The Indian Space Research Organisation, which has blazed the trail in various spheres — such as sending probe missions to the Mars and to the moon — is gearing up for space travel. In doing so, it would be taking on Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orion Span and other entities backed by major corporate houses, as well as state-run missions such as NASA.
The Gaganyaan, India’s ₹9,023 crore maiden human space programme, will see its first uncrewed mission take place during the first half of this year, per schedule. Following another uncrewed mission, a crewed mission will take off in 2023, making India the fourth country to take humans to space, after the US, Russia and China.
The leadership change at ISRO is expected to accelerate the mission. Rocket scientist S Somanath has been appointed as the Space Secretary and ISRO’s new Chairman to succeed K Sivan, who completes his extended tenure on January 14. Somanath, 58, has indicated that space sector reforms are among his priorities. He was earlier Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. A graduate in mechanical engineering from Kerala University, Somanath completed his post graduation in aerospace engineering from IISc-Bangalore.
Mission Gaganyaan on forward march
After several schedule disruptions due to the pandemic, ISRO has begun to work in earnest on Gaganyaan. The programme aims to send humans to low earth orbit (LEO) onboard an Indian launch vehicle and bring them back safely. The preparation is happening in various stages. Under the first stage, the test vehicle flight for the validation of crew escape system performance and the first uncrewed mission will take place, probably in the second half of 2022.
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By the end of the year, the second uncrewed mission will take place. It will carry spacefaring human-robot Vyommitra, developed by ISRO. Subsequently, the first crewed mission will take three humans to space, in 2023.
On Wednesday, the organisation successfully conducted the qualification test of the programme’s cryogenic engine for 720 seconds at the ISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC) at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. “This successful long-duration test is a major milestone for the human space programme Gaganyaan. It ensures the reliability and robustness of the cryogenic engine for induction into the human-rated launch vehicle for Gaganyaan,” ISRO said in a statement.
Preparations in full swing
The rest of the preparations are happening on an industrial scale. Orders for the crew seats, spacesuits, viewports and other hardware have been placed with Russian entities. Microgravity experiments have begun. ISRO is also roping in private firms including start-ups to handle various aspects of the mission.
“More than 500 industries are involved in the launch of Gaganyaan, with several research modules including an indigenous health research module,” Science & Technology Minister Jitendra Singh told the Rajya Sabha last month. “This was made possible as for the first time in 70 years, the sector has been unlocked for private participation to make India a competitive space market.”