Forty years ago, when the first Indian astronaut Rakesh Sharma, went to space in a Soviet spaceship, the New York Times made an ominous prediction that he might very well be the last Indian in space.
Cut to 2023, and the US itself has signed a deal with India to send a manned spaceship sending an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have agreed to launch a joint mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024.
This could be the precursor to ISRO’s Gaganyaan (meaning spaceship in Hindi) – the manned mission to space scheduled to happen by the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025.
The first Indian ‘Cosmonaut’ is hopeful that 2024 will also see the Indian manned mission come to fruition. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, who entered the annals of Indian history, seemed confident that by next year another Indian would be in space.
“Eighteen months is a reasonable time for getting a cosmonaut ready for the space odyssey. Even if the joint India-US mission happens first, it will be good for India’s manned mission as somebody will have experience,” Cosmonaut Wing Commander Sharma told the EurAsian Times.
Cosmonauts and Astronauts are different names for people doing the same jobs, the only difference is that the former is trained by the Russian Space Agency, and the latter has been trained by NASA.
Wing Commander Sharma had gone to space as part of the Soviet Interkosmos program in 1984. It will be the first time an Indian will go to the ISS.
NASA will provide advanced training to ISRO astronauts to launch a joint mission to the ISS in 2024.
The ISS is an impressive spacecraft orbiting about 250 miles above Earth. The first piece of the ISS was launched by a Russian rocket in 1998, and more pieces were added subsequently.
The first human arrived on the ISS in 2000, and since then, both astronauts and cosmonauts have stayed in it. In other words, continuous human presence has been maintained at the space station for over two decades.
US President Joe Biden announced this highest level of collaboration between the two countries during the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “From designing new ways to diagnosing and treating new illnesses like cancer and diabetes to collaboration on human space flight, including on sending an Indian astronaut to the international space station in 2024…,” President Biden said while listing out the areas of bilateral cooperation. NASA and ISRO will finalize a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation before the end of 2023.
This visit has been groundbreaking in terms of technological collaboration between the two countries. So far, Russia has been giving crucial technology to India. Wing Commander Sharma also says that the collaboration on human space flight cannot be seen in “isolation.” “It is an add-on due to the reach out of PM Modi. If you look at it in context, it is part of Artemis’ accord,” the first Indian in space added.
The Artemis Accords are a set of principles and guidelines for countries seeking to explore the moon, Mars, and beyond. The American-led effort seeks to maintain a permanent presence in the lunar orbit and on the moon’s surface, more than half a century after the Apollo missions put the first human on the surface of the moon.
The accords set up the basis for international cooperation in space exploration. The multilateral arrangement is meant to make humans “interplanetary species” as they venture onto Mars. The accord will pave the way for the 26 signatory countries to share data, technology, and resources for making lunar exploration a reality.
India’s Own ‘Gaganyaan’
When Wing Commander Sharma went to space in the Soviet spaceship, it was not only high noon for Indo-Soviet relations, it was the flight of a country’s aspirations.
He joined the Indian Air Force in 1970 as a MiG-21 pilot as a 20-year-old. As a 21-year-old, he flew 21 missions over Bangladesh during the 1971 war with Pakistan.
Then he went on to become a test pilot, from where he was selected to go into space. Generally, countries choose Test Pilots as part of the mission as they are highly trained to handle equipment and emergencies.
Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma spent eight days in space aboard the Salyut 7 space station. He was launched aboard Soyuz T-11 on April 3, 1984. He was conferred with the honor of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ upon his return from space. The Indian Government conferred its highest peacetime gallantry award, the Ashoka Chakra, on him.
And it will take nearly 40 years for the country to again dream of putting a human into space. “There is a reason for that. ISRO was focused on a satellite program, so the manned program was not on the agenda. Their vision has been fulfilled. Now they are going to the next level,” Wing Commander Sharma told EurAsian Times.
ISRO reached for the moon with its ambitious Chandrayaan-2. It was a technological leap for the space organization.
Now it is gearing up for its maiden human spaceflight, ‘Gaganyaan.’ The first abort mission will be conducted by the end of August 2023, followed by the unmanned mission to orbit next year, ISRO’s Chairman S. Somnath has revealed.
The four Indian Cosmonaut-designates selected from the Indian Air Force (IAF) have been undergoing grueling training in Russia and are continuing in Bangalore. With the Artemis Accord being signed between the two countries, there is a possibility they will now receive advanced training from NASA.
ISRO has planned a three-day mission where three Indian astronauts will be sent into space on an Indian rocket and brought back to Earth. The crew module would de-orbit and splash down off the Indian coast, and for it, the Indian cosmonaut designate is undergoing swimming training as well. They are going through rigorous rounds of stimulator training to make their responses in space instinctive. They are also undergoing theoretical training to understand the control system better.
Other countries like Russia, the US, Japan, and France have been supportive of the Indian space mission. The joint mission with NASA will give the Indian crew a feeling of outer space and working there. The advanced training for Indian astronauts at the Johnson Space Centre would better equip Indian astronauts for handling the several challenges that come with space travel.
ISRO has been growing confident of its capabilities, and Gaganyaan is just the beginning of India’s space odyssey and not the end of it. After achieving complete indigenization of its space capability, India aims to keep a continuous presence in space.
While ISRO has managed to overcome the technological impediment to make the maiden human spaceflight a reality, the Indian astronaut-designates are working towards overcoming the absence of gravity in space.
“The most dreadful aspect of the training is the spinning chair that helps the astronauts in overcoming the space motion sickness,” a cosmonaut-designate told the EurAsian Times.
The rotating chair stimulates the balance device in the inner ear to reduce side effects on the human body due to zero gravity in space. “One vomits, experiences lightheadedness, your sensory organs don’t get the right inputs,” the cosmonaut designate added.
- Ritu Sharma has written on defense and foreign affairs for over a decade. She holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Studies and Management of Peace from the University of Erfurt, Germany. Her areas of interest include Asia-Pacific, the South China Sea, and Aviation history.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com