Future of space programme: Why India needs to build its own space station

Published: May 27, 2019 4:00:03 PM

For long, India is known to be making investments in space arena for social, scientific and security purposes.

india, space programme, indian space programme, space station, indian space station, science newsOver the years, India has achieved some major successes in the space arena and there is a need to build further on this growth trajectory. (Photo: Representational by Reuters)

By Dr Ajey Lele

Modi 2.0 is going to be a challenge for Mr Modi himself. This is because in few areas he had raised significant expectations during his first term and now he requires to build-up on these expectations. Outer Space is one arena, where Modi 1.0 had a major focus. For long, India is known to be making investments in space arena for social, scientific and security purposes. Over the years, India has achieved some major successes in the space arena and there is a need to build further on this growth trajectory.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was launched during the UPA regime (Nov 2013). However, during its nine months of travel in space towards Mars, the political dispensation on Earth in India had changed hands from UPA to NDA. Hence, when MOM (Sep 2014) successfully entered the Martian atmosphere, Mr Modi was the Prime Minister. Modi 1.0 also witnessed India using ‘space’ as a foreign policy instrument. To cater for the communications requirements of its neighbours, India presented them a satellite (2017) called the South Asia Satellite (GSAT-9). India has famously created a world record during Feb 2017 by launching 104 satellites in a single launch. This did attract global attention and has assisted in establishing the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as the most favoured agency for launching small satellites, commercially.

Now, ISRO is developing a separate small satellite launch vehicle for such purposes, which is expected to become operation by end 2019. During June 2017 and November 2018 ISRO successfully undertook the first and second developmental flights of GSLV Mk III. India took significant amount of time for developing cryogenic engine technology, which is at the heart of its heavy satellite (4 to 6 tons) vehicle GSLV Mk III. But, now it is expected that India would not be required to depend on outside agencies for launching its heavy commutations satellites. Broadly, ISRO’s space programme has been on right track for last couple of decades. However, there are two areas which lack clarity. One, is India’s
planetary missions and other is India’s proposed human mission. It is important for Modi 2.0 to address these issues upfront. India’s second mission to Moon is expected to get launched July 2019.

India’s first Moon mission happened during Oct/Nov 2008. The second mission has got delayed because, initially Russia was to be a partner in this mission. In spite of all this, more than one decade of time-difference between two missions is unhealthy. Same is the case with Mars mission, the first mission took place during 2014 and there is no clarity about the second mission yet. Now, ISRO is proposing a mission to Venus. The question is that, ‘is ISRO not spreading too thin’? Why are they not taking the Moon and Mars agenda to a logical conclusion, first? Today, global
agencies have already announced their timelines for humans reaching Moon and Mars, while we are failing to expand on the knowledge gained during the first mission by delaying our second missions. It is important to note that planetary agendas can’t be one mission agendas. These programmes have to be meticulously planned for coming few decades. Other states which are in this game have clearly articulated their programmes for minimum of four to five missions.

Remember this is all about race for planetary resources. Unfortunately, ISRO has not planned for any missions to asteroids, an ideal bed
for mineral mining. Similarly, there is no clarity about India’s proposed human space programme. All we know it that, by 2021/2022 India would launch its own astronauts to the space, at altitude around 400 km above the Earth’s surface. There is a danger that this programme could also end up only as a ‘feel-good programme’. If humans are going to space, we need to have a long-term agenda for human space mission. Such programmes cannot be one step at a time programme. You need to think big, plan big and invest big. India needs to build its own ‘Space Station’ otherwise, investing in human space programme has no meaning. We need to plan minimum for coming 10 to 15 years, now. This could be gift of Modi 2.0 for the coming generations. Actually, we all owe it to them.

(The author is Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi, India. Views expressed are personal.)

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