First India human space mission training progressing despite COVID-19 hiccups

File Photo: Humanoid ‘Vyommitra’ to be used in first human space flight trials.

By Amit Agnihotri

New Delhi: India is committed to launching its first human space mission “Gaganyaan” on time before Aug. 2022 despite the roadblocks created by deadly COVID-19 which has severely impacted the country’s economy.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), supervising the Rs 10,000 crore ($1.33 billion) project, was preparing to launch the “Gaganyaan” in 2022, the 75th anniversary year of India’s independence from colonial rule.

But the nationwide lock down resulting from the spread of the pandemic halted the training of four Indian astronauts at the Yu. A. Gagarin Research and Test Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Moscow, Russia.

Thanks to a “cushion”, both in the training programme and the launch deadline, maintained by the ISRO and the GCTCs, the astronauts’ training resumed in May. ISRO has four Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilots as potential astronauts for the Gaganyaan project. As per plans, three of the astronaut-selects may finally get to do the space flight under the project.

“The launch of India’s first human space mission ‘Gaganyaan’ will not be affected by COVID-19 pandemic and preparation are carrying on in the right direction,” India’s Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for the Department of Space Dr Jitendra Singh had said in a statement on June 29.

“The training of the astronauts has resumed and the launch is scheduled to take place as planned, before the 75th anniversary of India’s independence in 2022,” Dr Singh said.

The Indian ‘cosmonauts‘ (the term for astronauts in Russia, while India prefer ‘gagannauts‘) training under the contract between Glavkosmos, JSC (part of the Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos) and the Human Space Flight Centre of ISRO was resumed and is proceeding well under all the specified safety protocols to deal with COVID-19, a GCTC statement said on May 22.

The contract for training was signed on June 27 last year and the training in Moscow started on Feb. 10 this year. However, towards the end of March, the Indian astronauts underwent a lock down necessitated to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

The GCTC specialists have given theoretical classes on the basic of astrogation, the basics of manned spacecraft control and the Russian language to the Indian astronauts, besides other key inputs.

After the training in Russia, the astronauts will receive module-specific training in India, where they would be trained in crew and service module designed by ISRO, learn to operate it, work around it, and do simulations.

Another challenge before the Indian scientists involved in the project is to keep the schedule of the two “without crew” trial flights planned in Dec. 2020 and July 2021 respectively that ISRO wanted to launch ahead of Gaganyaan. There were reports that the first test flight, which was planning to carry humanoid ‘Vyommitra‘, was expected to be delayed due to pandemic.

Addressing the 70th Annual General Meeting and National Conference on ‘Recent Developments in Aerospace and Defence in India‘ organised by the Aeronautical Society of India in Feb., ISRO Chairman K. Sivan had said: “The design and engineering of the launch vehicle and orbital module system for India’s first human space flight has been completed. A series of tests have to be completed to validate the design and engineering of the systems in 2020.”

Alongside the first human space mission, the government is has also set up a regulatory body called the ‘Indian National Space Promotion & Authorization Centre‘ (IN-SPACe) to provide a level-playing field to the private players and encourage their participation in India’s expanding space programme. This will discourage the brain drain of talented space scientists and experts, who otherwise move out of India in search of a career.

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