It is somewhat intriguing to hear the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) suddenly talk about having an indigenous manned space programme in the next decade. In an interview to this paper last week, Isro Chairman G Madhavan Nair outlined an ambitious project to send an Indian into Earth-orbit by 2014, and then to the Moon by 2020. This is a surprising U-turn by Isro. Till recently, it had steadfastly denied having a manned profile in its space effort. Instead, Isro always focused on its unmanned moon mission called ‘Chandrayaan’, which seems to be on course for a 2008 launch.
This is an excellent way for the country to become part of the international umbrella now expanding quickly over space research and communications. The deep space network that the Isro is developing for the Chandrayaan mission, for instance, will ensure Indian participation in international space exploration projects like the International Space Station as well as future manned planetary missions. But it is important for Indian space scientists to do at least a decade’s homework and develop the requisite technologies and expertise before planning any manned missions.
The chief reason for India to shy away from putting humans in space is obviously the prohibitive cost. It is not just the question of developing the technological capability for an Indian lunar landing that is so implausible, as the raison d’être for having it. For the pace at which technology changes, electronics and computers could become so cheap in the years ahead that the economics may become easier to work out. Right now, however, Isro would do well to consider if ‘antarikshis’ on the moon are really needed to augment lunar exploration. There’s not much that such a mission could possibly achieve, given that thousands of lunar samples (brought back by six Apollo missions and three Soviet Luna probes), and in-orbit measurements by dozens of spacecraft, are still being analysed by scientists. So there is no express reason at this point for India’s space plans to go ballistic, unless it’s just to acquire the tag of being the fourth country to launch manned space missions after Russia, the US, and China.