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

It's a two-pronged failure of communication: to believe that nothing else but an Indian in space will inspire India's youth, and to believe that nothing more will be necessary.

During his Independence Day speech on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would launch an Indian to space onboard an Indian rocket by 2022, when India will celebrate 75 years of independence from colonial rule.

In a press conference later the same day, ISRO chairman K. Sivan admitted that Modi’s announcement had caught him and his colleagues by surprise, but also clarified that they expect to achieve the feat – in the works since 2004 and okayed by the Planning Commission in 2009 – in advance. The total project is expected to cost over Rs 10,000 crore, which is more than ISRO’s entire annual operating budget.

A crewed mission to space is a whole different ball game from other space flight activities. It’s not necessary for scientists and engineers to develop human spaceflight capability to be able to do other things. So why they’re doing it is a question of payoffs. Although its romanticism has been in flux, the accomplishment of sending humans to space remains prestigious enough to be a goal in and of itself. The deeper, more fundamental, question therefore is what the prestige stands for and whether it is valuable enough to sideline other equally prestigious endeavours.

Is there anything as prestigious as human spaceflight? It’s hard to say because human spaceflight has vintage. It connects with cross-generational aspirations and it carries immense symbolic value. Modi announced that India would put a man in space by 2022 because this is his last Independence Day speech as prime minister before the general election next year. Somehow, mining asteroids or launching a probe to Pluto doesn’t carry the same propagandic payload.

That said, robotic missions aren’t to be sneezed at. In complexity and skill of design, many of them rival human missions. The upcoming Chandrayaan 2 mission involves landing a rover built by ISRO on the Moon and then operating it remotely, just like the Curiosity rover on Mars. Where human missions become tricky is on the safety index.

If a space mission is going to be planned, designed and executed based purely on a quantitative assessment, India wouldn’t be sending an Indian to space on an Indian rocket because it is demonstrably less useful than investing a similar amount of financial, infrastructural and human resources into missions that will keep ISRO ahead for decades to come.

For example, the Department of Space (DoS) should make it easier for private satellite-makers and rocketeers to launch their own rockets. It should de-obfuscate the labyrinthine processes for private companies to launch their assets on ISRO vehicles and put itself behind laws that will provide clarity on how Indian agents can survey, extract and trade space-based resources. ISRO should stop being both regulator and operator at the same time, and prioritise science missions, and publicise their results, to a greater extent. Overall, the DoS should boost and sustain private sector participation. Remember TeamIndus?

Should these efforts be undertaken – and completed with the same vision and political will that now stands behind the “Vyomanaut” or “Gagannaut” – it will be nigh-impossible for anyone to overstate India’s preponderance in the international spaceflight arena. (i) We will be leaders; (ii) we will be a beacon of hope for the developing world; (iii) we will reap tremendous profits; and (iv) our leadership will be ensured for at least the next five decades.

On the other hand, if a space mission is going to be planned, designed and executed because it needs to signal that we’re capable of one of spaceflight’s foremost historical ambitions – as it seems to be – then we wait with bated breath for 2022, and uncertainty after.

In fact, the future is where the idea’s tendency to be a trap comes to fore. When the Space Age kicked off in the 1950s, the Americans and the Soviets each wanted to be the first to put a human in space and then on the Moon because it was a lofty display of power. Then the Americans and the Russians kept it up because they were developing space-based ties centred on the International Space Station. The Chinese launched their first ‘taikonaut’ in 2003 and, in the second phase of the same project and only eight years later, launched the first module of their space station. In the 21st century, space agencies send people to space for a reason other than to simply demonstrate that they can do that.

For example, ISRO has expressed interest in participating in activities at the International Space Station in the past. For another, according to a 2015 article penned by a French expert, “ISRO … advocates the need to position the country as a key partner in a future crewed mission to Mars, which [Narendra Modi] believes is bound to be international.” Such details are missing from the prevailing conversation on the human spaceflight mission when in fact they are essential.

There’s another question whose answer lies in the future. Sivan, the ISRO chairman, has pronounced that the push to put an Indian in space will generate “15,000 jobs”. Assuming we do succeed by 2022 (the mission is already behind schedule going by what the Planning Commission was told in 2009) – then what? Do those 15,000 people keep their jobs and, if so, what are they doing? Do ISRO and/or the DoS have plans to utilise such a volume of skilled labour beyond the next five years? Like the Chinese or the Russians, do we plan to keep sending humans to space?

Human spaceflight needs to be a thing in and of itself to be meaningful in our time; if it isn’t, it risks being a single page in the book of history with nothing to come after. If the political establishment sees it as a giant flag that can be raised in space, then it’s one hell of an expensive flag, and there are other, more affordable ways to hoist it at 350 km. On the other hand, if Modi really wants India to be on the cutting edge instead of an also-ran, there are other ways to do that. The question arises: why can’t we send a human to space as well as be on the cutting edge? We can, but ISRO doesn’t have the resources necessary to accomplish that in the next decade.

This smells like a failure to understand what going to space is about. All those things that the DoS and ISRO can do but aren’t doing are important parts of the modern spaceflight ambition.

It’s a failure of perception if we think sending one person to low-Earth orbit is somehow more symbolically powerful than reforming our space programme and making it an equitable enterprise, accessible both to private and public players, such that we can make full use of what space in all senses of the word offers us – from a bird’s eye view of terra firma to a frontier that offers new possibilities of its own. More fundamentally, the prime minister’s surprise announcement marks a two-pronged failure of communication: to believe that nothing else but an Indian in space will inspire India’s youth, and to believe that nothing more will be necessary.