Indian astronaut to fly to International Space Station in 2024. What does it mean for Gaganyaan?
On November 21, 1963, the launch of a US-origin Nike Apache sounding rocket from Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram, in southern India marked the beginning of the Indian Space programme. Sixty years later, in 2023, the Indian and American governments are collaborating on human spaceflight and working towards sending an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024.
This announcement on the highest-ever level of Indo-US Space cooperation was made during the Joint Press Conference at the White House, addressed by US President Joe Biden and Indian 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.
The coming year would be the most significant-yet milestone in Indo-US space ties, as the two countries are expected to undertake two high-profile missions: The launch of jointly-built earth-imaging NISAR Satellite (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) from India's spaceport in Sriharikota by early 2024 and the newly-announced mission to launch an Indian Astronaut to the ISS.
This will also mark the first-ever trip of an Indian astronaut to the ISS and the second foray of an Indian into space. Thus far, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma has been the only Indian to venture into space. He had travelled as part of the Soviet Interkosmos programme in 1984.
"President Biden and Prime Minister Modi welcomed the decision of NASA and ISRO to develop a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation by the end of 2023. The leaders hailed the announcement by NASA to provide advanced training to Indian astronauts at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, with the goal of mounting a joint effort to the International Space Station in 2024", read the joint statement from the US and India.
"India and the US have had a deep and long legacy of cooperation in the areas of Space science and technology. Furthering our cooperation in the field of space, we have decided to sign the Artemis Accords.... For India-US ties, even sky is not the limit," said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his media address. Going by his announcement, India would become the 27th signatory of the Artemis Accords, a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and safe, peaceful, prosperous use of outer space.
NASA, in coordination with the U.S. Department of State, established the Artemis Accords in 2020 along with seven other founding member nations.
The Artemis Accords is not just limited to Lunar exploration. "The principles set out in these Accords are intended to apply to civil space activities conducted by the civil space agencies of each Signatory. These activities may take place on the Moon, Mars, comets, and asteroids, including their surfaces and sub-surfaces, as well as in orbit of the Moon or Mars, in the Lagrangian points for the Earth-Moon system, and in transit between these celestial bodies and locations," the Artemis Accords document states.
Signing the Artemis Accords must not be construed as joining the US-led Artemis manned Lunar exploration programme. Notably, even non-spacefaring nations have signed the accords, which are legally non-binding.
As one of the few elite nations that possess end-to-end space capabilities (means to design, develop and launch rockets and satellites indigenously), both the announcements made in the White House are expected to immensely benefit India's space programme - be it human spaceflight missions or exploratory ones.
Over the last four years, India's space agency ISRO has been working on the country's ambitious indigenous Human Spaceflight programme known as Gaganyaan. This endeavour is envisioned as a three-day mission, where a crew of three Indian astronauts housed within a capsule (crew module) will be carried to space on an Indian rocket and brought back to Earth.
Once in Earth orbit, the crew are expected to perform in-orbit experiments during their stay in space and then the crew module would de-orbit and splash down, off the Indian coast.
Chairman ISRO, Dr S Somanath recently told that the Indian astronaut candidates (crew of Indian Air Force Pilots) have completed the first round of training abroad, have completed simulator training in India and are now undergoing theoretical training.
He added that the maiden unmanned mission of Gaganyaan would be carried out in early-2024 and the astronaut mission would be attempted in late-2024 or early-2025. India's efforts towards its maiden human spaceflight programme are being supported by Russia, US, Japan, France, European Union etc.
As India's astronauts gear up for the Gaganyaan mission, the ISRO-NASA joint mission to ISS in 2024 could be a precursor. Such a mission can help in preparing the Indian crew for their own national mission and give them a feel of travelling to space, living in Low Earth orbit and working there.
While the ISS is originally a cooperative programme between US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, astronauts from Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE have also flown to the ISS and worked there. The advanced astronaut training that is to be provided for Indian astronauts at the Johnson Space Centre would better equip Indian astronauts for handling the several challenges that come with space travel.
ISRO officials have said on multiple occasions that India's Gaganyaan is not a one-off mission and will have several follow-on missions. As a nation with end-to-end indigenous space capability, India aspires to have a sustained human presence in space, possibly an Indian Space Station.
Till the time that plan becomes a reality, ISRO-NASA missions to the ISS and similar efforts could provide a great wealth of learnings and experience for India's space science community and aid in developing India's own efforts and resources towards sustained human presence in Low Earth Orbit.