Today’s first ever successful commercial crew launch for carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) shall be the trendsetter for this century. The success of manned mission into Earth’s orbit is seen as the beginning of affordable Space programme to Moon and further putting the Mars mission within human travel grasp. SpaceX is the first private company to bring the concept of re-usability and sustainability mantra into a reality. Now it is possible to return rocket stages back to Earth using a propulsive power and to be re-flown in the next missions. The company is already developing a bigger spacecraft called Starship, which shall be a fully reusable rocket to carry cargo and crew for missions to Moon and Mars. These endeavours are to achieve self-sustaining missions to Moon and Mars.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme
Entrepreneur Elon Musk founded the SpaceX Company in 2002, with an ambition to reduce the space transportation costs, so as to ultimately achieve colonisation of Mars. SpaceX provides commercial and government launch services on its Falcon rockets. “The launch today was achieved through a Falcon Heavy rocket which is one of the most powerful rockets, which had undertaken three previous launches and has a design capability to insert a payload on Mars surface. These rockets use a common family of Merlin engines, developed for use onboard Falcon series of rockets,” says Milind Kulshreshtha, C4I expert.
Since early 2000s, NASA had planned to commercialise the transport of cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). With the 2003 Columbia shuttle loss during the re-entry phase, a need for spaceship was felt by NASA, especially to meet the planned Moon missions. To make this an affordable programme, private firms were involved, starting with a mission to transfer of crew and cargo to the ISS and in 2014, SpaceX and Boeing won the NASA contract for crew transport services. Today’s launch was SpaceX’s first manned mission from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre and a demonstrator flight to lay open the space commercialisation effort, which makes the space travel affordable and within reach of many. Boeing too has its mission cut out to carry four NASA-sponsored crew members and cargo onboard Starliner spaceship. The Starliner also has a unique feature of being reusable up to ten times, with a six-month turnaround.
Key to Commercialization Success
A study in the USA indicated that in the past two decades, 91% of known launch vehicle failures were attributable to three main causes including engine, avionics and stage separation failures. Commercial agencies leveraged these findings to create some powerful rockets from a drawing board stage, which were affordable and safe to fly critical missions by ensuring key features like engine, avionics and reliable stage separations built into the design stage itself. “Although, space travel is always a high-risk activity and each system is overdesigned for safety, thus reusability of highly reliable rockets shall be the key for meeting the budget of forthcoming space travels, including Moon landings by 2024 (with the first woman on Moon surface), and further missions to Mars,” the C41 expert states. As experienced by SpaceX from the very initial stages that success is expensive to come by in space activities and requires perseverance, motivation and ambition like Elon Musk has.
ISRO’s Space Commercialisation Effort
Antrix Corporation Limited (ACL), and New Space India Ltd have been set up under Department of Space to help in the promotion and commercial exploitation of space products, Transfer-of-Technology, Small Satellite Launch Vehicle tech transfer and manufacture of PSLV through the Industry etc.
Last month, the Indian Space agency came out with Announcement of Opportunity (AO) document which opens the Human Space for Private Industry participation. Here an attempt to allow the national industry to contribute through the development of indigenous cutting edge technologies for human survival in low earth orbits and beyond for space exploration. However, according to Kulshreshtha “unlike the technological focus and investment seen by NASA in the USA, Indian firms have some serious gaps when it comes to collaborative manufacturing. For ISRO, it shall be interesting to watch and see if any entity is ready to spearhead the commercialisation effort in Space like SpaceX and Boeing.”
“Space products are hi-tech and for reliability undergo large testing and proving cycle and ISRO shall like to maintain these high standards and keeping the product within the resource budget. Hopefully, in this national fervour of indigenisation, ISRO is not risking having a collaboration partner as a liability when it comes to timely delivery,” he opines.
Therefore, the concept of ‘atmanirbhar ’ in Space research for forthcoming manned missions like Gaganyaan and lunar missions Chandrayaan-3 may fall short of the expectations due to time constraints and likely lack of big player’s participation.