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What is ISRO’s big plan to send humans into space?

In 2025, India aims to send its first-ever crewed spaceflight, launching astronauts on an Indian spacecraft from within the country. On October 21, ISRO performed an uncrewed in-flight abort test. Around one minute into the flight, the Crew Escape System was activated for a little over two seconds, detaching the crew module from the launch vehicle. The crew module was propelled to a height of 17 kilometers, at which point the Crew Escape System disconnected from the crew module.

The launch vehicle and the Crew Escape System weren’t found afterward. The crew module landed safely in the water ten kilometers away, using two drogue parachutes and three main parachutes. The mission wrapped up around nine minutes after takeoff, achieving all its objectives without a hitch.

Is ISRO ready to take humans to space?

ISRO deemed the in-flight abort test a success despite the challenging weather conditions that affected the launch and descent visibility. Infrared cameras and telemetry offered ISRO the necessary data for evaluation. The chairman clarified that the initial launch delay at T-5 seconds happened because the automatic launch sequence detected a breach in the weather threshold.

The launch was successfully carried out 45 minutes later, even though the crew capsule was found floating upside down initially. This wasn’t a surprise for NASA, as the Apollo 11 crew capsule was also found in a similar position after its splashdown back in July 1969. NASA termed this position as “Stable 2”.

In cases of emergencies, ships have lifeboats, and airplanes have inflatable evacuation slides. Similarly, crewed launch vehicles bound for space are equipped with launch abort or escape systems. These can be triggered either on the launchpad before liftoff or shortly after. Similar to how a fighter pilot uses an ejection seat in a crisis, these systems use small but rapid solid motors to separate the crew module from the rest of the launch vehicle, ensuring a safe evacuation. Since Yuri Gagarin’s historic human spaceflight in 1961, these launch escape systems have been activated three times, successfully saving the lives of the crew in each instance.

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A historic moment in the making

In April 1984, Rakesh Sharma, India’s first astronaut, spent a week aboard Salyut 7 as part of the USSR’s Interkosmos program. Preceding this, on September 26, 1983, flight engineer Gennady Strekalov and commander Vladimir Titov narrowly escaped a fire that erupted moments before the launch of Soyuz T-10-1. The crew escape system was activated, detaching the crew module from the blaze that consumed the launch vehicle shortly afterward. The crew module made a safe landing four kilometers away. Though the commander and engineer were bruised and shaken, they fully recovered.

Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra were eyewitnesses to this tense event, knowing that the next Soyuz flight was on the horizon for them. On April 2, 1984, Gennady Strekalov and Rakesh Sharma were among the crew members launched on the triumphal Soyuz T-11 mission to Salyut 7. Sharma and Malhotra had been undergoing training in Star City since September 1982. Both were Indian Air Force test pilots and were accustomed to high-risk missions.

Soyuz-T-10 marked the second instance of a launch abort system in action, following the first during the Soyuz 7K-T No.39 mission nearly ten years earlier. The mission aimed to transport a crew of two to the Salyut 4 space station on April 5, 1975. Roughly five minutes after liftoff, an issue arose during the separation between the second and third stages, jeopardizing the mission. In response, the Soyuz activated the escape system, detaching the crew module from the launch vehicle. Approximately twenty minutes after liftoff, the crew safely landed on a snow-covered hillside near the Chinese border in the USSR.

Believing they might have landed in Chinese territory, the crew made the decision to dispose of confidential military documents related to the planned experiments in space. With the aid of their survival suits and training, they endured the freezing temperatures through the night and were rescued the following day.

On October 11, 2018, Soyuz MS-10 encountered an issue with its booster separation a few minutes after liftoff, preventing NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin from reaching the International Space Station. The Soyuz spacecraft activated the abort protocol, separating the crew module from the launch vehicle, leading to a safe landing approximately 20 minutes after liftoff. Despite enduring a force of around 7 g’s, both crew members were safely recovered and returned to Baikonur in good health. The mission objectives initially intended for the Soyuz MS-10 flight were successfully accomplished by Soyuz MS-12, which launched in March 2019.

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The need for the Crew Escape System is paramount

Developing and testing the Crew Escape System for Gaganyaan is one of the crucial steps ISRO must complete before the first crewed mission. India’s human spaceflight program has faced several challenges along the way. The initial intention to develop the program was made public in 2007, and it was officially announced in 2009, although funding was not immediately secured. The collaborative efforts between ISRO and Roscosmos were anticipated to yield results by 2016, but this timeline did not come to fruition. Nevertheless, ISRO has quietly been working on the necessary systems for the Gaganyaan program. The official announcement from the prime minister was made on India’s Independence Day, August 12, 2018.

Earlier, the plan was to have the inaugural crewed flight in 2022, celebrating India’s 75th year of independence. However, several delays, with COVID-19 being one of them, pushed the first launch to at least 2025. Meanwhile, ISRO has been hard at work developing essential technologies like environmental control systems, mock-ups of spacesuits, and making sure the LVM3 is safe for human use. They’ve even carried out a crew module drop test from a chopper and tested the recovery process post-splashdown.

ISRO typically steers clear of launches in October, during the lingering monsoon season. The low visibility, the unexpected halt during the initial launch attempt, and the retrieval of the capsule by the Indian Navy in an initial “stable 2” position all contributed positively to this rehearsal for an eventual crewed mission. In June 2023, India joined NASA’s Artemis Accords, which included the potential flight of an Indian astronaut to the ISS in 2024. While it’s unlikely, if it does happen, the chosen astronaut will be one of the four Indian Air Force test pilots already trained in Star City for the Gaganyaan mission. So, it’s possible that the next Indian astronaut to go to space will be on the ISS before Gaganyaan.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.