THE FI­NAL FRON­TIER

India Today - - COVER STORY - By RAJ CHEN­GAPPA

AKESH SHARMA WAS IN HIS cot­tage in the Nil­giri Hills, in Tamil Nadu’s idyl­lic Coonoor hill sta­tion, watch­ing the tele­cast of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s In­de­pen­dence Day ad­dress from the ram­parts of the Red Fort. He sat up and cheered when Modi said, “We have a dream, our sci­en­tists have a dream. We have re­solved that by 2022, when In­dia cel­e­brates 75 years of In­de­pen­dence, or maybe even be­fore that, cer­tainly some of our young boys and girls will un­furl the tri­colour in space… I feel proud to an­nounce that very soon, as part of our manned space mis­sion, we will be send­ing an In­dian into space. This will be pur­sued by our es­teemed sci­en­tists, and we

will proudly be the fourth such na­tion to have launched a suc­cess­ful manned space mis­sion.”

Sharma’s record of be­ing the first and only In­dian to travel in space—when he or­bited the Earth for a week aboard a Soviet space­craft in April 1984—is soon likely to be bro­ken. But he feels both re­lieved and elated. As he puts it: “It was an im­mense re­lief to hear the prime min­is­ter. I have been wait­ing an an­nounce­ment of this kind for 34 years be­cause we have not had a manned space pro­gramme since I went up. I am ex­tremely thrilled that it has fi­nally hap­pened.” Does it bother him that he is soon likely to be up­staged? “No, not at all,” he says promptly (see Our First Man). “The more the mer­rier.”

In Bengaluru, at the head­quar­ters of the In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ISRO), and at space cen­tres dot­ted across the coun­try, there was a spon­ta­neous out­break of joy at the prime min­is­ter’s an­nounce­ment. Since 2006, when ISRO for­mally sub­mit­ted a pro­posal for a manned space mis­sion to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, its sci­en­tists have been ea­gerly await­ing just such an an­nounce­ment. As Dr K. Sivan, chair­man of ISRO, says, “The prime min­is­ter has given us a huge gift. We have been per­fect­ing tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tors all these years for the manned space mis­sion, and this gives us the con­fi­dence that we will de­liver on the dead­line of 2022 that has been set for us.” Mis­sion Ga­ganyaan, as the prime min­is­ter has termed it, plans to put three In­di­ans in or­bit for a week around the Earth.

or ISRO, a suc­cess­ful manned space mis­sion will put it in the league of space giants—the US, Rus­sia and China (the most re­cent en­trant into this exclusive club). Since it was estab­lished in 1969, ISRO has de­liv­ered like few pub­lic sec­tor in­sti­tu­tions have in the coun­try. Over the decades, it has mas­tered the so­phis­ti­cated and com­plex rocket and satellite tech­nol­ogy needed for space-far­ing na­tions. To­day, it has achieved a de­gree of mas­tery over all ma­jor rocket types—solid fu­elled, liq­uid fu­elled and cryo­genic—and has also built some of the heav­i­est launch ve­hi­cles in the world. It can boast of in­ject­ing state-of-the-art, made-in-In­dia satel­lites into or­bit for a variety of tasks, in­clud­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions, me­te­o­rol­ogy, nav­i­ga­tion and mil­i­tary. In re­cent years, it has en­tered the field of space ex­plo­ration by send­ing un­manned space­craft to or­bit the Moon and Mars—suc­ceed­ing in its first mis­sions while keep­ing costs low. Manned space mis­sions are the next log­i­cal step for ISRO, an op­por­tu­nity to build ex­per­tise in the hu­man-space in­ter­face—one of the trick­i­est tech­nolo­gies to mas­ter. Sivan be­lieves it will take In­dian sci­ence and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment to a much higher plane. As he told in­dia to­day, “This is not just an ISRO project but a na­tional one, as we will re­quire many agen­cies, in­sti­tutes and en­ti­ties to demon­strate their ca­pa­bil­ity and strength to make it a suc­cess.” (See in­ter­view)

Yet, there are scep­tics—and rightly so—about the gov­ern­ment’s mo­tives and think­ing in clear­ing a manned space mis­sion. “Send­ing In­di­ans into space is the most

silly and id­i­otic idea, es­pe­cially 50 years af­ter Neil Arm­strong first landed on the moon,” vet­eran space sci­en­tist V. Sid­dhartha is said to have told the BBC. His point: ro­botic mis­sions can now do many things that as­tro­nauts do, with­out the risk in­volved in send­ing hu­mans into space. Kiran Karnik, a re­puted space and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy ex­pert, is con­cerned that there is too much rhetoric about pres­tige and glory. He be­lieves that a manned mis­sion is worth­while if there is a long-term plan to prepare for hu­mans to es­cape the dev­as­ta­tions caused by cat­a­strophic cli­mate change or a nu­clear war or even to shift en­vi­ron­men­tally harm­ful in­dus­tries to the Moon or other parts of the so­lar sys­tem.

Mean­while, multi-bil­lion­aire pri­vate in­vestors have

en­tered the arena, ar­guably tak­ing some of the sheen off ISRO’s achieve­ments. Richard Bran­son’s Virgin Ga­lac­tic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Be­zos’s Blue Ori­gin have demon­strated awe­some space prow­ess in a short span of time. SpaceX has bagged an or­der from the Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (NASA) to de­velop a capsule to dock with the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion as a re­place­ment for the space shut­tle. Tesla CEO Musk has an­nounced plans to send a manned mis­sion to Mars. Be­zos, the founder of Ama­zon and now the wealth­i­est man in the world, has de­scribed Blue Ori­gin’s goal as “mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing in space”. His com­pany is ready­ing a rocket called New Shep­ard, which will have a crew mod­ule with large win­dows of­fer­ing his astro-tourists mag­nif­i­cent views. And Virgin Ga­lac­tic is close to val­i­dat­ing a sub-or­bital launcher that will of­fer a ride in space for 250,000 dol­lars.

SRO’s Sivan, though, is un­fazed by the daz­zle of these pri­vate ven­tures or the crit­i­cism from scep­tics about In­dia’s plans. ISRO, he be­lieves, has al­ready de­vel­oped a wide range of ca­pa­bil­i­ties that would make the manned mis­sion cost-ef­fec­tive. The cur­rent es­ti­mate for the mis­sion is Rs 10,000 crore, which is said to be half the cost of fund­ing such a ven­ture in­ter­na­tion­ally. Both the Amer­i­can and Russian gov­ern­ments have again started in­vest­ing in send­ing hu­mans into space while the Chi­nese too have ex­panded their plans. So it is not as though ro­bots are likely to re­place hu­mans soon. Sivan also says that ISRO has pro­gres­sively farmed out its tech­nol­ogy and hard­ware to In­dia’s pri­vate in­dus­try. In rocket launch­ers, close to 60 per cent of the parts are man­u­fac­tured by pri­vate aerospace ven­tures, the fig­ure is 50 per cent for satel­lites. He be­lieves that the manned space mis­sion will give a boost to the coun­try’s in­dus­trial growth and spark tech­no­log­i­cal spin-offs that would ben­e­fit the pub­lic. Im­por­tantly, with­out cut­ting-edge chal­lenges, ISRO sci­en­tists would lan­guish and fall be­hind in the new-age space race. The manned mis­sion will also in­spire our young to take up sci­ence in far greater num­bers, he says.

So what will it take to put our men and women into space? For one, it needs a large rocket that can lift a capsule weigh­ing the equiv­a­lent of five Maruti-Suzuki Ciaz cars. ISRO, in re­cent years, has per­fected its heavy lift launcher, the Geosyn­chronous Satellite Launch Ve­hi­cle (GSLV)

Graphic by TANMOY CHAKRABORTY

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