Bangalore: The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) will begin building a space capsule to carry two astronauts on its maiden manned mission, scheduled to take place by 2016.
Isro’s satellite centre will fabricate the three-member capsule using anthropometric data, or information on physical attributes peculiar to Indians. The centre will also bridge the gap in developing key restricted technologies and help plan for future missions to the moon.
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Unlike the US space shuttles that glide in from space to land on a runway on their return, India will follow the Russian and Chinese method of recovering the space capsule after it drops into the ocean.
Ensuring the safe return of the occupants of the capsule, which will be launched by a rocket, will be critical.
“Reliability should be one order high. We can’t risk human life. They should be 100% safe,” said S. Ramakrishnan, chief executive of the human space flight programme at Isro. “We need to build multiple redundant environments, a crew escape system at every stage to bring them back safe to earth.”
As part of the preparatory effort, a team of Indian astronauts will take part in one of Russia’s manned missions, Ramakrishnan said. Rakesh Sharma, India’s first astronaut, flew on a Soviet space mission in 1984.
The government is yet to give its nod for the Rs10,000 crore project, which will put India in a select club of nations that includes the US, Russia and China, which have undertaken manned space missions. So far, the government has sanctioned Rs380 crore for preliminary work.
“We are awaiting the project approval. Once we get it, work will begin full swing, ” said S. Satish, Isro spokesperson. The Planning Commission gave its nod to the programme in February last year.
Isro will work with other national bodies such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the National Aerospace Laboratories, the Armed Forces and academic institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology for the manned mission, more than five decades after Yuri Gagarin made the first ever such trip in 1961.
The capsule for the one-week mission in low-earth orbit will have an earth-like atmosphere with oxygen supply and a real-time health monitoring system for the safety of the astronauts. Initial work on a space suit has begun at the Defence Bioengineering and Electromedical Laboratory, or Debel, a unit of DRDO in Bangalore, said C.V. Padaki, director at Debel.
Simultaneously, Isro is validating key systems for life support, rescue and recovery apart from new mission-management and control systems for the programme. Besides the astronaut training centre in Bangalore, a new launch pad for the manned mission is being built at Sriharikota on the eastern coast.
Isro first tested its capsule recovery technology in 2007, which involved heat-resistant materials necessary for the re-entry. Isro will conduct at least two unmanned space missions in the next four years.
“Building technology takes time, but the confidence we build through this project is enormous. It will take us to the next level,” said Roddam Narasimha, one of India’s foremost aerospace scientists.
The Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), a unit of the Indian Air Force in Bangalore, has been studying pilots and the way their bodies behave in fighter jets and test conditions that replicate the vacuum of outer space. In the next two-three years, IAM will shortlist pilots who will be trained to become astronauts, from which the final two will be selected. “While we do this, we are also upgrading our existing infrastructure to train the astronauts,” said Air Marshal P. Madhusoodanan, director-general of medical services.
The rocket for the mission, known as the Human Space Flight Programme, is still to be proven. India’s heaviest rocket will blast off later this year: a geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle, with an indigenous cryogenic stage—an engine powered by liquefied oxygen and hydrogen that can hurl large communication satellites into orbit.
Isro’s challenges include the rocket having to be man-rated, which means having an error of one in 1,000 operations, before it can be used to send up an astronaut. Once proven, it can launch a 10-tonne space capsule in lower-earth orbit carrying three astronauts, said Ramakrishnan.