What kind of a scientific ecosystem does India need to put an Indian on the moon?
Read excerpts of our interview with Dr Chaitanya Giri.
A grand achievement is a series of smaller, well-defined, and precise accomplishments. If the vision of putting an Indian on the moon has to materialise, it should be preceded by several smaller projects and diverse institutions meeting definite targets. What would these targets be? Where does India’s scientific community stand in meeting them as of this day? What kind, and how much, additional capacity needs to be added to the Indian science sector to put an Indian on the moon?
Dr Chaitanya Giri is a trained cosmochemist and astrobiologist. In the past, he has been affiliated with the Earth-Life Science Institute, the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Carnegie Institution of Washington in US, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France.
A recipient of the Dieter Rampacher Prize of the Max Planck Society, Dr Giri is currently the Fellow for Space and Ocean Studies at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. We posed the questions above, and many more, to him. In return, we found out what exactly it would take to take an Indian to the moon and back.
1. What are the difficulties involved in sending three astronauts to a low-Earth orbit and bringing them back? (Please elaborate on life support systems and safety features needed for the astronauts).
Safety and life support of the three astronauts will be the most challenging part of this mission. Both are complementary factors.
In terms of safety, the capsule’s outer shell must be made of both radiation- and heat-shielding materials. The shell should be able to withstand any high-speed impact of a micrometeoroid or space debris as well as the high-speed and high-temperature re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, during the end-phase of the mission.
The roughly 20-minute-long crew module atmospheric re-entry experiment (CARE), carried out in 2014, involved the only ‘built-to-scale’ capsule. CARE made a ballistic re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere from a decent low-Earth orbit ceiling height of approximately 126 kilometres. But, it hardly spent a few minutes in space. It merely went up and came down. The structural integrity of Gaganyaan’s outer shell must be tested during its preliminary week-or-more long unmanned orbital flights.
Continuous communication is an important feature for monitoring the well-being of the capsule and the health of the astronauts. During the manned orbital flight, when the astronauts sleep or are engaged in their tasks, the capsule should be able to function via ground control and at times autonomously.
Life-support furthermore exists on two levels. One part is the closed environment life-support that is integrated into the capsule and the other is more intimate to the astronaut in the form of a spacesuit. The interior of the capsule must be a cocooned environment with regulated pressure-temperature conditions comfortable for the astronauts. The gas concentration in the capsule must be again comfortable and with the right concentration of oxygen. Excess oxygen leads to poisoning and aggravates chances of fire hazards. These things also need to be tested.
The spacesuit provides the primary life-support and it is the innermost defence for an astronaut. It must have a body heat-exchange system for maintaining an aptly ventilated and pressured internal environment, closer to the surface of their bodies. It must be able to ward off harmful radiation and be fire-proof.
India’s apparel and clothing technology industry must come together for creating stronger and ergonomic spacesuits made up of advanced materials than those existing today. We are in an era of health-wearable technologies, and nothing should stop their utility for astronauts aboard Gaganyaan.
Drinking water and nutrition inside the packed food will need to be customised as per the needs of the astronaut. Proper disposal of metabolic waste accumulating over the week or more long flight, would also need some thought.
The R&D of astronauts is equal to that of building cyborgs.
2. ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) already has heavy launching capabilities in the form of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mark-III). Would the current capabilities be enough for the planned missions or is ISRO planning on developing new or upgraded launch vehicles?
The 10-tonne-to-low-Earth-orbit GSLV Mark-III should suffice for the manned Gaganyaan orbital flight.
But then, we should watch out for the American rockets — Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, Space Launch System, New Glenn and Vulcan, that are pushing the payload carrying capacities across impressive ranges from 2-50 (heavy-lift) and 50-130 (super-heavy) tonnes. All of them are built by dedicated space launch contractors, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) only contributes by participating in R&D of some of the rocket parts, and being a customer through its missions.
The Russian Angara A5 and Proton, the European Ariane 5 and Ariane 6, and the Chinese Long March 5 are also in similar heavy-lift ranges.
Globally, the purpose of building such super-heavies is very simple. As the sizes of satellites shrink, the satellite launch market will be inundated by smaller launch vehicles. The super-heavies, on the other hand, are meant for, long-duration human habitation in the near-Earth space – inside the Earth-moon system; and exploration of planets with heavy and sophisticated payloads, including humans.
If India intends to land astronauts on the moon, possess its own space station in the low-Earth orbit, at the Lagrange points, one revolving around the moon, or have a massive rover running across Mars and deep in the oceans of Enceladus, we would need our own super-heavy rocket.
GSLV Mark-III is one of the smallest of the heavy-lift rockets in the world. In its current form, it can only carry communication satellites, space capsules, and slightly larger robotic space missions than what its smaller sibling, PSLV, can.
3. Has India made sufficient investments in astronaut training, mission control and launch vehicle production to sustain human flight to space after the first few missions?
For a long time, our policy-makers have had an affinity for anything low-cost. In the recent past, the same set developed a knack for comparing their missions to the budgets of Western blockbuster movies.
If doing things so cheaply and comparing apples with oranges was doing any good to India, we would by now have disrupted the entire space market. Low-cost has become an unsaleable gimmick. The space market is not impressed by it anymore. We need a pragmatic approach to investment.
The best option would be to use the aforementioned amount as an angel investment from the government to the DoS (Department of Space). The government should then facilitate the industry to come in with investments that suit their long- and short-term interests. Free-market dynamics will enable technology spin-offs from Gaganyaan.
But in all the sundry of monetary capital required, what we should rather be discussing are the investments in human capital. Skilled human capital is an enabler of productivity and it brings in immense return on investments. Outer space is not a final frontier, it is our first step in the vastness of space. An enterprise of this magnitude will need newer and potent econometrics and rationale.
4. What kind of scientific experiments and ideas could India try out in space technologies? A whole lot of work is already being done at the International Space Station and there’s the view that the Indian space programme will only be largely reinventing the wheel?
I am confident the Gaganyaan programme managers will invite bright scientific experimental research proposals, from across the length and breadth of the country, and not just from the DoS labs, to fly as payloads on the preliminary unmanned Gaganyaan flights. One that I can think of now would be to carry human phantoms (anthropomorphic dummies) and monitor the bio-chemo-physical impact of space radiation, microgravity, and varying closed environment conditions on it. This will help fine-tune the subsequent manned Gaganyaan mission.
Redoing is the first step towards disruptive invention. We shouldn’t shy away from redoing things, but the act of redoing must be for pushing the envelope and not for satiating the ‘me-too’ syndrome. Redoing also has a time-stamp attached to it. The more one lingers with redoing, it becomes pretention. The real merit of redoing is to rapidly spawn disruption.
And why just the Gaganyaan capsule? Once India builds its own space station, we will have ample time and orbital real estate to carry out an assortment of scientific experiments creatively. New Delhi cannot afford to make Gaganyaan a one-time wonder.
5. Looking ahead, do you think ISRO should seriously consider a manned mission to the moon? How can they best prepare for such a mission and what kind of moon missions could India attempt?
As they say, one leads to another, Gaganyaan-1 is a building block of a human-rated mission to the moon. But then one must realise what ails ISRO. You see the teams that built Chandrayaan-1 later built the Mars Orbiter Mission. The same teams are now building Chandrayaan-2.
ISRO has been deficient at human resource building and this is the reason why it is unable to work simultaneously on multiple programmes at a time. I’d say India is short of roughly 1.5-2 lakh top-notch scientists and technologists at the moment, only in the space sector. It is not that we do not have the pool, we do. What we lack is the ability to succinctly employ this human resource to strategically delineated projects.
If Gaganyaan is able to employ a few thousand scientists and technologists in the Indian lunar programme, across ISRO, the private sector, and the defence agencies, and the same number in the human spaceflight programme, India will be able to spin a major industry out of it. For a vision of that magnitude, one ISRO is not enough. India must breed an entire ecosystem shaped by free-market dynamics.
The first period of human spaceflight, from the 1960s to the 1980s, was driven by the space race. Things are much different today. With easing access and its ensuing democratisation, the near-Earth space has become a part of the global multipolar geopolitics. We may soon have greenfield infrastructure projects coming up in the near-Earth space.
If India is to establish its R&D bases on the moon, we will have to think according to national interest and our doctrine of strategic autonomy, and not through the lenses of any one agency.
6.What is that threshold, if any, which if ISRO crosses you will be convinced that they can take an Indian to the moon and back?
I am convinced for sure, we (Indians) will go to the moon and prosper there.
7. Do you think ISRO routinely fails to capitalise on education outreach and social media, even for glamorous and successful projects like the Mangalyaan?
Science on social media is extremely demanding and consumer-driven. It is more or less like movie box-office openings. The consumer (funding institutions, public and media) demands continuous high-impact scientific discoveries and innovation, there is sudden euphoria, there are overnight stars born, short attention spans, and whatever that grapples popular media affects science and the way it is done.
Highly productive research institutions around the world – be it the likes of the Ivy Leagues, NASA, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French CNRS or the German Max Planck Society – do not experience the struggle as much. ISRO’s pace of generating scientific content is slower comparatively. Its deficient human resource and the once-in-five-year low-cost missions are not able to generate enough novel scientific discoveries.
Megaprojects like Gaganyaan can engage scientific labs across several disciplines and faculties, in universities, research institutes, and even in the private sector. This is the best way to generate novel trans-disciplinary research output continuously. Such continuous supply at source will find its way to the social media naturally.
In all this, one has to start imagining what a mega spectacle the week of Gaganyaan will be. I can imagine all of us in 2022, glued to our TV sets and mobile phones, biting nails and waiting anxiously to hear and see that beam of audio-visuals and waiting for the astronauts to return. I can also imagine the way it will pump up the imaginations of kids and youngsters in India in one go. Human spaceflight is not for the naysayers and worry warts; it requires courage, allegiance and self-belief. It needs preparations, from you, from me, from those astronauts, scientists and engineers directly involved, from all of us. We are part of this aspiration. This cannot be a one-off event. This is a beginning of a new era, an era of go-getting Indians. It is for those Indians who feel limited by the skies.