India is sending astronauts in space in 2022: why it is important

As part of the “Make in India” vision of Narendra Modi, India is preparing for its first manned mission, named Gaganyaan, in 2022. It will be a symbolic year for India as it will celebrates the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence. In spite of budgetary constraints and the coronavirus pandemic, India has been insisting on realizing this human spaceflight program.

Currently, four Indian astronauts, that were selected among a group of Indian fighter pilots, are training at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, near Moscow. It was revealed that on June 27, 2019, a contract was signed between the Human Spaceflight Centre of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Glavkosmos – a subsidiary of Roscosmos – concerning the training of the future Indian space travelers. As a result of its history, competence and knowledge, the Russian space agency will teach the future Indian astronauts about theoretical classes of the basics of astrogation, the basics of manned spacecraft control as well as the Russian language. A part of their training which they already have completed, according to a Roscosmos statement, is different simulations about the different type of landing an astronaut may face : on land, in water or in a cold area etc. But they still need to complete their training about G-force and centrifuge simulations. The Indian astronauts will resume their training in India, where they will receive module specific training.

Like almost every country in the world, India has its own space agency whose headquarters are based in Bangalore – the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Founded in 1969, it’s aiming to develop an independent Indian space program. ISRO spread its activities throughout the country with centres in different cities. Thus for example, the sensors and payloads are developed in Ahmedabad, the satellites are designed, developed, assembled and tested in Bangalore and the launches take place on Sriharikota island.

Throughout the different projects ISRO led and is currently leading, we can observe that the Indian space program has evolved and changed in the last decades. At the beginning of its life, the main goal of ISRO was to catch up with the technologies that the powerful nations of the time had developed. Consequently ISRO developed a program that would encourage the growth of technologies with the goal to provide direct benefits to the nation. The main illustration of this ambition was to launch India’s own satellites in order to be more independent communication wise and to improve everyday communications. As telecommunication has become an acquired technology, India changed its aim. Nowadays ISRO is focusing on space exploration with various Mars and Moon exploratory missions. Having a direct benefit or application as a result of a space program is no longer the priority. According to the « Make in India » program, the prime objective of ISRO is to develop space technology and its application to various national tasks.

Hence the next mission, which is a major step for India : a first crewed space mission, called Gaganyaan, is set to launch in 2022. Part of the Human Spaceflight program, developed by ISRO, it will be an Indian crewed orbital spacecraft. The goal is to demonstrate human space flight capability. It will consists of a crew of 2 or 3 people that will spend approximately 7 days in low Earth orbit (an orbit of 2000 km or less). This ambitious mission shall be a bit tempered as sources reported that an ISRO chairperson explained that it might consists of only one or two crew members taken into space for one to two days, depending on the results of the two unmanned flights that are set prior to the manned mission of 2022. These two unmanned flights are planned in December 2020 and June 2021 but are supposed to be delayed due to the coronavirus.

ISRO has still a long way to go because before completing the unmanned flights, the agency needs to perform 3 major tests : one for the parachute system, one flight of the test vehicle as well as an abort test to demonstrate the escape of the crew in case of an emergency at the launch pad. The unmanned missions will not be « empty » since scientific experiments should be carried out in space. In order to launch the Gaganyaan mission, the GSLV Mk III launch vehicle will be used. It’s the result of India’s efforts and technological advancement of the last decades.

The Gaganyaan mission appears to be the first step toward building India’s own space station in the horizon 2030 with the goal to conduct several missions to study the Sun as well as other planets like Venus.

This mission bears a symbolic and political significance – the “Made in India” vision. For the first time, 75 years after India’s independence, an Indian crew will take off from Indian soil in an Indian spacecraft. Up until now, only two Indian astronauts – including Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to go into space in 1984 – have flown to space and it was on board of the Russian Soyuz capsule and the US space shuttle.

These last years India has been especially concerned with developing its non-manned mission, with a quite clear ambition to go on the moon. It began with Chandrayaan 1 – literally “mooncraft” – which launched in 2008 and orbited around the Moon, discovering water molecules on the surface of the Moon. The orbiter shut down a little less than a year after its launch due to technical issues but it’s considered a successful mission as it achieved almost all of its scientific objectives. The Chandrayaan program stimulated India’s space program and ISRO developed a second lunar exploration with Chandrayaan 2. The lunar orbiter included the Vikram lander and the Pragyan lunar rover with the aim of mapping and studying the variations in lunar surface composition in addition to the location and abundance of lunar water. Unfortunately, the lander deviated from its trajectory, supposedly due to a software glitch, which caused a hard landing, later confirmed as the crash of Chandrayaan 2. However India ignores these failures and plans a third lunar exploration, Chandrayaan 3, that should launch in 2021. The Moon is not the only celestial object in which India is interested in, Mars is also one of them. A second space probe to Mars is set to launch in 2022.

In order to realize its ambitious projects, India concluded several partnerships with different countries around the world in order to benefit from their knowledge in the field of space exploration. India’s engagement with Russia is not recent and goes back to 1975 when the Soviet Union helped India launched Aryabhata, its first satellite, and Bhaskara, the second satellite, in 1979. Moreover, Russia is a crucial partner concerning satellite navigation : the Russian satellite navigation system « GLONASS » helps India’s own system navigation system « NavIC » and supports the development of the GSLV Launch Vehicle, which powers the Chandrayaan-2 as well as upcoming missions of ISRO by providing the Cryogenic rocket technology.

India also concluded a partnership with France, collaborating on the Gaganyaan mission. Currently the space agencies of the two countries are in an advanced stage of discussions for providing necessary equipment to Gaganyaan astronauts, an equipment similar to the one to be used by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet for Mission Alpha next year. They also exchange knowledge about space medicine : Brigitte Godard, a flight surgeon, was in India last year to train physicians and engineers, and Indian space surgeons should also go to France in order to train once the coronavirus situation eases.

The Gaganyaan mission is an incredibly important step for India and its space program. A successful mission will demonstrate India’s capability to be a part of the leading nation of the space exploration.