India has endorsed an ambitious US$2.5 billion plan to launch its first astronauts into orbit by 2015, a move seen as an attempt to catch up with China in an emerging Asian space race.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) proposes to put two people into space, 274km above the Earth, for seven days — a plan endorsed by the country’s top economic policymaking body, the Planning Commission.
“ISRO has done an expert job and it needs to be supported,” said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the commission.
The Human Space Flight project will have two phases: an unmanned flight launched in 2013 or 2014 and a manned mission the following year.
The Indian Cabinet still has to approve the plan, but a spokesman for ISRO said the support of the commission was a “major step forward.”
If the country succeeded, it would become only the fourth — after the US, Russia and China — to send a man into space.
There is little doubt about India’s sense of purpose. Earlier this month, ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair unveiled blueprints at an international aeronautical show in Bangalore for the three-tonne space capsule, which would have room for a three-person crew.
India is also setting up a training center for astronauts in the south — and demonstrated it could launch and recover a space capsule that splashed down in the Bay of Bengal in January 2007.
The new mission will not be entirely homegrown. Moscow will help to build the astronaut capsule and select and train the astronauts. An Indian astronaut will also get a “trial run” abroad a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2013. The astronaut will be the second Indian in space after Rakesh Sharma, who was part of a joint space program between India and Russia in 1984.
Gopal Raj, author of Reach for the Stars, a book about the country’s rocket program, said: “This smacks of ISRO looking to keep up with China. It’s becoming a national prestige issue. I am not sure what you get from astronauts in space. Even the Europeans, who are much richer, have not got manned space flight programs.”
However, ISRO says such talk underestimates India’s final goals.
“We are not doing this because of China [which launched astronauts into space in 2003]. We want to get beyond the moon, which we see as just an intermediate base in the future. For this, you need humans; robots will not be enough,” the organization said.
Others have warned that ISRO’s budget is expanding at a time when the country faces both an economic slowdown and widespread poverty. An estimated 40 percent of the world’s severely malnourished children live in India, and more than 800 million people live on US$0.50 a day in the country.
“India has major issues regarding education, health [and] rural sanitization, and these struggle to get funds,” the columnist Praful Bidwai said. “Yet here we are, funding a giant national ego trip when people do not have latrines. It’s monstrous ... If the aim is to promote science, why not invest in climate change technologies?”