The Indian Space Research Agency (ISRO) has proposed starting a human spaceflight program, with the first manned flight taking place by 2014 leading up to landing an Indian national on the Moon by 2020, ahead of China.
The controversial recommendation marks a huge shift in ISRO's oft repeated policy that it will use space technology for national development needs such as telecommunications, health care, education and environmental monitoring. In the past the agency has stayed away from manned flight because of the huge costs involved.
"That policy - pronounced four decades ago by Vikram Sarabai, father of India's space program -- had to change for two reasons," ISRO chairman Gopalan Madhavan Nair said in a Nov. 9 interview.
"We believe that pushing forward human presence in space may become essential for planetary exploration, a goal we have set for ISRO 20 years from now," he said. "Secondly, with India's booming economy, costs should not be a hurdle."
A human presence in space, Nair said, is important in the future if India wants a leadership role. The manned space mission "will be a national effort and mostly indigenous," he added.
Nair presented ISRO's new plans to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Oct. 17 and, on the latter's advice, threw open the topic for a brainstorming session by a cross section of the scientific community who met Nov.7 in Bangalore.
"The meeting unanimously agreed that manned missions are a logical next step and endorsed our proposal," Nair told Space News.
A detailed report will be submitted to the government before the end of the year for a formal approval that is a foregone conclusion given the fact India's President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a former ISRO scientist, is himself backing the mission. Initial funding of the program would begin April 1, 2007, the beginning of the country's fiscal year.
While ISRO is just now revealing its plans, it has been quietly preparing for manned space missions ever since China put an astronaut in space in 2003.
It has redesigned an existing satellite launcher - the GSLV -- to carry a crew of two and has already built a space recovery capsule, said B.N. Suresh, director of the ISRO centre in Trivandrum that will build the version of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that will be used for the unmanned moon mission and the modified GSLV that will be used for the manned flights.
ISRO will attempt to validate its re-entry technology in January 2007, when a new space recovery capsule will be launched into Earth orbit. It will then be de-orbited and recovered in the sea.
If the human spaceflight program is approved by the government as expected, India will join the exclusive club of the United States, Russia and China, nations that all have an independent ability to launch humans into space.
ISRO says its project leading to a first manned flight will cost $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year (more than three times the agency's current annual budget).
"The amount of money is not very large considering India spends the same amount for every 2,000 megawatt power plant it builds" said Udipi Ramachandra Rao, a former ISRO chairman and a key proponent of manned space missions.
Nair said the Moon would be the ultimate target of the manned mission's project because it is being considered as an intermediate base for planetary exploration and also as a possible source of minerals such as Helium-3, a nuclear fuel.
ISRO has released no details - technical or financial - of the moon landing program, the second phase of the manned mission project.
Critics, including some in ISRO, say India could better spend the money eradicating poverty and improving health and education of its people. But Rao said these problems are being addressed by the government separately.
"The manned mission gives ISRO a new goal and its spin-off would benefit people and the industry in the long run," he said. "Unless we set a new goal with challenges, the staff will get jaded doing the same type of work," he told Space News Nov. 9.
According to Rao, ISRO has constantly been engaged in technology developments such as air-breathing rocket engines, but in the absence of a well defined goal, their progress has been tardy. The manned mission project will breathe new life into these activities accelerating progress, he said.
"This project will certainly make millions of Indians feel proud but in my opinion, the priority still has to be about understanding and protecting our home planet," said Santhosh K. Seelan a former ISRO scientist and now professor of space studies in John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences of the University of North Dakota.
"As long as the intellectual challenges of exploring the moon and beyond does not cut into our commitments to care of the planet Earth, it [the manned mission project] is welcome."
Yagnaswami Sundararajan, who was closely associated with ISRO in the early years, and is now principal adviser to the Confederation of Indian Industry in New Delhi says India's growing economy and constantly changing geopolitical equations are arguments in favor of India embarking on the project. He cautioned, however, that there is a big difference between now and the 1970s and 1980s when India had to catch up with advanced nations that already had space technology.
"The technology gap then was narrow and we could bridge it easily," he told Space News Nov. 9. "Today, with space shuttle, international space station and all that, the gap in manned mission technologies that exists between India and countries like Russia and the United States is so wide it is going to be tough catching up without collaboration," he said. "If we shun collaboration and begin to reinvent the wheel, we will get nowhere."
But Rao feels differently. "We cannot do experiments in [the] space shuttle as the shuttle is not ours," he points out. "We have to develop our own technologies...that is the route Chinese have taken."
Objectives of manned missions by other countries have a commercial angle and collaboration is not easy to come by Rao says. He notes for instance that a U.S. offer to include an Indian astronaut in future manned-space missions -- an offer made by U.S. President George Bush during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington, in July 2005 - has not made any progress.
As for the question about whether India should use the money for more innovative ventures like developing a solar power satellite network to meet the growing energy needs of the country - instead of following the beaten track of lunar landing -- Nair says the space solar power technology is not mature enough.
"Unless satellites can convert 50 per cent of the sunlight falling on its solar panels into electricity the solar satellites will be uneconomical."
The agency is already working on the launch of its first unmanned mission to orbit the moon early 2008. The fresh funding will be used to create facilities for training a corps of astronauts and developing crew life support systems, and raising the necessary manpower, ISRO officials said.