Gaganyaan

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” were the words of former US president John F Kennedy in May 1961. It was a call to land a man on the moon —  no matter the difficulty or the cost — a mission that NASA established by 1969.

However, on the day that Kennedy announced his plan to the joint session of Congress, NASA had no idea what was going to hit them, or how they would land a man on the moon and bring him back safely within a decade.

From the ramparts of the Red Fort on India’s 72nd Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech that was reminiscent of JFK’s 1961 speech — that India will have a manned mission to space by 2022.

“Our country is resolute that by 2022, when we would have achieved 75 years of independence and if possible before that, when we celebrate our 75th Independence Day — any of India’s children — a son or daughter, it can be anyone, will go to space. They’ll take the tricolour with them. We have to achieve this dream before we complete 75 years of independence,” Modi said.

ISRO has a mammoth task in front of it now, one that only three countries in the world have managed to achieve — Russia, USA and China. That too, with a tight target of five years.

As ISRO faced an avalanche of questions about whether or not they would be able successfully complete Mission ‘Gaganyaan,’ ISRO chief K Sivan had only one thing to say – “It came as a surprise.” He was, however, confident that they will be able to achieve the target.

“Whatever happens here (ISRO), the honourable Prime Minister will be knowing. He would have taken his own assessment,” Sivan said, when asked about PM Modi’s declaration. Terming it a national project, Sivan said that it was not just ISRO, but multiple organisations who will be working on the mission.

Comparing ISRO to 1961 NASA, however, would not be entirely fair. Sivan says that while the details — what the experiment will be, the search for the people who will be propelled into space, etc. — have to be ironed out, they are prepared.

He says that they have already some part of the technology such as the human crew module and escape systems, environment control and the life support system. They aim to put three people in space for at least seven days and will use the GSLV MK-III.

On July 5, the agency carried out its successful maiden pad abort test at Sriharikota for the safe escape of the crew in case of an emergency. The technology is designed to quickly pull the crew module along with the astronauts to a safe distance from the launch vehicle in the event of a launch abort.

While PM Modi may have sprung this on ISRO, it has been on the space agency’s drawing board since 2004.

Sivan said that first unmanned flights will be tested by 2020 and there will be two unmanned space missions before the manned one.

When asked about the cost of the project, the ISRO chief gave a ballpark figure of less than Rs 10,000 crore. This will be the costliest single project that the organisation will be taking up, but not the largest budget sanction. The space agency says it will be submitting its project report in about two months.

ISRO had earlier announced that India is ready to launch two space missions every month, with 31 launches slated to take place — nine launches over the next five months and 22 missions from February to December 2019. Dr Sivan says that this is expected to continue and it will be given to the industry, with a limited involvement from ISRO.

For now, one can only wait and watch how ISRO takes on the challenge.