"It's not just an ISRO project, it's a national one"
In an exclusive interview, ISRO chairman DR K. SIVAN tells Group Editorial Director RAJ CHENGAPPA about the nuts and bolts of India’s first manned space mission. Excerpts:
Q.India will be the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to launch a manned space mission. What’s so special about sending a man into space? Why are we doing it—isn’t it a bit like reinventing the wheel? A.
Actually, it’s not simply about sending a man into space. The entire country’s understanding of science and technology will rise. It will inspire youngsters to do something new and encourage them to participate in science programmes. This particular project has many institutions and industries associated with it. In that sense, it is not just an ISRO project, but a national one. Every Indian agency involved can showcase its skills and the nation can be proud that, in science and technology, we are equal to the developed countries.
Q. What are the big challenges ISRO has to overcome?
Whatever technology we have is about launching satellites. But when we launch a human, apart from the engineering and technical aspects, the human element, life sciences, also come in. We have to ensure that the human inside the module is safe and all conditions are similar to those on Earth. Simulating such conditions and creating such an environment is a challenge for us, it is new to us. We have
already tried some of these activities, such as environment control and life support systems. We have also done a lot of studies on space suits. Now we need to enhance it.
Q. What kind of training will be needed for an astronaut and who will be eligible?
It is not necessary that he or she be a fighter pilot. Anybody can go, provided they are psychologically, physically and mentally fit. Of course, the endurance of fighter pilots will be better than that of others. But we are working on how to select and train them. The Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Bengaluru has the facilities for training astronauts. They had done a similar thing for Rakesh Sharma. But we will need more rigorous training and may have to build capacities for that. Given the target set by the prime minister, 2022, we may need international collaboration and the use of outside facilities and systems.
Q. What about the rocket launcher to boost the capsule into orbit?
We already have the capabilities for this. Our GSLV Mark III heavy lift launcher is capable of lifting 10 tonnes of payload into orbit, whereas our space orbiter will weigh only around seven tonnes. While launching regular satellites, our main criteria is maximum payload. But for the manned mission, maximum safety matters more. So the launch vehicle system has to be a human-rated version and we will ensure it is failsafe.
Q. You also need to have an escape system for the crew in case of failure during the launch. A.
We have already built and tested the crew escape system. It’s not only during the launch, if there is an exigency or danger to the astronauts at any time during the flight, the module will be ejected from the launch vehicle, away from the danger zone. This involves quick-reacting solid motors and a system to stabilise the vehicle. We have also tested the module for re-entry and recovery after splashdown into the sea, including protecting it from high temperatures and pressures when it re-enters the atmosphere on its return.
Q. Are you planning to test the orbiter with an unmanned mission first? A.
We want to do a couple of end-toend tests before we launch the orbiter with astronauts. We will have two rehearsal flights to test the environment and life-support systems as well as protection from extreme temperature and pressure variations, apart from galactic cosmic rays and micro-meteorites that may impact the orbiter. We will also do a splashdown of the orbiter. We have to ensure everything is perfect.
Q. What is the total cost of this project? Will it cost less than what other nations spent?
It will be Rs 10,000 crore. This is not very high. That is because almost all the critical technology has been developed by us. The vehicle is also already available. Our only remaining job is to build a training facility and infrastructure for the launch.