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India’s Human Spaceflight Ambitions Faces Political Backlash, Technical Skepticism

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses in the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on 1 June 2018. Photograph courtesy of IISS.

Now that the euphoria over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that India will launch its first Vyomanaut (derived from the Sanskrit word for space, or vyoma) into Earth orbit by 2022 has passed, the political contours of the announcement are beginning to take shape.

A number of critics are pointing out the opportunity costs of the Gananyaan (Sanskrit for “Sky Craft”) mission in a country where poverty is still rampant, and other critics are expressing doubts that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will be able to safely send and return a human being in orbit by 2022.

“I think if you did a grand cost-benefit analysis, this wouldn’t rank very high among the priorities,” said Vivek Dehejia, senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, a think-tank based in Mumbai that was created by the Infrastructure Development Finance Company. “When we’re a rich country we’ll have plenty of time to put a man on the moon.”

The same commentator expressed even more skepticism when asked whether the Gananyaan mission was worth it as part of the geopolitical competition India finds itself in with China.

“But if you want to beat China, beat them on the economy — China’s where it is because of sustained economic growth,” said Dehejia. “This is of a piece with Mr Modi’s penchant for the grand gesture.”

Other critics include space experts who are not so concerned with the opportunity costs of the Gananyaan mission, but are doubtful whether ISRO is capable of delivering on Modi’s ambition by 2022.

“I’ve been very impressed by the Indian space programme,” said David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute in Houston, Texas. “They’ve got some really talented engineers and have had some notable successes in the past few years.” But the notion that ISRO can safely send and return a human being into Earth orbit seems like “a tall order.”

“[The year] 2022 is just too rushed a deadline for safety reasons,” added Professor Dinshaw Mistry, a noted expert on the Indian space programme at the University of Cincinnati in the United States.

Ajey Lele, one of India’s leading space analysts at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, has expressed doubts about ISRO’s ability to even get a human being into orbit, saying that, “the major problem is going to be the availability of the rocket for the mission. ISRO needs to make the GSLV Mk III operational—fast.”

Some experts are not so sure that the opportunity cost argument made above by Vivek Dehejia of the IDFC Institute is as politically controversial as claimed.

“It’s their dream to send their kids to university so they can do things like space technology — that kind of aspiration is more and more common in India,” said Roddam Narasimha, former director of India’s National Aerospace Laboratories. “I’ve hardly found anybody who thinks it shouldn’t be done.”

ISRO estimates that the mission to put the first indigenously-launched Indian into space will cost about U.S.$1.4 billion, a significant chunk of the amount that is currently budgeted a year for the entirety of ISRO’s activities. Indian space officials claim, however, that this price tag is much cheaper than what it cost China, India’s arch geopolitical rival, to put its first astronaut into orbit, and certainly much cheaper than what the United States spends to send its astronauts into space.

Other Indian space experts and officials, however, are confident that ISRO is up to the job and can safely put and return an Indian nation into Earth orbit by 2022.

“ISRO has developed some critical technologies like re-entry mission capability, crew escape system, crew module configuration, thermal protection system, deceleration and floatation system, sub-systems of life support system etc., required for this program,” said ISRO chairman K. Sivan in a statement.

Sivan added that ISRO has “perfected the engineering aspects of the mission,” but admitted that it is new to the fields of space medicine and the biosciences of human spaceflight.

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