The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) seems to be in an expansive mood, the way it proposes to take potential space tourists on short duration sojourns in low earth orbit. The Isro Chairman, G. Madhavan Nair, thought aloud on this the other day and reportedly told the media that “well-heeled tourists” — read immensely rich wannabe astronauts — could go for week-long spins on board an Isro spacecraft in eight years’ time. The idea apparently is to use the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) to loft a couple of space tourists into a 400-km orbit around Earth. The capsule would later be brought down in the Bay of Bengal. It is good for Isro to dream big in this manner, considering other space agencies are gearing up to open up the ‘final frontier’ to space tourism.
Almost anyone who’d care to be spaceborne will soon be able to sign up for these sub-orbital hops, provided he or she fulfils basic health requirements and, of course, can dole out huge amounts for the ticket to ride. Having said that, however, there is no denying either the need for a reality check for Isro at this point when its ambitions should conform to its capabilities. The idea of renting out space rides is no doubt an excellent money-spinner, as the Russians prove, allowing civilian space travellers (who pay $ 20,000 apiece) to ride their Soyuz spaceships. But it is a surprising U-turn for Isro to think along these lines, given that it always denied having a manned profile at all in its space effort. Instead, its focus was supposedly on the unmanned moon mission called ‘Chandrayaan’, which is on course for launch later this year. Although Isro takes pride in offering low-cost satellite launches, there is still a long way to go before its boosters can get into double-digit launch capabilities. Even the cryogenic engine technology, which is so crucial for the GSLV, has yet to be flight-tested.
So a better idea would be for Isro 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 Chandrayaan, for instance, will ensure Indian participation in international space exploration projects like the International Space Station and future manned planetary missions.