to 15 years for the project to materialize. But, at the same time he felt that a late start had its advantages because India can learn from other countries and define its own program.

"India’s manned space mission project is driven by prestige and wants to keep pace with China. But, China has crossed several milestones. By the time India puts its first man in orbit, China will be far ahead," Maharaj stated.

If the program does materialize, he did not rule out the possibility of it eventually leading to a human lunar landing in about 20 years. According to him, one of the driving forces behind India embarking on a human spaceflight program is because it wants to be a leader in the Afro-Asian region.

Possible reasons for the delays

Scientists speculate that the factors which may be preventing the government from giving the formal go-ahead for the project include:

  • There is no clear road map for the mission. What is the ultimate aim? How many missions have been planned?  Is the final goal to send a man to the moon?
  • Is the emphasis on engineering and technology or science, or a combination of both?
  • Is the cost of the project - approximately Rs 13,000 crores (US$2.9 billion) - causing the government hesitate to give its formal clearance?
  • Is there any pressure from the US on the Indian government not to approve the program so that Indian vyomanauts can fly by American privately-funded spacecraft?
  • The rocket - the Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-II is facing a lot of problems.

While celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first human spaceflight, China formally announced its plan to build its own space station having a three-man crew. Chances are that a Pakistani scientist could be invited to participate in the program.

If this happens, the Indian government will wake up, just as the United States woke up when Gagarin went to space.

Related Articles:
(Jun. 10, 2011) Russian Cosmonaut Viktor Savinykh Comments On India’s Space Program.
(Jun. 1, 2011) Former President Kalam: Indian Astronaut To Walk On Moon In 2025.


Copyright: AsianScientist Magazine; Photo: ISRO.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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