Mission Gaganyaan: The challenges of the biggest Made in India endeavour to become a superpower
Apart from national prestige, this mission will see large investments in indigenous technology and industry.
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There are times when a mission captures the imagination of a nation. President Kennedy announced in May 1961 that within a decade America would send a man to the moon and back.
He said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept..."
Maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi had this in mind when he announced 'Mission Gaganyaan' on August 15, declaring that India will put an Indian in space "by 2022 or before". The first Indian 'gaganauts' will launch India into a rarefied club. Only three nations-the US, Russia and China-have launched astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts into space, in their own rockets.
There's no reason to disbelieve the prime minister as the Indian space programme is something we can all be proud of. The programme has, over the years, sent a constellation of cutting-edge navigation, communication, weather and military satellites into orbit.
These satellites have enabled communications, beamed down television signals and streamed weather, agriculture and military data to users across the country. In recent years, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully launched spacecraft to orbit the Moon and Mars on relatively shoestring budgets.
These giant milestones, crossed almost effortlessly, make it easy to forget the fact that they are the achievements of a government department. One US astronaut sitting in the space capsule before launch was asked for his last thoughts. He said, "This is a government contract and all this has been built on the basis of the lowest tender." Overcoming this handicap has been a great achievement of ISRO's.
The entry of tech billionaires Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos has pumped new vitality into manned missions and also held out the promise of a new private space industry that could someday colonise the Moon and Mars.
India Today cover story, What It Takes to Put a Man in Space, for November 19, 2018.
Indians in orbit in less than 48 months from today might sound like an extraordinary leap of faith, but it is not. Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa, who has written our cover story, 'What It Takes to Put a Man in Space', has tracked every milestone in the Indian space programme since Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma's historic 1984 voyage in a Soviet spacecraft.
He describes how the building blocks for the Indian Human Spaceflight Programme have been slowly validated since 2007. These advances range from the successful launch and recovery of a space capsule to a test this July to see if the crew can be ejected safely in case of a launch abort. "Having mastered rockets and satellites, this is ISRO's bid to make India a space superpower," Chengappa says.
Unlike satellites, manned space flights hold out formidable challenges with zero room for error. As our first space traveller Sharma tells us, "You hope the guys on the ground who made the spacecraft had got the number of layers right, because if they haven't, you are toast."
The human spaceflight programme will push the envelope of India's technological prowess and is estimated to cost Rs 10,000 crore, or roughly the cost of 15 Rafale fighter jets. Before you judge this as money burnt up in the sky, it would be worth your while to remember how some of today's indispensables-satellite TV, artificial limbs, laptops and water purifiers-are direct spinoffs of the space programme.
As it was with technology that was developed for the space race of the 1960s, it is difficult to predict Gaganyaan's windfall, but it can be said with certainty that apart from national prestige, this mission will see large investments in indigenous technology and industry.
Gaganyaan will source nearly 60 per cent of its equipment from the Indian private sector. These are investments that will spur technological innovation, ignite young scientific minds and re-establish India's role as a key player in the new space industry.
When Indians are launched into space, the whole nation will be up there with them too.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, What It Takes to Put a Man in Space, for November 19, 2018)