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Modi’s I-Day speech: Should ISRO focus on human spaceflight or refine robotic missions?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech announced a manned mission to space by 2022. This comes over half a century after Americans, Russians, and the Chinese have already sent humans into space. This sudden announcement may distract us from robotic missions and developing more relevant tech.

ThePrint asks: Should ISRO focus on human spaceflight or refine robotic missions?

What Apollo did for US, this space mission could do for India

Prateep Basu
Co-founder of SatSure, and former scientist at ISRO. (His views are personal and do not reflect the opinions of his current or former employers.)

Human spaceflight makes a much bigger statement and will have more strategic ramifications than any robotic mission.

The benefits of human spaceflight are far reaching. During the Apollo programme, 60,000 patents were created, which led to very useful and interesting innovations. It also led to a sophisticated industrial complex that was build around it.

ISRO now has a chance to do something similar. It has been slowly but consistently making progress towards human spaceflight mission. The latest emergency abort systems’ tests for crew capsules from July have also been successful. Overall, we’re quite ready to do this. The only thing we need to figure out is a reliable human-rated launch vehicle.

There are several countries that have achieved robotic missions, and many of them, like the US and Japan, are far ahead of India. In Asia, Japan is ahead of us in robotic missions but China has already sent humans to space.

Strategically, it would offer us great advantage to put a human in space. Additionally, it is a challenging mission, so technologically, a fully funded human programme will give us a tremendous boost. Pulling off a mission in such a short span will require all of ISRO’s focus, which means that our rockets will also get refined much faster in the process, increasing ISRO’s commercial output.

ISRO’s human spaceflight plan is older than any robotic mission we’re developing today. Apart from Chandrayaan-2, there aren’t any missions that have a solid timeline for launch. Even this project was sanctioned after human spaceflight was allocated Rs 200-crore budget in 2007. Owing to shortcomings in infrastructure and GSLV launch failures, the original plan of having someone in space by 2020 had to be pushed back.

Putting humans in space will push not just space industry in India but also many other closely related fields over the next decade. This is a very welcome move.

India can do multiple impactful robotic missions at cost of one human spaceflight

Divyanshu Poddar
Co-founder of Rocketeers, a model and amateur rocketry company aiming to create skill development and experimental tools

ISRO’s claim to fame on the world stage is frugal engineering that creates a large impact, whether socially or for the scientific community. As a country, we have fairly minimal resources to invest in our space programme. Why should we compete with much richer nations on their terms?

We should rethink space exploration and do things others have not done, such as enabling the private industry to develop indigenous human space-faring capabilities for future needs. Right now, human spaceflight is just a want and not a need.

Almost everyone within the space community agrees that ISRO has the capability for human spaceflight. Whether the timeline is practical is up for debate. I personally believe a lot of critical technology is already present within ISRO’s knowledge base. A formal mission statement will lead to quick consolidation. This timeline is achievable if the infrastructure for testing and astronaut training is not delayed.

The problem, however, is that we don’t have that level of planning, vision or execution. Even ISRO’s budget is growing at a snail’s pace.

On the other hand, a well thought-out robotic missions to the moon and bodies never visited before can help India achieve soft power goals with space technology, while creating wider impact and growth. At the cost of one manned mission, we can do multiple highly impactful robotic missions with the same resources.

A human spaceflight mission today seems to be a trophy mission that would eat up large sums of money just to ape what bigger nations are doing. India has the potential to do much more with well-crafted robotic exploratory missions.

Any human-oriented mission pulls cost of space mission up by 10-100 times

Narayan Prasad
Co-founder, Satsearch, a start-up incubated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and works with Antrix Corporation, French Space Agency, German Aerospace Centre

The technological possibilities have immensely changed from the 1960s when humans were first sent into space. Today, a smartphone worth Rs 3,000 does a better job than the flight computers that carried humans to the moon and back.

Any human-oriented mission pulls the cost of a space mission up by 10-100 times. Given the technological developments in hardware and software, robotic missions indeed enable us to achieve a lot more with similar budgets.

I believe choosing to send humans to space is primarily soft-power projection of India’s technological capacity at the international stage, rather than an economic or scientific one. I do not disagree that there can be spin-offs. However, I believe human spaceflight missions are mostly about aspiring to inspire rather than hard economics or service-oriented goals.

The announcement comes at an interesting time: the US is struggling to find resources to keep the International Space Station up and running beyond 2025, and the Chinese have announced their second space station with invitations to foreign astronauts to participate under the UN banner.

The space programme in India gained impetus on the basis of being ‘second to none in the application of space technology for man and society in India’, in the words of Vikram Sarabhai.

Depending on what view one would prescribe to, this is either a shift towards adding new goals to the Indian space programme or dilution of the long-term objectives; to achieve geo-political prowess using technology or directly having missions that support the common citizen.

One should hope that this is an exercise of growing the space pie with new possibilities and that economic/service objectives of the space programme will continue driving long-term goals. We will need to wait and watch if the natural progression of the Indian space programme will see the emergence of primarily science or exploratory oriented robotic missions of the scale of Voyager after the tricolor is carried into space.

Also read: Should India lead the way and set up a colony on the moon or focus on Mars instead?

Human spaceflight can capture people’s imagination like nothing else

Pavan Srinath
Fellow & Faculty at the Takshashila Institution, and host of The Pragati Podcast. He tweets at @zeusisdead.

Many of us were in school when Kalpana Chawla and her fellow astronauts were launched into orbit in the Space Shuttle Columbia. An entire generation of people grew up on the tales of Rakesh Sharma going to space and speaking to Indira Gandhi from high above us. Space programmes and specifically human spaceflight can capture the imagination of people like nothing else. They can inspire generations of students to pursue science.

If an Indian were to reach space again by 2022, its effect on the Indian public would be nothing short of magical.

Human spaceflight got a bad name in the early 2000s, thanks to successive disasters with the American Space Shuttle programmes, which led to the death of several astronauts, including Chawla. The Space Shuttle programme was also bloated, expensive, and was eating into the more cost-effective scientific missions being pursued by NASA.

This is hardly a reason to think ill of India and ISRO’s human spaceflight mission. After reaching Mars, ISRO needs to take the next big step to reach new levels of excellence.

A goal like human spaceflight will need ISRO to develop large launch vehicles, re-entry vehicles, re-useable launch vehicle technology, human habitation systems for space and a host of other technology. This will elevate the existing expertise that ISRO has carefully developed over the last several decades.

Human spaceflight will mean new scientific collaborations with academia and with India’s fledgling private space industry. None of this is easy. Human spaceflight will need much larger public investments in space.

Today, you can see Elon Musk and SpaceX not only aiming for Mars, but also building a viable commercial business out of space flight. ISRO can and must aim higher. Not only should Indians reach space, but go to Mars and beyond.

Don’t have to match China mission for mission to achieve diplomatic stronghold

Rachana Reddy
Space engineer who previously worked with the Indian Space programme and is now building satellites in Berlin

Just like the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions resulted in a lot of international publicity, a successful human spaceflight by ISRO is bound to help India gain prestige and status of a soft power. Not to mention the significant technical know-how from collaborations with NASA or Roscosmos. These missions will certainly make the entire country euphoric and inspire the next generation of space experts.

Although beyond a few such missions to the low-earth orbit, I don’t see the need for an entire human space programme, especially to the moon or Mars, for ISRO or India in this century. From the perspective of space exploration and scientific curiosity, planetary robotic missions would make more sense.

To achieve a diplomatic stronghold, we don’t have to match China mission for mission. With the global space industry expected to become a trillion-dollar market, along with basic human spaceflight, ISRO should focus on establishing a self-sufficient domestic space industry that produces, consumes and exports high-value space technology tools and services.

The open nature of India’s market and the similarity of its needs with populous developing countries are unique advantages just waiting to be exploited, both from diplomatic and economic perspectives.

The biggest challenges that ISRO would always face, and need to surmount, are the shifting priorities that come with every change in top management and the time and effort spent in reorienting itself. One way to circumvent this is to chalk out a 25 or 50-year long-term roadmap in consultation with experts such as economists, agriculturists, social scientists, space research groups, and present it for public consultation.

Otherwise, we will just keep jumping from one five-year goal to another, without really reaching anywhere.

Tough for ISRO to explore beyond moon and Mars

Sandhya Ramesh
Senior Assistant Editor, Science, ThePrint

The announcement of a human spaceflight programme is a welcome move on the government’s part. ISRO is one of the least bureaucratically affected sections of the government and is, thus, able to make rapid progress.

The organisation has set the precedent with Mangalyaan and shown that it is capable of developing reliable missions on a quick timeline. A human spaceflight mission, however, cannot be sped up in a way a robotic mission can be because the risks are much higher.

But even if there’s a delay in schedule, it would be a big accomplishment for ISRO to put a second (and subsequent) Indian in space on an Indian vehicle.

For various scientific reasons, most robotic missions today focus on the moon and Mars, with some expensive ones going up to Jupiter (NASA’s Juno), Saturn (NASA’s Cassini), asteroids (JAXA’s Hayabusa) and comets (ESA’s Rosetta).

But exploring beyond moon and Mars is tougher for ISRO than for other powerful agencies. Not only do we lack the budget for such missions, we also lack the technological capabilities. Mangalyaan was a technology demonstrator and its success has now paved the way for Mangalyaan 2. Chandrayaan 1 was also a demonstrator and did not live up to its full capabilities, but Chandrayaan 2, set to launch next year, would far outperform it.

ISRO’s prowess lies in its reliable rockets. The PSLV series have had such a successful run that the agency is a superpower in the earth orbit. Human spaceflight has been in the works for over 11 years now, and India definitely has the ability to expand beyond its horizons. The earth-moon-Mars system is where ISRO’s stronghold should be for the next couple of decades.

More and more countries are sending satellites and craft to space, including UAE, Iran, South Korea and New Zealand. It’s becoming less of a race and more of a collaborative, necessary effort, and a human spaceflight is perfect for ISRO to lead the way as humanity continues to breach the borders of technology in space

Compiled by Sandhya Ramesh, senior assistant science editor at ThePrint.

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