ISRO Doesn't Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space

ISRO has come a long way in 50 years and needs new goals – but it isn't freed from the responsibility to define a new vision to go with those goals. Gaganyaan lacks that.

In December 2018, the Government of India okayed the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) human spaceflight mission at a cost of Rs 10,000 crore – and India went ballistic. Many ISRO scientists and engineers are undoubtedly looking forward to the challenge of preparing its launch vehicle for human flight, creating a human-rated capsule and perfecting de-orbiting, ballistic reentry and capsule recovery systems – to name only a few of the critical technologies.

However, these are technical considerations. The question of whether ISRO is up to the technological challenge has been answered many times over with a resounding ‘yes’. The more important question is this: what is the ultimate purpose of India’s human spaceflight mission?

When the late Vikram Sarabhai introduced space activities in India, he had said:

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society (emphases added).

In modern management jargon, these words were a vision statement. Sarabhai followed them up with what could have been the mission statement:

Our national goals involve leapfrogging from a state of economic backwardness and social disabilities attempting to achieve in a few decades a change which has incidentally taken centuries in other countries and in other lands. This involves innovation at all levels.

Communications, meteorology and navigation

What could one such innovation have been? His example:

A national programme which would provide television to about 80% of India’s population during the next ten years would be of great significance to national integration, for implementing schemes of economic and social development and for the stimulation and promotion of electronic industry. It is of particular significance for population living in isolated rural communities.

So with help from NASA, one of the first innovations that Sarabhai launched was the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). The technological challenge here was to develop, deploy and maintain direct reception satellite receivers in 2,400 villages across six states.

Why would ISRO want to do this? The idea was to reach the unreached with developmental video programmes for schools and adults in their local languages. They would be broadcast by Indian Earth stations via the ATS-6 satellite loaned to us by NASA for one year.

At the time, ISRO was also working on the INSAT series, the world’s first multifunction satellites. They combined communications, broadcasting and meteorological observations on one bus. The INSAT enabled the explosion of TV coverage in India – from four metropolitan cities to 90% of the country using technology pioneered in SITE, called limited rebroadcasting. Today, INSAT supports DTH, telecommunications, emergency communications and meteorological observations.

Also read: U.R. Rao, ISRO Chairman Who Helped India’s Space Programme Settle Down

In 1969, 50 years ago, at the end of the first UN Conference on the peaceful uses of outer space, Sarabhai said:

When we came to Vienna, we thought that the areas of most immediate practical applications would be communications, meteorology and navigation, in that order. But one of the most striking things to emerge has been appreciation of the great potentiality of remote sensing devices, capable of providing large-scale practical benefits.

Today, India has one of the worlds biggest civilian remote-sensing programmes in the world through its network of Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites.

So, with two such leading programmes and the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) – renamed NAVIC – addressing the last of the triad of communications, meteorology and navigation, has Sarabhai’s vision of ISRO been completed?

ISRO seems to think so.

Until recently, Sarabhai’s visionary quote was up on the ISRO website but has since been relegated to the page on Sarabhai as its first chairman. Its place has been taken by the following vision statement: “Harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration”.

This new statement reiterates the original vision of Sarabhai in terms of “space based applications for societal development”. As expected, it also reiterates its commitment to the programmes of launchers and communications, remote sensing-and navigation satellite systems. But then it also adds “space science research and planetary exploration”, areas that Sarabhai had excluded in his 1969 statement.

The early-mover advantage

At this point, it is pertinent to remember two aspects of the way ISRO works. The first is that since SITE, ISRO has built an ecosystem of end-user agencies. The idea is that this ecosystem will institutionalise applications of space technology and so achieve the goals of socio-economic development.

Within SITE, Doordarshan was an equal partner producing programmes to be broadcast through satellites. INSAT is overseen by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Department of Telecommunications and the India Meteorology Department. IRS has a similar ecosystem of industries, state and central government departments and academia.

The second aspect is that India has been an early-mover in the application of space technologies, with ISRO as a catalyst. Thus, innovations in both technology and applications marked ISRO’s progress. India’s importance in these endeavours can be gauged by the fact that the very first UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE) held in 1968 had Sarabhai, then chairman of the Indian National Committee on Space Research, as its vice-president and scientific chairman.

The second UNISPACE held in 1982 counted Yash Pal as its secretary general, and the third, held in 1999, had U.R. Rao as its president.

Also read: Say ISRO Sends an Indian to Space on an Indian Rocket. What Happens After?

Circling back to Sarabhai’s 1969 statement: while ISRO has been making and flying science satellites, including our first, Aryabhata, our excursions to the Moon, then Mars and now Gaganyaan appear to break from ISRO’s 1969 vision. This is certainly not a problem because, in the last half century, there have been significant advances in space applications for development, and ISRO needs new goals. However, these goals have to be unique and should put ISRO in a lead position – the way its use of space applications for development did.

Given the frugal approach that ISRO follows, Chandrayaan I and the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) did put ISRO ahead of its peers on the technology front, but what of their contribution to science?

Most space scientists are cagey, and go off the record, when asked about what we learnt that we can now share with others and claim pride of place in planetary exploration. Frankly, as an also-ran in this field, ISRO has lost the first-mover advantage like it had in communications and remote-sensing. It now faces a major uphill task to be able to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with. And it is not clear if the cost is worth it.

Gaganyaan has the same issues as Chandrayaan and MOM. While the technology development is a big challenge in the given time-frame, what do we hope to achieve after we have waved the Indian flag from orbit? We did that years ago with Rakesh Sharma and closely missed doing it once again with the loss of the US Space Shuttle Challenger. Moreover, it is moot as to why India did not join the International Space Station programme if it was also committed to an ‘Indian in space’ programme.

Continuity of purpose

While there exists a fledgling ecosystem for data analysis in the space sciences and, therefore, presumably for planetary exploration, there does not appear to be a similar ecosystem for human spaceflight to build on the mission itself. And the issue with building such an ecosystem lies in the one-off approach that ISRO has adopted to both planetary exploration and ‘humans in space’. There is no vision that spells out our long-term goals the way Sarabhai had in 1969, when ISRO was born.

When India set up its first Antarctic station, there was an unstated goal in the minds of those involved that if and when the Antarctic Treaty lapsed India – by virtue of its continued presence – will have a claim to the region’s resources. As a result, Dakshin Gangotri was followed by Dakshin Gangotri 2. There is also an Antarctic Centre in Goa to oversee the research as well as India’s continued presence on the continent.

India needs to define a similar continuity of purpose for its planetary exploration and human spaceflight programmes.

The docudrama Mars, aired recently on National Geographic, showed that colonising the red planet has to be a global, intergovernmental effort backed by deep pockets and close industry participation. The film highlights the pitfalls of such an effort. So could this be an area where India – through its humans in space – could establish a lead role?

It is possible. But without a vision and longer term thinking, Gaganyaan is just a flag-waving exercise and goes directly against ISRO’s ethos, at least as Sarabhai defined them half a century ago.

Arup Dasgupta is the managing editor of Geospatial World and former deputy director of the Space Applications Centre, ISRO.

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