Is Isro being given enough time?

A new space race is on, and unlike during the Cold War era, it is no longer between just America and Russia. This space race is global, involving not just the national space agencies of China and India and the European Space Agency, but also private corporations such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, driven by Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial energy and funding. Neither is the new space race driven merely by the national security fears that animated the old space race nor by a John F Kennedy’s bid to go one-up on the Soviet Union by announcing a crash lunar landing programme. The objective now is permanent presence in space — for militarisation, colonisation, exploration and resource exploitation. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration did put Americans on the moon, but it exhausted even the Superpower so much that the US-Soviet race ended in 1972, three years after the first moon landing; the Soviets had given up much earlier. Neither the US nor the USSR had thought through what they would do once they had shown the world their capabilities.

That’s why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day announcement of putting an Indian in space by 2022 seems impulsive and came as a surprise not just to most Indians but even to the man at the helm of India’s space programme, K. Sivan. To be sure, Isro has had manned space flight on the drawing board since 2004. Small monies were allotted by the UPA regime to develop the required technologies. Between then and now, Isro has developed and successfully flown the GSLV Mk III launch vehicle, required for the manned mission, and demonstrated space capsule re-entry and a system to abort a launch on the pad and parachute the crew to safety if needed. There is no question about Isro’s capability to carry out human space flight, given enough money and time.

The question is, is it being given enough time? The plan is to launch a three-member crew into low-earth orbit for an entire week. What’s not ready yet? For starters, the astronauts have not been shortlisted, let alone selected; and the astronaut training centre is not ready. Secondly, has the government thought through whether India will have a sustained programme of human space flight? If so, to what end? It is necessary to think these questions through, because the answers to them will determine what technologies, what operational and management systems should be developed for the first Gaganyaan mission and beyond. Unless, the I-Day announcement was meant to be just a single shot into space, meant to boost the prime minister’s popularity and electoral fortunes. After all, this government allotted no money, formed no specific programme for human space flight in the last four years.

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Is Isro being given enough time?

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