The mission’s most significant milestone will be being technically equipped to not only send living humans into space but also to bring them back safely India is starting its most ambitious journey into space with the beginning of the Gaganyaan mission. On the morning of 21 October, ISRO will test the TV-D1, or Test Vehicle D1, module of the Rs 9000 crore Gaganyaan mission.
This test will examine ISRO’s capability for the Crew Escape System. The purpose of this system is to save the lives of Indian astronauts, or Gaganauts, in the event of a failure or accident in the transonic range or near the speed of sound velocity. The test, lasting less than 9 minutes, will simulate an accident scenario at a height of 17 kilometres where five rapidly firing motors will ensure that the command module, where the crew is placed, is moved at least 2 kilometres away from the out of control and burning rocket.
The Gaganyaan mission has a special place in India’s space ascent. The mission’s most significant milestone will be being technically equipped to not only send living humans into space but also to bring them back safely. A mission of this scale needs a convergence of multiple technologies, from rocketry used for thrusters to fluid mechanics for controlled flight, biosciences to create life support systems, and material sciences for components, especially the high-resistance ones such as the heat shield. All of these systems and technologies need to work in perfect unison for the mission to succeed, and the room for error is zero.
Adding the capability to successfully launch humans into space would be crucial in the emerging space sector. First, it would qualify India to play an active role in the emerging space tourism sector, expected to reach up to Rs 112,000 crore—something that the USA, China, and Russia, along with major private companies such as SpaceX, Virgin, and Blue Origin, are actively working on. The Gaganyaan mission is costing less than half of Project Mercury, the first American mission for manned spaceflight, which cost over Rs 18,000 crore and had a workforce of 20 lakh people.
Second, the ability of human space flight is the precursor for India’s own Space Station by 2035, and it would also give us a foothold in other space stations where we can play an active role in transporting men and material into them. Similarly, mastering this skill will eventually lead us to be able to make an Indian footprint on the Moon and beyond. Lastly, the success of Gaganyaan will have a colossal impact on the younger generation of the nation. A school child today in a remote Indian town or a major city can look up into the sky and aspire to make a spacewalk on the Moon or Mars; the nation is scientifically and economically capable to achieve this.
There should be no confusion that the TV-D1 test on 21 October is the last hurdle. Space is hostile, complicated, and fraught with dangers. We have seen how a piece of loose foam from the fuel tank hitting the wing of Orbiter Columbia led to the death of Kalpana Chawla along with six other astronauts in 2003. In 1967, the Moon Mission, or Apollo Programme, started with a fire accident in the Command Module of Apollo 1, which killed three leading astronauts and potential moonwalkers in a matter of a few minutes. And in 1971, a sudden decompression of the command module killed three renowned Soviet cosmonauts in a matter of seconds.
For Gaganyaan to succeed, we will have to go through multiple tests involving many technologies put to a high-stress environment with no time to react. The eventual success of the mission will surely herald a new age in the Indian technology space of atmanirbharta, or self-reliance.
In 1984, when the first and so only Indian citizen to go into space, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, was aboard the Soviet Space Station called Salyut, he looked at India from space and said, ‘Saare Jahan se Acha‘. Four decades later, in 2024, there will be a group of Indian Gaganauts who will echo the same thoughts, but this time in an Indian spacecraft, as Atmanirbhar Bharat rises on the map of the planet.