Parliament was told this month that the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) would conduct its first abort demonstration test on India’s ambitious astronaut mission by December 31 this year. It is hoped that India’s first uncrewed mission will be launched by the end of 2023, under a Rs 9,023 crore project.
The Gaganyaan mission is one of ISRO’s toughest undertakings. Four Indian Air Force officers, whose names remain confidential, are training for the mission and have worked with Russia’s Roscosmos for the mission.
India is one of a dozen countries that have put an object into orbit. We first did it 40 years ago and it’s something the world’s richest man still hasn’t been able to do, despite his space company now being two decades old.
The reason so few have succeeded is that orbit is difficult. Objects only stay in orbit if they reach a horizontal speed of 27,000 km/h relative to the Earth. If this “escape velocity” is not reached, the object falls back. The restrictions that physics places on rocket design are what make this difficult: over 90% of a rocket’s weight is just fuel.
Advances in rocket technology have occurred broadly in two phases. The first was the decade of the 1960s. The Russians put the first object in orbit, the first living being (a dog) and satellite, the first man in orbit and the first spacewalk. The Americans followed. In a decade, from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, the world went from having no satellites to humans on the moon.
But after that, high costs, the boredom of the American public, and the failure of the Soviet moon rocket put an end to the energetic race.
After 1972, the United States went from being able to put humans on the moon — deep space — to a limited capability in lower Earth orbit, a few hundred miles away. After the space shuttle program ended ten years ago, America lacked the capacity to put humans even into low Earth orbit.
Today, that capability only exists with Russia using its very old rocket, China, and private company SpaceX. China first put humans into orbit about two decades ago and has a manned space station orbiting 400 km above Earth, something only the United States and Russia have done before. that a group of nations (which does not include India) develop the International Space Station.
ISRO has a plan to put humans into orbit within the next two years. This will not be easy. The rocket intended to do this failed earlier this month when its third stage failed to fire. Even so, India has done very well, although its capacity is limited by funding and access to technology.
Our rocket boosters are powered by an old engine first designed by France and using toxic low efficiency fuels called hypergols. We have some experience with more efficient cryogenic or supercooled fuels (failed third stage was cryogenic) running on an indigenous engine, but in general India’s capability is not at the level of more advanced countries and companies . ISRO does not have the ability to reuse its rockets, which increases costs.
A few years ago, a new space race began. This time, it is carried by private companies and China. This time, the motivations are different. America wants a base on the moon, there are plans in place to colonize Mars (the gigantic second stage of the purpose-built rocket was flight tested in Texas this year). To get an idea of its scale, consider that it will take 150 tons for Mars, while the Mangalyaan ISRO orbiter sent to Mars in 2013 weighed 15 kilograms.
There are plans to mine asteroids in search of rare minerals and bring them to Earth, permanently occupy Mars, and even change its climate to make it more terrestrial. This is the scale of ambition and it is being pursued as you read this.
This means that a vast technological gap is opening and will continue to open between those who do this – a handful of private companies, the United States and China – and the rest of the nations of the world.
This gap will not be limited to the resources to which their ability will give access to these few entities. It will also empower them to acquire the new technologies they will develop over the next decade doing things that no one else does or can do.
Technology derived from the first space race and the tens of billions of dollars poured into innovation six decades ago have produced the laptop, mouse, LASIK, artificial limbs, freeze-dried food, water purification and GPS. More breakthroughs of this magnitude will come, first for the entities developing them and perhaps later for wider commercial use. We will see them before the end of this decade.
It seems that India will be among the nations consigned to the observers and not the participants of this crucial phase. We must consider the implications and what this means for us in a future we are rapidly rushing towards.
(Aakar Patel is Chairman of Amnesty India. Opinions are personal)